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Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) Fact Sheet: Summary

Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) Fact Sheet

Two Asian elephants, one with long tusks

Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus)

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.



Physical Characteristics

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia — mammals

Order: Proboscidea

Family: Elephantidae — elephants

Genus: Elephas

Species: Elephas maximus — Asian elephant, Indian elephant

Subspecies: Elephas maximus maximus — Sri Lanka
Subspecies: Elephas maximus indicus — mainland Asia
Subspecies: Elephas maximus sumatranus — Sumatra (Indonesia)
Proposed Subspecies: Elephas maximus borneensis — Borneo

Body Weight

Male: about 3,600 kg (7,900 lb), on average (up to 6,000 kg, or 13,000 lb)
Female: about 2,700 kg (6,000 lb), on average (up to 4,200 kg, or 9,000 lb)

Head-body Length

5.5–6.4 m (18 to 21 ft)

Tail Length

1.2–1.5 m (4 to 5 ft)

Shoulder Height

Male: 2.7 m (8.9 ft), on average (up to 3.4 m, or 11 ft)
Female: 2.4 m (7.9 ft), on average (can reach over 2.5 m, or 8.2 ft)

Note: Most measurements based on elephant populations in India. Elephants found farther east and in Borneo smaller.

General Appearance

Top of head is highest point of the body (top of shoulder is in African elephants). Male Asian elephants considerably larger than females of the same age. Large, angular ears that are smaller than those of African elephants. Robust legs, with joints that help Asian elephants walk through forest vegetation, on slopes, and on wet terrain. Bumpy, wrinkled skin over most of body. Sparse body hair in adults; those present often long and bristly. Female Asian elephants have no tusks or have small tushes (small teeth that rarely extend beyond the mouth). Only some males have tusks; proportion of tuskless males in a population varies widely—from 0 to 100%.


Skin usually dark gray to brown, but some elephants lighter in color. E. m. maximus (populations of Sri Lanka) darkest in color. Mottled white or pink blotches on ears, base of trunk, head, neck, or chest present in some populations.

Distribution & Status

Behavior & Ecology


Patchy occurrence in the Indian subcontinent, continental Southeast Asia, and islands in Asia (e.g., Sri Lanka, Borneo, Sumatra). Once ranged from the Middle East to China (still a small number of elephants in China).


Wide range of habitats, but common in lowlands near shade and sources of freshwater. Common in edge regions between forests and grasslands, or use these habitats primarily. Use broadleaf and montane forests, including primary and cultivated forests. Use areas near or altered by humans, particularly agricultural land. On islands, commonly use coastal habitats.

IUCN Status

  • Asian elephant, Elephas maximus: Endangered (2019 assessment)
  • Sumatran elephant subspecies, Elephas maximus sumatranus: Critically Endangered (2011 assessment)

CITES Appendix

Appendix I

Other Designations

Federal law prohibits killing of wild elephants in India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and China.

Populations in the Wild

Approximately 48,000 to 52,000 individuals, with largest populations thought to occur in India and Sri Lanka. Fewer than 1,000 individuals in half of the range countries where Asian elephants occur. Small (fewer than 500 individuals), highly threatened populations in Vietnam, Bangladesh, China, Nepal, and likely Cambodia.

Threats to Survival

  • Poaching — mainly for ivory, meat, and skin
  • Habitat loss due to agriculture, land and urban development, infrastructure projects, mining, human warfare, and climate change
  • Collisions with trains (on railways) and vehicles (on roads)
  • Human–elephant conflict

Activity Patterns

Active day and night. Often rest in the middle (warmest) part of the day. Spend roughly 60 to 80% (up to 90%) of their wakeful time feeding (or up to roughly 18 to 19 hours per day). Nighttime activity difficult to study and not well reported.


Move long distances to find food and shelter. Typically change feeding areas every few days. Show fidelity to a well-defined home range, though areas used within their home range change daily and seasonally. Home range sizes vary widely. Not territorial. Formerly, extensive seasonal migrations; today, agriculture, roads, fences, and other human infrastructure impede elephant movements. Some seasonal movements still occur in southern India and Sri Lanka. In some locations, elephants may move across international boundaries, making conservation and management more complex.

Social Behavior

Both females and males may live singly or in small groups. Highly fluid social associations. A “group” may be a mother–calf pair or contain several adult females and their offspring. Females also often observed singly. Group size highly dynamic and member composition changes. Adult males in musth associate with females during estrus, and live singly or in small all-male groups when not breeding.


Large repertoire of vocalizations, including "growls," "rumbles," and trumpeting sounds. Tactile communication used in greeting, play, and other social behaviors. Trunk most often used to initiate contact, and also used in caressing, wrestling, and checking reproductive status of other elephants. Sense of smell very important for finding food and water, in establishing/maintaining social relationships, and for breeding. Complex chemical mixtures present in urine, breath, and on skin, and also secreted by glands on the head, ears, and feet. Visual and seismic communication need further study.


Generalist herbivores. Eat a wide variety of trees, shrubs, climbing plants, herbs, and other plant types. Tend to prefer grasses but rely heavily on browse plants in some habitats, such as tropical wet forests. Eat many parts of plants, including leaves, stalks, bark, roots, fruits, and seeds. Eat many cultivated crops, especially banana and plantain plants, paddy (wet rice), corn/maize, and sugarcane, as well as grains, nut and fruit trees, etc. Drink every day when water available.


Tigers as calves and smaller juveniles. None as adults, except for humans.


Adults typically walk. Faster gait is an unusual hybrid gait, where shoulders present a walking motion and hips present a running motion. Can move quickly when fleeing danger, charging perceived threats, or during play. Capable swimmers, possibly even over long distances.

Reproduction & Development

Species Highlights

Mating System

Polygynous. Females attract multiple males, and males of sufficient age and social status mate with multiple females. Males compete for access to females, who have a short conception period.


Females in estrus emit infrasonic calls to attract males. Mating and birth can occur any time during year, but birth pulses common in seasonal environments. Females can calve past age 50, perhaps up to 60 years of age. Male elephants experience a unique, rut-like sexual state called musth. Allows males access to females, reduces aggression among males, and facilitates female mate choice.

Parental Care

Calves looked after by their mothers and other adult and subadult females in their group. Adult females guard calf with body and guide/restrain calf movements using trunk. Helpers allow mother time to feed and rest, which benefits milk production. Long developmental period; mothers and other females care for young for 10 to 15 years.

Sexual Maturity

Females: Wide variation across populations, with 10 to 15 years old being typical of populations in Sri Lanka and southern India. In human care, can be earlier or later (even into mid-20s).
Males: Commonly 14 to 15 years; may not reach sufficient social status to mate until late teens to mid-20s.


Approximately 20 to 23 months, on average

Litter Size

Usually 1 calf; twins rare

Interbirth Interval

4 to 5 years, on average, but variable (longer during harsher conditions)

Birth Weight

About 110 kg (240 lb), on average

Age at Weaning

Ranges from 18 months to 4 years, or longer

Typical Life Expectancy

Human care: median life expectancy of about 47 to 48 years (females)

Feature Facts

  • Highly sensitive, flexible, prehensile trunk with one “finger” at the tip
  • Capable of using a range of habitat types, from river floodplains to montane forests
  • Use forest pools and rivers for bathing and to stay cool; more dependent on shade and water than African elephants
  • Sometimes use feet when feeding to gather short grass, break up large branches, crush food, keep food items in place, and dig for water
  • Social animals, with complex behaviors and communication, that live in well-networked societies; social relationships very different from more structured African elephant herds
  • Large repertoire of vocalizations, including “growls,” “rumbles,” trumpeting, and courtship calls; exceptional ability to hear very low frequency sounds
  • Assess emotional and physiological states of other elephants by sniffing their breath, cheek (temporal) glands, genitals, and urine and dung
  • Musth cycle helps breeding males enter herds, facilitates female mate choice, and reduces aggression among males
  • Calves cared for cooperatively by their mothers and other adult and subadult females in a group
  • A keystone and flagship species (ecologically significant and symbolic to wildlife conservation efforts)
  • Can be challenging for scientists to observe, despite being large animals; difficult to see in dense forests and at night
  • In addition to ivory poaching, economic markets are emerging for Asian elephant skin (affects females and males, not only tusked males)
  • Presently occupy only 15% of their historic range; much habitat converted to agriculture
  • Humans and Asian elephants commonly live in close proximity, sometimes leading to conflict (including elephant and human fatalities)
  • About 15,000 elephants in human care in Asia; involved in human industries, such as forestry (to haul timber) and tourism, and also for transportation and religious ceremonies
  • Considered holy animals in Hinduism and Buddhism
  • Asian elephant’s ancestors migrated from Africa to Europe and Asia; closest living relatives are manatees and dugongs (sea cows)

About This Fact Sheet

© 2008-2024 San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. Minor updates 2018, 2019. Revised and reviewed 2024.

How to cite: Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) Fact Sheet. c2008-2024. San Diego (CA): San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance; [accessed YYYY Mmm dd]. asianelephant.
(Note: replace YYYY Mmm dd with date accessed, e.g., 2024 Oct 15)

Disclaimer: Although San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance makes every attempt to provide accurate information, some of the facts provided may become outdated or replaced by new research findings. Questions and comments may be addressed to


This fact sheet was peer reviewed in late 2023 and early 2024 by scientists and wildlife care specialists with expertise in elephant biology.

Many thanks to our reviewers for generously sharing their time and knowledge to improve this fact sheet.

  • Taxonomy & History: Adrian M. Lister, PhD, Natural History Museum, London
  • Distribution & Habitat: Gaius Wilson, PhD, IUCN SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group
  • Physical Characteristics: Lori Speis, San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance
  • Behavior & Ecology: Anastasia Madsen, PhD, University of California San Diego; Shermin de Silva, PhD, University of California San Diego and Trunks & Leaves
  • Diet & Feeding: Nurfatiha Akmal Fawwazah Abdullah-Fauzi, Universiti Tun Hussein Onn Malaysia
  • Reproduction & Development: Elizabeth W. Freeman, PhD, George Mason University
  • Population & Conservation Status: Prajna Paramita Panda, PhD, IUCN SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group and Wildlife Trust of India

Special thanks to SDZWA volunteer Leila Dooley for research assistance with cultural and SDZWA history information.

Beating the Heat

Asian elephant splashes water on its back

An Asian elephant at the San Diego Zoo splashes water on its back.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

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