Indian elephant
Temporal range: Pleistocene – Recent[1]
Tusked male in Bandipur National Park
Female in Nagarhole National Park

Endangered (IUCN 3.1)[2] (Elephas maximus)
Scientific classification Edit this classification
Domain: Eukaryota
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Proboscidea
Family: Elephantidae
Genus: Elephas
E. m. indicus
Trinomial name
Elephas maximus indicus
Cuvier, 1798

E. m. bengalensis de Blainville, 1843

The Indian elephant (Elephas maximus indicus) is one of three[3] extant recognised subspecies of the Asian elephant and native to mainland Asia,[4] spread across the Indian subcontinent and Indochinese Peninsula.

Since 1986, the Asian elephant has been listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List as the wild population has declined by at least 50% since the 1930s to 1940s, i.e. three elephant generations. The Asian elephant is threatened by habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation.[2]


The skull of Indian elephant at the Göteborgs Naturhistoriska Museum, Göteborg, Västra Götaland County, Sweden

In general, Asian elephants are smaller than African elephants and have the highest body point on the head. The tip of their trunk has one finger-like process. Their back is convex or level.[4] Indian elephants reach a shoulder height of between 2 and 3 m (6.6 and 9.8 ft), weigh between 2,000 and 5,000 kg (4,400 and 11,000 lb), and have 19 pairs of ribs. Their skin colour is lighter than that of E. m. maximus with smaller patches of depigmentation, but darker than that of E. m. sumatranus. Females are usually smaller than males, and have short or no tusks.[5]

The largest Indian elephant was 3.43 m (11.3 ft) high at the shoulder.[6] In 1985, two large elephant bulls were spotted for the first time in Bardia National Park, and named Raja Gaj and Kanchha. They roamed the park area together and occasionally visited female herds. Raja Gaj stood 3.43 m (11.3 ft) tall at the shoulder and had a massive body weight. His forehead and domes were more prominent than in other Asian bull elephants.[7] His appearance has been compared to that of a Stegodon and mammoth due to his high bi-domed shaped head.[8]

Indian elephants have smaller ears, but relatively broader skulls and larger trunks than African elephants. Toes are large and broad. Unlike their African cousins, their abdomen is proportionate with their body weight but the African elephant has a large abdomen as compared to the skulls.[citation needed]

Distribution and habitat

Further information: List of Indian states by elephant population

Wild elephants in Munnar, Kerala
An elephant herd in Jim Corbett National Park
Elephants bathing at Mudumalai National Park's elephant camp
An elephant at Sathyamangalam Wildlife Sanctuary

The Indian elephant is native to mainland Asia: India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand, Malay Peninsula, Laos, China, Cambodia, and Vietnam. It is regionally extinct in Pakistan.[2] It inhabits grasslands, dry deciduous, moist deciduous, evergreen and semi-evergreen forests. In the early 1990s, the estimated wild populations included:[9]

A tusked male at Khao Yai National Park, Thailand

Elephant corridors

There are a total of 138 state elephant corridors, 28 interstate corridors and 17 international state corridors where Indian elephant populations are found. The table below enlists the corridors.[12]

Region-wise Distribution of Corridors
Region Number of Corridors Area (km2) Percentage of elephant population
North-East 58 41,000 33%
East 54 23,500 10%
North 8 5,500 4%
South 46 40,000 53%

Ecology and behaviour

Elephants are classified as megaherbivores and consume up to 150 kg (330 lb) of plant matter per day.[13] They are generalist feeders, and both grazers and browsers. In a study area of 1,130 km2 (440 sq mi) in southern India, elephants were recorded to feed on 112 different plant species, most commonly of the order Malvales, and the legume, palm, sedge and true grass families. They graze on the tall grasses, but the portion consumed varies with season. When the new flush appears in April, they remove the tender blades in small clumps. Later, when grasses are higher than 0.5 m (1.6 ft), they uproot entire clumps, dust them skilfully and consume the fresh leave tops, but discard the roots. When grasses are mature in autumn, they clean and consume the succulent basal portions with the roots, and discard the fibrous blades. From the bamboos, they eat seedlings, culms and lateral shoots. During the dry season from January to April, they mainly browse on both leaves and twigs preferring the fresh foliage, and consume thorn bearing shoots of acacia species without any obvious discomfort. They feed on the bark of white thorn and other flowering plants, and consume the fruits of wood apple, tamarind, kumbhi and date palm.[14]

Elephant at Kaziranga National Park

In Nepal's Bardia National Park, elephants consume large amounts of the floodplain grass, particularly during the monsoon season. They browse more in the dry season with bark constituting a major part of their diet in the cool part of that season.[15] During a study in a tropical moist mixed deciduous forested area of 160 km2 (62 sq mi) in Assam, elephants were observed to feed on about 20 species of grasses, plants and trees. Grasses such as Imperata cylindrica and Leersia hexandra constituted by far the most predominant component of their diet.[16]

A herd of wild elephants at Kui Buri National Park, Thailand

The movement and habitat utilisation patterns of an elephant population were studied in southern India during 1981–83 within a 1,130 km2 (440 sq mi) study area. The vegetation types of this area encompasses dry thorn forest at 250 to 400 m (820 to 1,310 ft), deciduous forest at 400 to 1,400 m (1,300 to 4,600 ft), stunted evergreen forest and grassland at 1,400 to 1,800 m (4,600 to 5,900 ft). Five different elephant clans, each consisting of between 50 and 200 individuals had home ranges of between 105 km2 (41 sq mi) and 320 km2 (120 sq mi), which overlapped. They preferred habitat where water was available and food plants were palatable. During the dry months of January to April, they congregated at high densities of up to five individuals per km2 in river valleys where browse plants had a much higher protein content than the coarse tall grasses on hill slopes. With the onset of rains in May, they dispersed over a wider area at lower densities, largely into the tall grass forests, to feed on the fresh grasses, which then had a high protein value. During the second wet season from September to December, when the tall grasses became fibrous, they moved into lower elevation short grass open forests. The normal movement pattern could be upset during years of adverse environmental conditions. However, the movement pattern of elephants in this region has not basically changed for over a century, as inferred from descriptions recorded during the 19th century.[17]

In the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve three elephant clans had overall home ranges of 562 km2 (217 sq mi), 670 km2 (260 sq mi) and 799 km2 (308 sq mi) in the beginning of the 1990s. During three years of survey, their annual home ranges overlapped to a large extent with only minor shifts in the home ranges between years.[18]


A large male in Mudumalai National Park
A calf in the Nagarhole National Park with injuries on the head indicating a possible attack by a leopard or a tiger
Ivory chopsticks

The pre-eminent threats to Asian elephants today are habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation, which are driven by an expanding human population, and lead in turn to increasing conflicts between humans and elephants when elephants eat or trample crops.[2] Loss of significant extents of elephant range and suitable habitat continues; their free movement is impeded by reservoirs, hydroelectric projects and associated canals, irrigation dams, numerous pockets of cultivation and plantations, highways, railway lines, mining and industrial development.[9]

Poaching of elephants for ivory is a serious threat in some parts of Asia. Poaching of tuskers impacts on sex ratios that become highly female biased; genetic variation is reduced, and fecundity and recruitment may decline.[9] Poaching has dramatically skewed adult sex ratios in the Periyar Tiger Reserve, where between 1969 and 1989 the adult male:female sex ratio changed from 1:6 to 1:122.[19]

Elephant conservation in northern West Bengal has been set back due to high-levels of human–elephant conflict and elephant mortality owing to railway accidents. The railway track between Siliguri and Alipurduar passes through 74 km (46 mi) of various forest divisions. Every day, 20 trains run on this track at high speeds. Elephants that pass through from one forest patch to another dash against the trains and die. A total of 39 dead elephants were reported during the period of 1958 to 2008, of which ten were reported killed between 2004 and 2008.[20]

In Bangladesh, forested areas that served as prime elephant habitat have undergone drastic reduction, which had a severe impact on the wild elephant population. Habitat loss and fragmentation is attributed to the increasing human population and its need for fuel wood and timber. Illegal timber extraction plays a significant role in deforestation and habitat degradation. As a result of the shrinking habitat, elephants have become more and more prone to coming into direct conflict with humans.[21]

In Myanmar, demand for elephant ivory for making tourist items is higher than ever before. The military government shows little interest in reducing the ivory trade, while the elephants in the country have become the silent victims. After the worldwide ivory ban, prices of raw ivory in the country skyrocketed from $76 a kilo for large tusks in 1989/90 to over $200 a kilo by the mid-1990s. Foreign tourists are responsible for the massive rise in price of ivory tusks which fuels the illegal killing of elephants. There is also a sizeable trade in ivory chopsticks and carvings, smuggled by traders from Myanmar into China.[22]

Young wild-born elephants are removed from their mothers in Myanmar for use in Thailand's tourism industry. Mothers are often killed in the process, and calves are placed alongside unrelated cows to suggest they are with their mothers. The calves are often subjected to a 'breaking in' process, which may involve being tied up, confined, starved, beaten and tortured, as a result of which two-thirds may perish.[23]

Electrocution due to contact with electric poles and transformers has been reported as another major threat to elephants in India, with an estimated 461 elephants having been electrocuted between 2009 and 2017.[24][25]

For disease risk, see Elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus.

Project Elephant

Elephant Raju at Indira Gandhi Zoological Park, Visakhapatnam

Project Elephant was launched in 1992 by the Government of India Ministry of Environment and Forests to provide financial and technical support of wildlife management efforts by states for their free ranging populations of wild Asian Elephants. The project aims to ensure long-term survival of viable conservation reliant populations of elephants in their natural habitats by protecting the elephants, their habitats and migration corridors. Other goals of Project Elephant are supporting research of the ecology and management of elephants, creating conservation awareness among local people, providing improved veterinary care for captive elephants.[26][27]


See also: Cultural depictions of elephants

Statue of the Hindu god Ganesha at Prambanan temple in Yogyakarta, Indonesia
A decorated Indian elephant with rider at the Amer Fort in Rajasthan, India

The Indian elephant is a cultural symbol throughout its range in Asia. It appears in various Asian religious traditions and mythologies. The elephants are treated positively and are sometimes revered as deities, often symbolising strength and wisdom. In Thailand, it is the national animal.[28] In India, it has been designated the national heritage animal[29] (the tiger being the national animal). The Indian elephant is also the state animal of the Indian states of Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala and Odisha.[30] It is the national animal of Laos.[31]

See also


  1. ^ "fossilworks". Archived from the original on 12 December 2021. Retrieved 4 February 2022.
  2. ^ a b c d Williams, C.; Tiwari, S. K.; Goswami, V. R.; de Silva, S.; Kumar, A.; Baskaran, N.; Yoganand, K. & Menon, V. (2020). "Elephas maximus". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2020: e.T7140A45818198. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2020-3.RLTS.T7140A45818198.en. Retrieved 6 June 2022.
  3. ^ Wilson, Don E.; Reeder, DeeAnn M. (2005). Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference. JHU Press. ISBN 978-0-8018-8221-0.
  4. ^ a b Shoshani, J.; Eisenberg, J. F. (1982). "Elephas maximus" (PDF). Mammalian Species (182): 1–8. doi:10.2307/3504045. JSTOR 3504045. Archived from the original (PDF) on 24 September 2015. Retrieved 29 October 2018.
  5. ^ Shoshani, J. (2006). "Taxonomy, Classification, and Evolution of Elephants". In Fowler, M. E.; Mikota, S. K. (eds.). Biology, medicine, and surgery of elephants. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 3–14. ISBN 0-8138-0676-3. Archived from the original on 10 February 2023. Retrieved 26 October 2020.
  6. ^ Pillai, N.G. (1941). "On the height and age of an elephant". Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society. 42: 927–928.
  7. ^ Furaha tenVelde, P. (1997). "The wild elephants of the Royal Bardia National Park, Nepal" (PDF). Gajah: Journal of the IUCN/SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group (17): 41–44. Archived (PDF) from the original on 13 April 2013. Retrieved 4 March 2011.
  8. ^ Roesch, Ben S. "Living Stegodont or Genetic Freak?". Archived from the original on 8 November 2006. Retrieved 18 June 2008.((cite web)): CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  9. ^ a b c d Sukumar, R. (1993). The Asian Elephant: Ecology and Management Archived 10 February 2023 at the Wayback Machine Second edition. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-43758-X
  10. ^ "Elephant Reserves". ENVIS Centre on Wildlife & Protected Areas. Archived from the original on 20 May 2017. Retrieved 18 April 2017.
  11. ^ Bhatta, S. R. (2006). "Efforts to conserve the Asian elephant in Nepal". Archived 20 March 2012 at the Wayback Machine. Gajah: Journal of the IUCN/SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group 25: 87–89.
  12. ^ "Elephant Corridors of India" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 27 October 2018.
  13. ^ Samansiri, K. A. P.; Weerakoon, D. K. (2007). "Feeding Behaviour of Asian Elephants in the Northwestern Region of Sri Lanka". Archived 18 November 2016 at the Wayback Machine. Gajah: Journal of the IUCN/SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group Number 2: 27–34.
  14. ^ Sukumar, R. (1990). "Ecology of the Asian Elephant in southern India. II. Feeding habits and crop raiding patterns". Archived 12 October 2007 at the Wayback Machine. Journal of Tropical Ecology (1990) 6: 33–53.
  15. ^ Pradhan, N. M. B.; Wegge, P.; Moe, S. R.; Shrestha, A. K. (2008). "Feeding ecology of two endangered sympatric megaherbivores: Asian elephant Elephas maximus and greater one-horned rhinoceros Rhinoceros unicornis in lowland Nepal". Wildlife Biology 14: 147–154.
  16. ^ Borah, J.; Deka, K. (2008). "Nutritional Evaluation of Forage Preferred by Wild Elephants in the Rani Range Forest, Assam, India". Archived 25 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine. Gajah: Journal of the IUCN/SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group 28: 41–43.
  17. ^ Sukumar, R. (1989). "Ecology of the Asian elephant in southern India. l. Movement and habitat utilization patterns". Archived 20 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine. Journal of Tropical Ecology 5: 1–18.
  18. ^ Baskaran, N., Desai, A. A. (1996). "Ranging behaviour of the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, South India". Archived 25 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine. Gajah: Journal of the IUCN/SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group 15: 41–57.
  19. ^ Chandran, P. M. (1990). "Population dynamics of elephants in Periyar Tiger Reserve". Pages 51–56 in: C. K. Karunakaran (ed.) Proceedings of the Symposium on Ecology, Behaviour and Management of Elephants in Kerala. Kerala Forest Department, Trivandrum, India.
  20. ^ Roy, M.; Baskaran, N.; Sukumar, R. (2009). "The Death of Jumbos on Railway Tracks in Northern West Bengal". Archived 25 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine. Gajah: Journal of the IUCN/SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group 31: 36–39.
  21. ^ Islam, M.–A. (2006). "Conservation of the Asian elephant in Bangladesh". Archived 25 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine. Gajah: Journal of the IUCN/SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group 25: 21–26.
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  28. ^ "Thailand at a Glance" (PDF). Royal Thai Embassy, Washington, DC. p. 11. Archived (PDF) from the original on 19 June 2022. Retrieved 5 June 2022.
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Further reading