Asian Elephant

Scientific name: Elephas maximus

Asian Elephant: The Elephants of India and Southeast Asia
AB Apana / Getty Images.

Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) are large herbivorous land mammals. They are one of two species of elephants, the other being the larger African elephant. Asian elephants have small ears, a long trunk and thick, gray skin. Asian elephants often wallow in mud holes and toss dirt over their body. As a result their skin is often covered with a layer of dust and dirt which acts as a sunscreen and prevents sunburn.

Asian elephants have a single fingerlike outgrowth at the tip of their trunk that enables them to pick up small objects and strip leaves from trees. Male Asian elephants have tusks. Females lack tusks. Asian elephants have more hair on their body than African elephants and this is especially evident in young Asian elephants which are covered in a coat of reddish brown hair.

Female Asian elephants form matriarchal groups led by the eldest female. These groups, referred to as herds, includes several related females. Mature male elephants, referred to as bulls, often roam independently but occasionally form small groups known as bachelor herds.

Asian elephants have a long-standing relationship with humans. All four of the Asian elephant subspecies have been domesticated. Elephants are used to do heavy work such as harvesting and logging and are also used for ceremonial purposes.

Asian elephants are classified as endangered by the IUCN. Their population has fallen significantly over the past several generations due to habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation. Asian elephants are also the victims of poaching for ivory, meat and leather. Additionally, many elephants are killed when they come into contact with local human populations.

Asian elephants are herbivores. They feed on grasses, roots, leaves, bark, shrubs and stems.

Asian elephants reproduce sexually. Females become sexually mature between the ages of about 14 years. Pregnancy is 18 to 22 months long. Asian elephants breed throughout the year. When born, calves are large and mature slowly. Since calves require much care as they develop, only one calf is born at a time and females only give birth about once every 3 or 4 years.

Asian elephants are traditionally considered to be one of two species of elephants, the other being the African elephant. Recently, however, scientists have suggested a third species of elephant. This new classification still recognizes Asian elephants as a single species but divides African elephants into two new species, the African savanna elephant and the African forest elephant.

Size and Weight

About 11 feet long and 2¼-5½ tons

Habitat and Range

Grasslands, tropical forest and scrub forest. Asian elephants inhabit India and Southeast Asia including Sumatra and Borneo. Their former range stretched from the region south of the Himalayas throughout Southeast Asia and into China north to the Yangtze River.


Asian elephants are classified within the following taxonomic hierarchy:

Animals > Chordates > Vertebrates > Tetrapods > Amniotes > Mammals > Elephants > Asian Elephants

Asian elephants are divided into the following subspecies:

  • Borneo elephant
  • Sumatran elephant
  • Indian elephant
  • Sri Lankan elephant


Elephants closest living relative are manatees. Other close relatives to elephants include hyraxes and rhinoceroses. Although today there are only two living species in the elephant family, there used to be some 150 species including animals such as Arsinoitherium and Desmostylia.

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Your Citation
Klappenbach, Laura. "Asian Elephant." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Klappenbach, Laura. (2020, August 25). Asian Elephant. Retrieved from Klappenbach, Laura. "Asian Elephant." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).