About Asian Elephant | WWF India
 
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About Asian Elephant

Key Facts

  • Common Name

    Indian elephant

  • Scientific Name

    Elephas maximus

  • Geographic habitat

    Widely distributed across India

  • Height

    2.3-3.3m

  • Length

    5.5-6.40m

  • Weight

    Male: 3500 - 6000kg; Female: 2500 - 4000kg

  • Population

    Around 26,000

  • Did you know?

    Elephants spend about 16 hours a day eating

  • Status

    Endangered (IUCN)

Characteristics

The elephant is the largest terrestrial mammal that evolved nearly 60 million years ago. An Asian elephant bull can attain a height of 11 feet and a weight of over six tonnes. Record tusks have measured over 8ft (240cm) in length, but on an average they are between 3 and 6ft (91 to 182cm) long. Females and some males (called makhnas) do not have tusks, but have small tusk like teeth called tushes. The ears of the Asian elephant are much smaller than its African cousin, and the trunk tip has one finger as opposed to two in the case of the African elephant. Purely vegetarian, an adult elephant can eat 150-200kg of fodder and drink up to 100 litres of water in a day.

Females live in a matriarchal society made up of related individuals. These large extended families are called clans which consist of smaller sub-units called kin groups and family units. Clans sometimes assemble in feeding grounds or around waterholes to form large herds. Adult bulls are largely solitary but form temporary associations with other males and join female groups primarily for mating. Males exhibit a period of heightened sexual activity annually. During this period the testosterone levels can be 20 times their normal range. This period is known as ‘musth’. During musth, males secrete a fluid that has a distinct odour from a gland in the temporal area between the eyes and ears. Older males also dribble urine during musth which has a very strong pungent odour. These odours are primarily used in signalling other elephants about the male’s status. During musth, besides exhibiting heightened sexual drive, males show increased aggression and wandering extensively in search of oestrous females.

Females become sexually mature when they are around 15 years of age, but this depends on nutrition. Males between the ages of 9 and 13 years disperse from the matriarchal group and start to establish their own independent home range. Although males are also sexually mature at this age, they mate only when they are around 30 years of age and capable of competing with other bulls for oestrous females. A single calf is born after a gestation of 18 to 22 months and is nursed for two to four years. Although a calf is naturally attached to its mother, other females, especially sub-adults females in the group care for the calf – a phenomenon referred to as allomothering. Both males and females can live up to 60-70 years.

Habitat and distribution

In India, the Asian elephant was once widely distributed throughout the country, including in states like Punjab and Gujarat. Currently, they are found in four fragmented populations, in south, north, central and north-east India. Extreme habitat generalists, their habitat ranges from wet tropical evergreen forests to semi-arid thorn and scrub forests. However, highest densities of the elephant population are found in tropical deciduous forests. Elephants are ‘mega-herbivores’ that require vast tracts of forests, rich in food and water to survive.

Historically, Indians have through their long association with captive elephants that go back 4,000-5,000 years developed strong cultural and religious links with these mega herbivores. This makes elephants an excellent flagship species in generating public support for their conservation. Owing to their diverse range of habitats and large home ranges, elephants help protect the biodiversity within their range. Even their large dietary requirements enable elephants to have a significant impact on the trees and other vegetation, which results in a modification of their habitat. Thus their conservation could help maintain the biological diversity and ecological integrity of large forest tracts.
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