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All About Elephants..

The elephant in general and the Sri Lankan elephant in particular..

Quick Physical Statistics

  • Elephants typically reach at thirteen or fourteen years of age
  • They breed / have offspring up until they are around fifty years old
  • They may live seventy years or possibly more
  • A cow produces a single calf and in very rare cases twins
  • The interval between births is between two and a half to four years
  • An elephant´s trunk, a union of the nose and upper lip, is a highly sensitive organ with over 100,000 muscle units.

Do you want more physical information? Please see the anatomy section!

Interesting Facts

  • Elephant trunks can get very heavy. It is not uncommon to see elephants resting them over a tusk!
  • Elephants cry, play, have incredible memories, and laugh!
  • Elephants are sensitive fellow animals where if a baby complains, the entire family will rumble and go over to touch and caress it.
  • Elephants have greeting ceremonies when a friend that has been away for some time returns to the group.
  • Elephants grieve at a loss of a stillborn baby, a family member, and in many cases other elephants.
  • Elephants don't drink with their trunks, but use them as "tools" to drink with. This is accomplished by filling the trunk with water and then using it as a hose to pour it into the elephant's mouth.
  • Interestingly, the Asian elephant is more closely related to the extinct mammoth than to the African elephant (see evolution).
Elephant Drinking

"Therefore understanding that rests in what it does not understand is the finest" Chuang Tzu translated by Burton Watson

An Introduction to Elephant Impact
A Super Keystone Species

It seems inevitable that as long as we humans impose our own theories on how to best govern nature, there will be a difference of opinion of "animal" management. Over the course of evolution, the elephant as we know it today has evolved into a strong forced bulldozer that has the power to modify the landscape it resides in. For elephants their effect on the landscape is often considered destruction, but is it?

The answer to this question partially depends on your preconceived views of "nature". If you see nature as something static and in a particular way then any change no matter how minute will amount to destruction. An interesting statistic found in the book African Elephants: A Celebration of Majesty about this issue; a general estimation shows that Man is clearing more forests in one day that all the elephants in Africa will 'destroy' within one year. Put in perspective, the effect that elephants have on their environment may not be as serious are we have been led to believe.

Unfortunately for some, our narrow opinion of seeing elephants as only living bulldozers of destruction is far from the case. As much as 80 percent of what elephants consume is returned to the soil as barely digested highly fertile manure.

The Ecological Impact of the Elephant is Priceless!

  • Elephants provide a vital role in the ecosystem they inhabit.
  • They modify their habitat by converting savannah and woodlands to grasslands
  • Elephants can provide water for other species by digging water holes in dry riverbeds
    • the depressions created by their footprints and their bodies trap rainfall
  • Elephants act as seed dispersers by their fecal matter. It is often carried below ground by dung beetles and termites causing the soil to become more aerated and further distributing the nutrients
  • Their paths act as firebreaks and rain water conduits
  • An Elephants journey through the high grass provides food for birds by disturbing small reptiles, amphibians or insects.

In the tradition of elephant sites, we have provided a breakdown of elephants into two categories for basic physical statistics. Keep in mind that the two "groups" are quite different genetically and the Asian elephant (as noted) is actually more closely related to the extinct mammoth than the African elephant.


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Sri Lankan
Elephas Maximus Maximus

Elephas Maximus Indicus

Elephas Maximus Sumatranus


2-3.5 metres

2-3 metres

2-2.5 metres


3-5 tonnes

2.5-4.5  tonnes

2-4 tonnes


grey with large areas of depigmentation

lighter grey

very light grey

The Asian elephant, Elephas Maximus, has an enormous domed head with relatively small ears, an arched back and a single finger like protuberance that is located at the tip of the trunk. An Asian elephant has five toes on the front of the feet and and four on the back.  

A large bull could typically weighs six tons and is ten feet high at the shoulder. As with gorillas, there is a large degree of sexual dimorphism between males and females in Asian Elephants where adult females are about half the size of the largest males.  

The males have tusks and the females have 'tushes', which are shore second incisors that just stick out beyond the upper lip. However, it is important to note that on occasion females some times have longer tushes than described. 

The gestation period is between nineteen and twenty-two months. Periodically, it is noted that male infants typically have a slightly longer term than females.  



Loxodonta Africana Africana

Loxodonta Africana Cyclotis


3-4 metres

2-3 metres


4-7 tonnes

2-4 tonnes



dark grey

The African elephant, Loxodonta Africana, have a straight back, enormous ears, and two trunk 'fingers'. 

2fingerscloseupAfrican elephants are named for the peculiar shaped ridges of their molar teeth; the ridges of an African elephant's teeth are coarser and fewer than those of the Asian elephant.

The African elephant has only four toes on the front feet and three on the back. Interestingly, it has one more vertebra in the lumbar section of the spine. 

Both sexes have tusks, and they are also larger in size as compared to male and female Asian elephants. 

The largest African elephant recorded weighed over nine tons and stood more than twelve feet high at the shoulder. As in Asian elephants, the female African elephant is generally half the size of a fully grown male. 

Gestation period tends to be slightly longer than in the Asian elephant. 

Physical Appearance: Asian elephants differ in several ways from their African relatives. They have smaller ears which are straight at the bottom, unlike the large fan-shape ears of the African species. Asian elephants are much smaller, weighing between 6,615 and 11,020 pounds at a height of about 7 to 12 feet compared to the 8,820 to 15,430 at 10 to 13 feet of the African elephant.

The Sri Lankan species (E. m. maximus) is the largest, darkest, and has patches of depigmentation (an area without color) on their ears, face, trunk and belly. The Sumatran (E. m. sumatranus) elephant is the smallest and lightest. The third sub-species, E. m. indicus has a mix of characteristics from the two other sub-species.

Geographic Range: Asian elephants live in fragmented forests in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, China (extinct in wild), Malaysia, Indonesia, and Borneo.

Biomes: Tropical savanna, tropical rainforest, tropical deciduous forest, mountains (Himalayas).

Habitat: Asian elephants live in many different habitats including open grasslands, marshes, savannas and forests.

IUCN Status: Endangered The IUCN's Species Survival Commission's Asian Elephant Specialist Group estimates that there are approximately 38,000 to 51,000 wild Asian elephants. In comparison, there are more than 600,000 African elephants.

Threats To Survival: The loss of habitat is the primary threat to Asian elephants. Approximately 20% of the world's population lives in or near the range of Asian elephants. The homes of these elephants are being cleared for many reasons including warfare, agricultural development, human settlement, and logging. Asian elephants are less prone to poaching (killing elephants for ivory tusks) because few males (and no females) grow tusks. In China, the penalty for poaching is the death sentence.
Conflicts between Asian elephants and humans often occur because of habitat destruction. Sometimes there is not enough food in small forests to sustain elephants, so they look for the nearest source which is usually the field of a local farmer. (profiled in The Wild Times Winter 1996 issue) is studying this human-elephant conflict and looking for ways to ease the tension.

"Bath Time" Asian cow and calves in Sri Lanka
photo by Mary Pearl

Reproductive Cycle and Habits: Female Asian elephants are capable of giving birth approximately every 4-6 years, about 7 calves in a lifetime. Babies are carried inside elephant mothers for 19-22 months, almost 2 years. Asian elephants can live as long as 60-70 old. When adult male elephants search for a female to breed with they produce musth fluid signaling females that they are ready to mate. Elephants live in matriarchal (mother headed) families. Mothers, grandmothers, sisters and aunts all help raising babies. Male Asian elephants live alone or in male only groups.

Diet: Asian elephants are among the largest herbivores (plant eaters) preferring grasses, leaves, trees, and shrubs. Their diet varies from acacia trees to wild mangos.

Language: How many ways can you communicate? Asian elephants talk to each other by touch, sound and scent. When a young Asian elephant is stressed and nervous they will go to an adult and place the tip of their trunk in the adults mouth. Elephants also use a broad range of sounds to communicate. Recently scientists noticed elephants talk to each other at infrasonic (sounds humans are unable to hear) levels. Males secrete musth, a signal to local females that males are ready to reproduce.

"Elephant Crossing Sign from Indonesia"
Photo by Kathy Prout of Frank Antonides

Elephant Resources:

Books About Elephants

Rosy is My Relative

Faithful Elephants

Elephant Days & Nights






Cultural Importance: Humans use elephants in Asia to log forests, transport heavy loads and carry tourists. Elephants can walk in areas where machines are unable to navigate. About 15,000 Asian elephants are held in captivity as work animals. Elephants are important in Asian folklore and religion. They are believed to be cousins of the clouds and able to cause lightening.


( Elephas maximus maximus)


This Sri Lankan subspecies is confined to the island of Sri Lanka (65,605 square kilometers, 25,332 square miles) off the southern coast of India. Although there is no accurate census available, it is estimated that about 2500-3000 elephants are still found in the wild, and a further 500 odd in captivity. (ref: IUCN) It occupies a variety of habitats from open grasslands to forested regions, including open savannas, wet areas of marshes and lake shores. At the turn of the century more than 10,000 elephants were found distributed all over the island. These numbers were rapidly depeleted, firstly due to big game hunting, and subsequently because of rapid development and deforestation, which in turn increased the conflict between man and elephant. The remaining few thousands are confined to the national parks, while pockets of small herds are strewn around in the north-eastern and eastern areas.


The Sri Lankan elephant is somewhat different to the African elephant where firstly it has much smaller ears. The profile of it's back, is convex (males) or straight and level (females), as the case may be,unlike that of the African elephant, which is concave. Thus Sri Lankan male elephants have well rounded backs which taper downwards steeply, while the females have straight flat box-shaped profiles.

Another less obvious difference between the African and the Asian (Sri Lankan) elephant is the tip of the trunk. The Asian species has two finger-like protrutions while the African has one. The long and flexible trunk can weigh up to 125 - 200 kilograms (275 - 440 pounds). Generally, the Asian elephant has more hair on its body than the African elephant, and it is especially conspicuous in the newborn and juveniles. The body colour could be anything from dark gray of different shades, to dark brown, depending on the colour of the soil and mud where the elephants have bathed and dusted.

Mature Sri Lankan elephants in particular display heavy pinkish pigmentation of the skin around the ears, face and trunk. The head of the male has large and pronounced bulges; those of the female are smaller.Only males sprout tusks rarely. (in some cases even longer and heavier than those of the African species)


An average male adult Sri Lankan elephant may reach 3.5 meters (11 feet 6 inches) in shoulder height and weigh 5,500 kilograms (12,125 pounds). Females are much smaller.


All elephant species have one of the longest gestation periods in the animal kingdom, of 18-20 months. One calf is usually born, weighing about 75 - 115 kilograms (165 - 225 pounds) and measure approximately 100 centimeters (3 feet 3 inches) at the shoulder. Elephants reach sexual maturity between the ages of 8 and 14 years, but this varies with the prevailing conditions of the habitat. For instance during severe periods of draught, puberty may be delayed even up to age of 14-15 years. A female elephant can give birth every 4 - 6 years, and has the potential of giving birth to about 6-7 offspring in her lifetime, which is about 55- 60 years.


The elephant has a very inefficient digestive system, where almost 45% of it's food intake is passed through as undigested matter. As a result the elephant spends most of it's life eating, and therefore has to seek out a continous and abundant supply of food and water. Their diet is strictly herbivorous. Most elephants consume 100 - 150 kilograms(220 - 330 pounds) of food and 80 - 160 liters (20 - 40 gallons) of water per day. The Asian elephant is adapted to be being a grazer rather than a browser. It's diet will include different types of grasses, as well as juicy leaves and fruits.

                            Pictures of elephants at Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage

                            More Pictures of elephants at the Orphanage

                            Wild elephants at Udawalawe National Park

                            MORE ABOUT THE ELEPHANT ORPHANAGE



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