Elephants are large mammals of the Elephantidae family.  

The largest living terrestrial animals, male African elephants can reach a height of 4 m and weigh 7,000 kg.

All elephants have several distinctive features the most notable of which is a long proboscis or trunk used for many purposes, particularly for grasping objects.

In addition to their trunks, their incisors grow into tusks, which serve as tools for moving objects and digging and as weapons for fighting.

The elephant’s large ear flaps help to control the temperature of its body.

African elephants have larger ears and concave backs while Asian elephants have smaller ears and convex or level backs.


Elephants are herbivorous and can be found in different habitats including savannahs, forests, deserts and marshes.

They prefer to stay near water. They are considered to be keystone species due to their impact on their environments.

Other animals tend to keep their distance, and predators such as lions, tigers, hyenas and wild dogs usually target only the young elephants.

Females (cows) tend to live in family groups, which can consist of one female with her calves or several related females with offspring.

The groups are led by an individual known as the matriarch, often the oldest cow.

Elephants have a fission-fusion society in which multiple family groups come together to socialise.

Males (bulls) leave their family groups when they reach puberty, and may live alone or with other males.

Adult bulls mostly interact with family groups when looking for a mate and enter a state of increased testosterone and aggression known as musth, which helps them gain dominance and reproductive success.

Calves are the centre of attention in their family groups and rely on their mothers for as long as three years.

Elephants can live up to 70 years in the wild. They communicate by touch, sight, smell and sound; elephants use infrasound, and seismic communication over long distances.

Elephant intelligence has been compared with that of primates and cetaceans. They appear to have self-awareness and show empathy for dying or dead individuals of their kind.

African elephants are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), while the Asian elephant is classed as endangered.

One of the biggest threats to elephant populations is the ivory trade, as the animals are poached for their ivory tusks.

Other threats to wild elephants include habitat destructionand conflicts with local people.

Elephants are used as working animals in Asia. In the past they were used in war; today, they are often put on display in zoos and circuses.

Elephants are highly recognisable and have been featured in art, folklore, religion, literature and popular culture.

Classification, species and subspecies

Photo: Asian elephant in Bandipur National Park, India
Photo: African forest elephant in Ivindo National Park, Gabon
Photo: An African elephant using its prehensile trunk for foraging

The African bush elephant can be found in habitats as diverse as dry savannahs, deserts, marshes, and lake shores, and in elevations from sea level to mountain areas above the snow line.

Forest elephants mainly live in equatorial forests, but will enter gallery forests and ecotones between forests and savannahs. 

Asian elephants prefer areas with a mix of grasses, low woody plants and trees, primarily inhabiting dry thorn-scrub forests in southern India and Sri Lanka and evergreen forests in Malaya.  

Elephants are herbivorous and will eat leaves, twigs, fruit, bark and roots.

African elephants are mostly browsers while Asian elephants are mainly grazers. They can consume as much as 150 kg of food and 40 L of water in a day.

Elephants tend to stay near water sources.  Major feeding bouts take place in the morning, afternoon and night.

At midday, elephants rest under trees and may doze off while standing. Sleeping occurs at night while the animal is lying down. Elephants average 3-4 hours of sleep per day.  

Both males and family groups typically move 10–20 km a day. They go on seasonal migrations in search of food, water and mates. 

Photo: A family of elephants bathing, a behaviour which reinforces social bonding

Conservation issues

Distribution of elephants:

Picture: African elephant distribution in Africa
Picture: Asian elephant distribution in Asia

African elephants were listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2008, with no independent assessment of the conservation status of the two forms. 

In 1979, Africa had an estimated minimum population of 1.3 million elephants, with a possible upper limit of 3.0 million.

African elephants receive at least some legal protection in every country where they are found, but 70% of their range exists outside protected areas.

Successful conservation efforts in certain areas have led to high population densities. As of 2008, local numbers were controlled by contraception or translocation.



Photo:  Men with elephant tusks at Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

The poaching of elephants for their ivory, meat and hides has been one of the major threats to their existence.  

Historically, numerous cultures made ornaments and other works of art from elephant ivory, and its use rivalled that of gold. 

The ivory trade contributed to the African elephant population decline in the late 20th century till today.

Other threats to elephants include habitat destruction and fragmentation.  

The Asian elephant lives in areas with some of the highest human populations. Because they need larger amounts of land than other sympatric terrestrial mammals, they are the first to be affected by human encroachment.

In extreme cases, elephants may be confined to small islands of forest among human-dominated landscapes. Elephants cannot coexist with humans in agricultural areas due to their size and food requirements.

Elephants commonly trample and consume crops, which contributes to conflicts with humans, and both elephants and humans have died by the hundreds as a result. Mitigating these conflicts is important for conservation. 


Elephants and humans

Working animal

Photo: Working elephant as transport

There were 13,000–16,500 working elephants employed in Asia as of 2000. These animals are typically captured from the wild when they are 10–20 years old, when they can be trained quickly and easily, and will have a longer working life. 

They were traditionally captured with traps and lassos, but since 1950, tranquillisers have been used. Individuals of the Asian species are more commonly trained to be working animals, although the practice has also been attempted in Africa.

File:Exciting Elephant Ride in Jaipur at Amer Fort.webm  
Photo: Tourists riding elephants in Jaipur

Asian elephants perform tasks such as hauling loads into remote areas, moving logs into trucks, transporting tourists around national parks, pulling waggons and leading religious processions.  

In northern Thailand, the animals are used to digest coffee beans for Black Ivory coffee. 

They are valued over mechanised tools because they can work in relatively deep water, require relatively little maintenance, need only vegetation and water as fuel and can be trained to memorise specific tasks.

Elephants can be trained to respond to over 30 commands.

Zoos and circuses

Photo: African elephants at the Barcelona Zoo

In circuses, Elephants are trained to perform tricks. The most famous circus elephant was probably Jumbo (1861 – September 15, 1885), who was a major attraction in the Barnum & Bailey Circus. 

These animals do not reproduce well in captivity, due to the difficulty of handling musth bulls and limited understanding of female oestrous cycles.

Asian elephants were always more common than their African counterparts in modern zoos and circuses. 

As of 2000, around 1,200 Asian and 700 African elephants were kept in zoos and circuses.

The largest captive population is in North America, which has an estimated 370 Asian and 350 African elephants.

About 380 Asians and 190 Africans are known to exist in Europe, and Japan has around 70 Asians and 67 Africans. 

Picture: Circus poster, circa 1900

Save the Elephants, YOU can make a difference!

Join us as ONE VOICE to:

Reduce demand for illegal wildlife parts and products by encouraging others to ask questions and get the facts before buying any wildlife or plant product.

Push governments to protect threatened animal populations by increasing law enforcement, imposing strict deterrents, reducing demand for endangered species products.

Speak up on behalf of those on the frontlines being threatened by armed poachers so they are properly equipped, trained and compensated.