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The Asian Elephant vs The African Elephant

by Jill Darcy Moore, Executive Director

Learn More About Jill

What are the differences between Asian Elephants and African Elephants?

The first elephant I ever met was a spectacular female African named Flora. At 8’6”, Flora towered over the 6’ steel fencing that separated humans from elephants at the sanctuary. But it wasn't just her height that dwarfed everything around her, it was the intensity of her eyes, the expressive flapping of her ears full forward, and the obvious power of her protruding tusks and trunk, which she used to throw sticks at us - as if demanding our attention. Even the giant pines surrounding the habitat looked small in comparison to Flora's big personality.

In fact, Flora is the perfect example of the enormous differences between African and Asian elephants. While there are obvious physical distinctions between the two species, their social and behavioral style differences have been exploited and abused by humans for centuries.

About Elephants:

Elephants, the largest land animals on earth, are known for their incredible intelligence, complex social behavior and structure, and distinctive physical features. While lesser-known subspecies do exist, elephants fall into two primary species: the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) and the African elephant (Loxodonta africana).

pictured above on top: African elephant (Loxodonta africana) on bottom: Asian elephant (Elephas maximus)

The species habitats are profoundly different. Asian elephants are found in forests, grasslands, and scrublands, across 13 countries in Asia, including India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam. In comparison, African elephants have survived in varied habitats such as savannas, forests, and deserts in 37 countries throughout Africa.

Physical Differences:

By far, the biggest difference between African and Asian elephants is their physical size. Despite both species’ being the largest land animals on earth, Asian elephants are actually significantly smaller, averaging between 7-10 feet tall and weighing only 6,000-11,000 pounds. Their larger African cousin averages an enormous 10-12 feet in height and can weigh between 8,000-12,000 pounds (the approximate weight of a flatbed truck).

One of the most easily recognizable of the physical differences are those beautiful ears. Asian elephants have smaller, rounded ears while African elephants have larger, curved ears that look oddly similar to their home continent of Africa. Both species’ ears are far more delicate than they appear. Full of blood vessels, they serve as the body’s primary temperature regulator, and the skin covering the ears can be paper thin and easily damaged by frostbite if kept in cold climates.

And then there are the tusks. While both male and female Asian elephants can have tusks, called tushes, far fewer Asian elephants have visible tusks compared to African elephants. Asian elephant tusks are smaller, straighter, and more brittle than their African counterparts and are far less likely to grow below the lip line. In comparison, most African male and female elephants have visible large, curved tusks, making them effective tools for both digging and defense.

These tusks pose a risk to both species, as poachers who kill elephants for their ivory tusks remains a leading cause for their dwindling numbers in the wild. While many more distinctions in their physical appearance exist, including the shape of their heads, these are far fewer in comparison to the behavioral and social distinctions.

Behavior and Social Structure:

Both species are highly social animals. They live in complex societies led by a dominant female, known as the matriarch. However, the social structures of the two species do differ somewhat.

African elephants are known for their close-knit family groups, which consist of a matriarch and her offspring, as well as their extended family members. These groups can range between 2 to 25 elephants and are known to be very stable and consistent. In comparison, Asian elephants have more fluid social structures, with groups of individuals coming together and breaking apart more frequently. The African males separate from the females as teenagers and transition to bachelor communities while Asian males separate and live a more solitary life.

Each species has its own unique language that combines both vocal (rumbles, trumpets, etc.) and physical (ear flaps, body language) communications. An African elephant’s play behavior is more aggressive than that of Asian elephants. Africans like to roughhouse and are known for literally knocking down 20+ foot trees – just for fun! This aggressive behavior makes them more difficult to maintain in an enclosed habitat than Asians due to sheer habitat destruction.

While every elephant has its own unique personality, Asians tend to be the gentler and more passive of the two species, while African playful body language is interpreted as aggression by their Asian cousins. These communication styles and behavior differences have caused significant problems when the two are kept in captivity together, historically a common practice among many zoos. In fact, there are multiple reported cases of smaller Asian elephants being injured by the more forceful African elephants.

As a result of the different behavioral and sometimes injurious encounters both the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries and the American Zoological Association now require that Asian and African elephants be provided separate habitats. Additionally, due to the incredible importance of socialization to both species’ mental and physical health, both organizations also require a minimum of three female elephants of the same species when kept in captivity.

The more docile nature and smaller stature of the Asian elephant have also made it a target for humans to abuse. The Asian elephant is more adaptable and more easily controlled by humans making them easier to train for use as work animals by the tourist trekking camps and the logging industry, and for exploitation for trunk painting and tourism rides.

Additionally, the intelligence of the species, combined with the gentler nature of Asian elephants, has resulted in extensive use in the entertainment industry including the circus and film industries. In fact, the elephants used in the 1932 Tarzan film were Asians with African-looking ears strapped to them. Apparently, this practice was later abandoned based on the assumption that viewers would not know the difference.

Conservation Status:

Both species of elephants face threats from poaching for ivory and human-elephant conflict – which historically is the reason for their rapid decline in numbers. However, according to the IUCN, habitat loss has risen as the fastest-growing threat to both species. African elephants are currently listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, while Asian elephants are listed as endangered. Currently, there are more elephants in captivity in Thailand alone than there are in the wild (over 3,000) and populations are fragments throughout Asia.

So, while Asian and African are two distinct species with several differences in physical appearance, habitat, behavior, and social structure, understanding these differences is important for conservation efforts aimed at protecting these magnificent creatures both in captivity as well as in their native habitats.

Help us support the Asian Elephants in the wild and those being rescued by ethical sanctuaries around the world. Your donation of any size will make a huge difference.


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