The Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) is one of only three living species of elephants or elephantids anywhere in the world, the others being the African bush elephant and African forest elephant. The Asian elephant is the largest living land animal in Asia.
In general, the Asian elephant is smaller than the African bush elephant and has the highest body point on the head. The distinctive trunk of these animals is an elongation of the nose and upper lip combined; the nostrils are at its tip, which has one finger-like process. The trunk contains as many as 60,000 muscles, which consist of longitudinal and radiating sets. Elephants use their trunks for breathing, watering, feeding, touching, dusting, sound production and communication, washing, pinching, grasping, defence and offence. Tusks serve to dig for water, salt, and rocks, to debark and uproot trees, as levers for maneuvering fallen trees and branches, for work, for display, for marking trees, as a weapon for offence and defence, as trunk-rests, and as protection for the trunk. Elephants are known to be right or left tusked. Skin colour of Asian elephants is usually grey, and may be masked by soil because of dusting and wallowing. Their wrinkled skin is movable and contains many nerve centres. It is smoother than that of African elephants and may be depigmented on the trunk, ears, or neck. The epidermis and dermis of the body average 18 mm (0.71 in) thick; skin on the dorsum is 30 mm (1.2 in) thick providing protection against bites, bumps, and adverse weather. Its folds increase surface area for heat dissipation. They can tolerate cold better than excessive heat.
Asian elephants live over a vast territory, covering the Hindustan and Indochina peninsulas, Borneo Island, and, generally, most of south-eastern Asia. Their habitat includes plains, tropical forests, evergreen and semi-evergreen forests, wet and dry deciduous forests, prickly forests as well as cultivating lands.
These elephants are very communicative mammals. As a general rule, they live in herds, consisting of more than 20 females. The oldest female leads the group in its movement routes, searching for food and water source. Sometimes herds can break up into smaller subgroups. Male elephants, on the contrary, lead a solitary life. From time to time, though, they send and receive messages from the herds over huge distances by means of high frequencies sounds, imperceptible to the human ear. Asian elephants are not at all territorial. These animals are diurnal and crepuscular. They eat and walk at dusk and down while being absolutely passive in the daytime heat. A reliable source of drinking water is a mandatory life condition for elephants since they drink no less than once a day.
Asian elephants are polygynous, meaning that a male can mate with multiple females. Before mating, males conduct fights to reveal the dominant male (the one that will mate the group of females). Asian elephants mate all year round, without reference to a season of the year. Under favorable conditions, a female can give birth once every 3-4 years. The gestation period lasts quite long, 18-22 months, after which a single baby is born. The baby feeds on the breast milk of its mother as well as other lactating females if necessary. A few months later the young adds grass to its daily diet meanwhile continuing to eat breast milk for up to 1.5 years. Even after weaning, the mother keeps on caring for and protecting her calf. Reproductive maturity is reached at the age of around 14 years. However, it’s not so easy for males; they are allowed to mate only when they are able to dominate other males in the area.
Threats have to do mainly with human activity. Since ancient times, these animals have been hunted and killed in large numbers, as a source of food, and then for ivory. Hunting for ivory continues to this day, being a notable threat to the overall population of the Asian elephant. Deforestation and agricultural activities are among the threats, leading to the constriction of the elephants’ habitat.
The IUCN Red List says the official estimated population number of the Asian elephant is currently 41.410-52.345 individuals. If listed by countries, in the first place is India with 26.390-30.770 individuals around the country. Then comes Myanmar (4000-5000) and Sri Lanka (2500-4000). Other countries with a comparably large population of Asian elephants are Indonesia (2400-3400), Thailand (2500-3200), Malaysia (2100-3100), Laos (500-1000), Cambodia (250-600), Bhutan (250-500), China (200-250), Bangladesh (150-250), Vietnam (70-150) and Nepal (100-125). About 13.000 individuals are domesticated, working mainly in the entertainment area. The ICUN Red Lit classifies the Asian elephant as Endangered (EN) with a decreasing population trend.
Asian elephants have a huge impact on the ecosystem of their habitat. They turn some areas of forests into meadows and disperse seeds. Moreover, cases have been known, when elephants excavated holes in dry riverbeds to get water for other species. As the elephants walk through forests, they open broad pathways, which stop the spread of forest fires.
The oldest extant evidence of Asian elephants’ domestication comes from the Bronze Age, from the era of the Harappan civilization. Evidently, the elephants were at the time used as fighting machines, being invaluable components of siege conduction. They served as beasts of burden and as the elevation at battlefields and at hunting. These animals have been captured from the wild and tamed for human use. Due to their huge size and ability to obey orders, they proved to be indispensable in the transportation of heavy objects such as timber materials. Along with the above-mentioned, Asian elephants have been objects of decoration at official ceremonies for swell society. Nowadays Asian elephants are used mainly in the tourist industry, transferring and entertaining tourists.