Elephant Facts

All you ever wanted to know about Asian elephants

The Asian Elephant

The Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), also called Asiatic elephant, is the only living species of the genus Elephas and is distributed in the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, from India and Nepal in the west to Borneo in the south. Three subspecies are recognised—E. m. maximus from Sri Lanka, E. m. indicus from mainland Asia and E. m. sumatranus from the island of Sumatra. The Asian elephant is the largest living land animal in Asia.

Since 1986, the Asian elephant has been listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List, as the population has declined by at least 50 percent over the last three generations, estimated to be 60–75 years. It is primarily threatened by loss of habitat, habitat degradation, fragmentation and poaching.

In 2003, the wild population was estimated at between 41,410 and 52,345 individuals. Female captive elephants have lived beyond 60 years when kept in semi-natural surroundings, such as forest camps. In zoos, Asian elephants die at a much younger age; captive populations are declining due to a low birth and high death rate. The genus Elephas originated in Sub-Saharan Africa during the Pliocene and spread throughout Africa before emigrating to southern Asia. The earliest indications of captive use of Asian elephants are engravings on seals of the Indus Valley Civilisation dated to the 3rd millennium BC.

Conservation status: Endangered (IUCN 3.1)

Scientific classification

  • Kingdom:           Animalia
  • Phylum:              Chordata
  • Class:                  Mammalia
  • Order:                 Proboscidea
  • Family:               Elephantidae
  • Genus:                Elephas
  • Species:              E. maximus
  • Binomial name  Elephas maximus

Subspecies

  1. m. maximus
  2. m. indicus
  3. m. sumatranus
  4. m. borneensis
By © Sémhur / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Elephas Maximus distribution evolution

Asian elephant historical range (pink) and current range (red)

Elephants have worked alongside humans for thousands of years. The ancient art of being an elephant owner (mahout) carries with it the responsibility of trust, skill, strength and kindness. Captive elephants in Laos are treated as family members by their adopted human family.

Sadly, captive elephant populations are in decline. Approximately 400 wild elephants remain in Laos. The new millennium has bought with it the burden of financial gain, with mahouts having to work their elephants seven days a week to earn a living. Until recently elephants were mainly employed in the logging industry, a very hard and dangerous job. Elephants are too overworked to reproduce and can even die from logging accidents.

The fertility of female elephants is markedly lost at 30 years of age. It’s very important that a cow has had the opportunity to reproduce before her reproductive health is compromised.

However a mahout cannot afford to rest his female elephant during her pregnancy and lactation. The cow cannot work for at least 4 years and a calf is a liability for logging mahouts who need to wait the animal’s 13th birthday before the elephant can make money by pulling logs – a very long time for a family to be without income.

All these factors mean the birth of a domestic calf is a rare event in Laos. However, the Elephant Conservation Center allows owners of pregnant cows to join their breeding programme during their elephant’s pregnancy and during the 2-3 years that follow it. This supports elephant reproduction while offering mahouts a paid job. Thanks to the Elephant Conservation Center’s breeding incentive programme, captive elephants and their owners are given alternative options. This hopefully will help Laos remain a sacred heartland for elephants.

repartition LaosWild and captive elephantsThere is therefore an urgent need to safeguard the remaining elephants and create a breeding programme for them. If Laos wants to maintain a self-perpetuating population and avoid extinction of its elephants, the number of births must increase dramatically. This will ensure survival of the domestic population and reduce pressure on its wild counterparts. It is also important that careful and sensitive support be provided to the reconversion of elephants from logging to alternative financially viable activities, such as eco-tourism and National Protected Area (NPA) management. Elephant handling is a tradition in Laos, and a good asset for increasing habitat protection and management and the development of nature tourism within protected areas. These can benefit local people and mahouts and contribute to the conservation of biodiversity and critical habitat.

It is therefore of major importance to conserve the wild elephant populations within the Nam Pouy NPA, Sayaboury province. The protected area was identified as a top priority conservation area for wild elephants by the Government of Lao PDR at a National Elephant Conservation Meeting held in 2008.

Also of major importance is to urgently put a ban on illegal exports of captive elephants to foreign countries.

Asian Elephants in the Wild

Lang Xang – “The land of a million elephants”. This mystical status was given to the Kingdom of Laos by former monarchs and is still used today to describe the beauty of this untouched nation. For thousands of years elephants were once commonplace throughout most forested regions of Laos.

Sadly wild elephants in Laos are today struggling to survive. Scattered in small fragmented herds, population numbers of wild elephants are believed to be around 300-400. Like many other countries, wild elephants in Laos are threatened by problems caused by humans. This includes deforestation, poaching, expansion of human settlement and human-elephant conflict.

How you can help the wild elephants of Laos:

  • Never purchase ivory or products made from animal bone, hide or hair. You never know its origin and this simply encourages poachers and the illegal trade in wildlife.
  • Do you really need that wooden or bamboo souvenir? It could be made from illegally-harvested timber & directly destroying essential wild elephant habitat.
  • Lead by example. During your stay help protect Lao’s natural environment. Plant a tree or visit a remote community. Get off the beaten path and spend a few nights in a town that doesn’t see many tourists. This will help locals make the transition from illegally-sourced income to sustainable tourism.