Facts & links

Elephant species


There are two species of elephant – the African elephant and the Asian. The easy way to tell them apart? African elephants have large ears shaped like Africa – while the smaller ears of Asian elephants resemble the outline of India.

African elephants

African elephants are the world’s largest land mammals; males can grow up to 4 metres tall and weigh a whopping 7,000kg. Around 500,000-700,000 African elephants live across Sub-Saharan Africa and they are classified as vulnerable. Habitat loss and conflict with humans present problems as they are a danger to people and trample crops and structures. The greatest threat by far, however, is poaching. The ivory trade became illegal internationally in 1989, but around 1,000 elephants were killed per year between 2006-2009, and this number has continued to soar. In 2013, an estimated 23,000 elephants were slaughtered for their tusks, with the majority of the ivory being smuggled into China.
There are two subspecies of African elephant: the larger bush or savannah elephant, seen across East and Southern Africa, and the smaller forest elephant which is more elusive and lives in the Central and West African jungles.
  • See BBC Nature for videos, information and further links on the African bush elephant

Asian elephants

There are three subspecies of Asian elephant – the Sri Lankan elephant (which is the largest); the Indian elephant, which is found in 11 countries across mainland Southeast Asia; and the Sumatran elephant, which lives on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, and is sometimes called the pygmy elephant. The Asian elephant is classified as endangered; wild populations are hard to monitor but around 40,000-45,000 are believed to live across this region, meaning there is less than one Asian elephant for every ten African elephants. Sumatran elephants have recently been declared critically endangered. In some countries, captive elephants far outnumber wild elephants. Their range once spread as far as the Middle East, including Iraq and Syria, as well as Java; it is now extinct across all these regions and around half the remaining elephants are believed to live in India. Unlike the African elephant, female Asian elephants almost never have tusks, and only a small number of males grow them. They can eat 150kg of vegetation a day.
  • See BBC Nature for videos, sounds and information about the Asian elephant

Elephant facts


  • Both elephant species are highly intelligent, and have been compared to humans, apes and dolphins in the structure of their brains. They use tools, and appear to experience self-awareness, grief, compassion and cooperation.
  • The desert-adapted elephants of Namibia and Mali have developed unusual physical and behavioural traits to help them survive in their harsh environments. Their long legs carry them much further than other elephants – up to 70km in a day – while their wide feet help them walk on sand. They can survive up to three days without drinking (elephants usually drink daily) and while most elephants are notoriously destructive around vegetation, desert elephants take great care not to harm any tree or bushes.
  • Like humans, elephants are usually left or right tusked. You can spot which by seeing which tusk is more rounded and worn down – this is the “master tusk”.
  • Wild elephants have never been observed swaying rhythmically in the same way as captive elephants. Deprived of stimulation, the ability to exercise, and - frequently - contact with other elephants, captive elephants are the only ones who develop this disturbing behaviour.

Elephant links


The following nonprofit organisations all campaign for the welfare of elephants. Visit their websites for further information about elephants in the wild and in captivity, and what you can do to help.
  • Elephant Nature Park, in Thailand, is a sanctuary which acts as a “retirement home” for retired and rescued elephants. It does not promote elephant riding or performances, and is considered a pioneer in the treatment of elephants. Watch Elephant Whisperer, a documentary a documentary about ENP’s founder, Lek, here.
  • Elemotion raises awareness about the plight of the Asian elephant, and aims to improve the conditions for elephants living in captivity – either for tourism purposes, or in temples.
  • Elephant Family is the UK’s biggest funder for Asian elephants. They exists to save the endangered Asian elephant from extinction in the wild, and are working to expose and stop elephants being captured from the wild to supply the booming tourism industry.
  • World Animal Protection, formerly known as WSPA, works with domesticated and wild animals. Specific elephant projects have included raising awareness of wildlife crimes including trafficking and poaching.
  • Born Free campaigns for the rights of African and Asian elephants. They focus on the ivory trade in Africa, as well as human-wildlife conflict and captive elephants across Asia. They also support Sri Lanka’s Elephant Transit Home.
  • Action for Elephants UK is a campaigning and fundraising group with a focus on stopping the slaughter of wild elephants. They support and raise funds for elephant groups and projects on the ground in Tanzania and Sri Lanka.

Photo credits: [African elephants: Stig Nygaad] [Asian elephants: shankar s.]
Written by Vicki Brown
Thailand elephant conservation holiday

Thailand elephant conservation vacation

Thailand elephant conservation: a new life for Thai ellies

From £615 7 Days ex flights
Elephant refuge volunteering in Thailand

Elephant refuge volunteering in Thailand

Volunteer with rescued elephants in an inspiring refuge

From £895 14 Days ex flights
Elephant conservation in Thailand

Elephant conservation in Thailand

Understand the Thai domestic elephant

From £450 7 Days ex flights
Elephant conservation volunteering in Namibia

Elephant conservation volunteering in Namibia

Elephant conservation volunteering in stunning Namibia

From £882 14 Days ex flights
Family volunteering with elephants in Sri Lanka

Family volunteering with elephants in Sri Lanka

Family volunteering with elephants in Sri Lanka

From £872 14 Days ex flights
Elephant conservation project with hill tribes in Thailand

Elephant conservation project with hill tribes in Thailand

Conservation project returning elephants to the forest

From £290 5 Days ex flights
Family volunteering with elephants in Thailand

Family volunteering with elephants in Thailand

Family volunteering with elephants in Thailand

From 515 7 Days ex flights
Convert currencies