The elephant is Earth's largest land animal, although the Asian elephant is slightly smaller than its African cousin. Asian elephants can be identified by their smaller, rounded ears. (An African elephant's ears resemble the continent of Africa.). They live in forested regions of India and throughout Southeast Asia, including Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. About a third of Asian elephants live in captivity.
The Asian elephant is classified as Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Its population has declined by an estimated 50 percent over the past 75 years, and there are an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 Asian elephants left in the wild.
Threats to wild Asian elephant populations include habitat loss from deforestation and agricultural development, as well as conflict with humans as elephants seek space and raid crops grown close to their forest habitats.
Most illegal ivory today comes from African elephants, with some 30,000 poached each year. Asian elephants, nonetheless, do still face the threat of poaching for the ivory trade. Only males have tusks, and females have been largely spared. However, a growing trade in elephant skin, used for jewelry, threatens both males and females alike. Young wild elephants are also trafficked from Myanmar into Thailand for the tourism trade. In 2012 the Thai government began cracking down on smuggling.
An elephant's trunk is actually a long nose with many functions. It’s used for smelling, breathing, trumpeting, drinking, and grabbing things—especially a potential meal. Elephants are fond of water and enjoy showering by sucking water into their trunks and spraying it over their bodies. The trunk alone contains about 100,000 different muscles. Asian elephants have a fingerlike feature on the end of their trunk that they can use to grab small items. (African elephants have two.)
Elephants eat roots, grasses, fruit, and bark—and they eat a lot of them. An adult elephant can consume up to 300 pounds of food in a single day.
Elephants are crepuscular—they typically sleep during the day and are most active at dawn and dusk.
Elephants are widely viewed as one of Earth’s most intelligent animals. They have a highly evolved neocortex, similar to humans, great apes, and some dolphin species. They demonstrate a wide variety of behaviors associated with high intelligence, including compassion, mimicry, grief, altruism, use of tools, and self-awareness.
In the wild, female elephants, called cows, live in close-knit family herds with their young, but adult males, known as bulls, tend to roam on their own. Elephants have a longer pregnancy than any other mammal—almost 22 months. Cows usually give birth to one calf every two to four years. At birth, elephants weigh about 200 pounds and stand about three feet tall.
Asian elephants in captivity
Almost a third of Asian elephants live in captivity, largely in Thailand, India, and Myanmar. Historically, elephants were used in the logging industry, as well as in agriculture and occasionally warfare. Increasingly, they're used in the tourism industry, where many are trained to perform in shows, gives rides, and interact up-close with tourists. The majority are tamed using fear-based methods, including with an instrument called a bullhook—a wooden stick with a sharp metal hook at the end.
Phajaan is the traditional—and brutal— days- or weeks-long process of breaking a young elephant's spirit. It has long been used in Thailand and throughout Southeast Asia to tame wild elephants. Under phajaan, elephants are bound with ropes, confined in tight wooden structures, starved, and beaten repeatedly with bullhooks and other tools until their will is crushed. Elephants born in captivity are still widely trained using bullhooks, but methods vary from handler to handler.using fear-based methods, although severity of training will vary from handler to handler.
The welfare of captive elephants is also difficult to regulate in many parts of the world. Thailand’s 3,800 captive elephants are classified as domestic animals, akin to farmed animals like horses and donkeys. Although welfare issues such as tight confinement and isolation, malnutrition, bodily harm, and symptoms of psychological distress have been widely documented among captive elephants in the country, captive elephants in Thailand are classified property, and protections are scant.
Captive Asian elephants are often misinterpreted as domesticated, because they have been kept and trained by humans for thousands of years. However, the majority have historically been captured from the wild and tamed for use by humans. Although then can breed in captivity, like big cats and other wild animals, they are not selectively bred, largely because of their long reproductive cycle. For this reason, there are no domesticated breeds of Asian elephants: They remain wild animals.