3 Types of Elephants: Species, Facts and Photos

Elephants leave their giant footprints across Asia and Africa. While they appear similar in their trunks and ears, there are distinct types of elephants. This article describes three elephant species, exploring their habitats, appearances, and behaviors. In the end, it also focuses on their conservation status. Read on to learn more about the largest land mammals.

Taxonomic Classification

elephant incisor
Photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unsplash

Elephants are part of the family Elephantidae within the order Proboscidea. Three extant species are recognized today: African bush, African forest, and Asian elephant.

The African bush elephant is the largest, known for its ears shaped like the African continent. Meanwhile, the African forest elephant, smaller and darker, lives in dense tropical forests.

On the other side of the globe, the Asian elephant is primarily found in the forests and grasslands of the Southeast Asian region. Three recognized subspecies exist: the Indian, Sumatran, and Sri Lankan elephants.

Additionally, recent studies add a fourth subspecies, the Bornean elephant. This population, residing in northern Borneo, sets itself apart by its smaller build yet larger ears, extended tail, and straight tusks. Genetic examinations reveal their diversion from their mainland counterparts about 300,000 years ago. 

According to a 2003 study, this elephant population from Borneo shares its DNA makeup with the elephants that once roamed the Sunda Islands1. The study further suggests a prolonged separation of the Borneo elephants from Southeast Asian elephant populations since the Pleistocene era.

In the following sections, learn where each of them lives and how to distinguish them from each other easily.

Read More: Elephant Facts.

3 Types of Elephant Species And Subspecies

1. African Savanna Elephant (Loxodonta africana)

african savanna elephant
Photo by Bernard DUPONT on Flickr licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (Cropped from original).

African Savanna Elephants are the largest terrestrial animals in the world. They are also known as the African bush elephant. Male elephants stand up to 13 feet tall and weigh up to 23,000 pounds. They have large ears and a versatile trunk; their skin is wrinkled and grey-brown. 

These giant herbivores consume almost 330 pounds of food daily throughout various environments across sub-Saharan Africa.

The oldest female in a herd usually leads the group, acting as the matriarch to ensure the safety and well-being of the herd. Moreover, these African elephants engage in practical, fun activities like mud-bathing, protecting themselves from the sun, and keeping parasites away.

2. African Forest Elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis)

african forest elephant
Photo by Matt Muir on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY 4.0 (Cropped from original).

African Forest Elephants live in the dense forests of West and Central Africa. While they live on the same continent, they are a separate species from the savanna elephant. They typically grow up to 9.8 feet tall and weigh up to 15,400 pounds. They also have round heads and straight tusks. 

It mostly eats leaves, tree bark, and a variety of fruits. These types of elephants are the most frugivorous among the elephant species. They defecate the seeds as they travel long distances, making them mega gardeners of the forest.

However, this smaller African Elephant faces rampant deforestation and relentless poaching driven by the global demand for ivory. Their slow reproduction rate makes their survival even more challenging.

Studying them is challenging for scientists since these elephants are shy and tend to gather in smaller family units. Moreover, their habitats are relatively inaccessible.

3. Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus)

asian elephant
Photo by Bernard DUPONT on Flickr licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (Cropped from original).

Asian Elephants inhabit various habitats ranging from India and Nepal to Southeast Asia, including Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, and Malaysia. 

They are smaller than their African counterparts, standing at 9 feet and weighing 8,800 pounds on average. Their heads have two humps and small, rounded ears. 

Only male Asian elephants have long tusks, while females have small ones called tushes. However, some may never grow tusks, depending on their genetic makeup. These megaherbivores consume up to 330 pounds of vegetation daily, including grass, leaves, shoots, barks, fruits, nuts, and seeds. 

Sri Lankan Elephant (Elephas maximus maximus)

sri lankan elephant
Photo by Charles J. Sharp on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (Cropped from original).

The Sri Lankan elephant is the largest Asian elephant species. They can grow up to 11.5 feet tall and up to 12,100 pounds. They have a darker skin tone and unique patches of depigmentation on their ears, face, trunk, and belly. 

This elephant inhabits the dry zones of Sri Lanka and feeds on grasses, leaves, stems, and bark, consuming up to 150 kg of food daily. They are social animals whose herds typically consist of 12-20 individuals, led by the oldest female.

Elephants hold centuries-long significance in Sinhalese and Sri Lankan Tamil cultures, featuring prominently in heraldic symbols, coats of arms, and flags. Integral to religious processions, Buddhist and Hindu temples have often kept their own elephants, indicating a deep-rooted human-elephant co-existence.

Unfortunately, Sri Lankan elephants face threats from human encroachment2, land mines, and occasional ivory poaching. With high elephant mortality rates, an annual average of 370 deaths were recorded in recent years.

Indian Elephant (Elephas maximus indicus)

indian elephant
Photo by Yathin S Krishnappa on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 (Cropped from original).

Indian elephants can grow up to 9.8 feet and weigh 11,000 pounds. They are darker than the previous subspecies, with some lighter on their skin.

The Indian elephant holds significant symbolic stature throughout Asia, particularly in India, Thailand, and Laos. Revered in various religious traditions, they're often seen as deities symbolizing strength and wisdom. They serve as national animals in Thailand and Laos and as a national heritage animal in India.

Sumatran Elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus)

sumatran elephant
Photo by Léodras on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (Cropped from original).

The Sumatran Elephant lives in the lush rainforests of Sumatra. They can reach up to 10.5 feet and 8,800 pounds. Their skin is lighter than the two previous subspecies and has the least depigmentation. 

Their population has substantially declined, dropping numbers from 2,800-4,800 in the 1980s to 2,400-2,800 in 2007. Categorized as a critically endangered subspecies, the Sumatran elephant has become locally extinct in 23 of the 43 original ranges4, and the remaining populations are largely fragmented. 

Borneo Pygmy Elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis)

borneo pygmy elephant
Photo by shankar s. on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 (Cropped from original).

Borneo Pygmy Elephants are the smallest subspecies of Asian elephants, standing up to 9.8 feet. They live in Southeast Asia's rainforests, particularly on Borneo Island. These elephants have rounder faces, oversized ears, and a tail that often brush the forest floor. 

Conservation Status Of Elephants

Despite being the largest land animals on Earth, all elephant species and subspecies face various threats to their survival.

The IUCN marked the African bush elephants as an endangered species. Loss of habitat and ivory poaching are key threats these elephants face. 

Meanwhile, African forest elephants are listed as critically endangered3. They have seen a population reduction of over 80% in the last three generations due to ivory trading and habitat loss.

Lastly, Asian elephants are classified as endangered species, with a 50% population decline in the last three generations. In 2019, approximately 48,000-50,000 wild elephants are remaining. Habitat encroachment and ivory trade pose significant threats. Collaborative conservation plans are working on outfitting them with GPS collars for tracking and monitoring purposes.

Related read: Mark World Elephant Day in your calendar to observe and get involved in various educational and conservation efforts.

Conclusion

Elephant species, from the expansive African savannas to Asian tropical forests, represent a stunning diversity of life. Understanding this diversity outlines the critical need for their conservation. 

Every type of elephant, irrespective of their size, habitat, or uniqueness, is an integral part of our planet, deserving of protection and a future undisturbed by human threats.

Types of Elephants FAQ

1. What is the difference between Asian and African elephants?

African elephants are generally larger, with high, rounded heads and expansive ears shaped like Africa. They have prominent tusks in both sexes and are darker grey. Conversely, Asian elephants have smaller, fan-shaped ears, lower, twin-domed heads, and tusks, mainly in males. They are smaller and lighter in color.

2. What is the largest type of elephant?

The African bush elephant is the largest elephant species. It is also the heaviest land animal on earth. Male bush elephants can stand over 13  feet tall at the shoulder and weigh up to 23,000 pounds.

3. Do all elephants have tusks?

In African elephants, both genders develop tusks. However, in Asian elephants, only the males have tusks. Additionally, some elephants can be 'tuskless' due to genetic factors.

4. What is the current population of wild elephants?

According to the latest IUCN reports, the estimated African elephant population is about 415,000. Meanwhile, there are approximately 48,000 to 50,000 Asian elephants in the wild.

5. What are the common threats elephants face?

Elephant threats include habitat loss driven by deforestation and urban development, human-elephant conflict, and illegal wildlife trade, particularly poaching for elephant tusks and skin.

6. How can I support the conservation of elephants?

You can support elephant conservation by volunteering or donating to reputable organizations like the International Elephant Foundation (IEF), Elephant Voices, Save The Elephants, or the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF).

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1

Fernando, P., Vidya, T. N. C., Payne, J. C., Stüewe, M., Davison, G., Alfred, R., Andau, P., Bosi, E. J., Kilbourn, A. M., & Melnick, D. J. (2003). DNA analysis indicates that Asian elephants are native to Borneo and are therefore a high priority for conservation. PLOS Biology, 1(1), e6.

2

Gunawansa, T. D., Perera, K., Apan, A., & Hettiarachchi, N. (2023). The human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka: history and present status. Biodiversity and Conservation, 32(10), 3025–3052.

3

Gobush, K.S., Edwards, C.T.T, Maisels, F., Wittemyer, G., Balfour, D. & Taylor, R.D. (2021). Loxodonta cyclotis (errata version published in 2021). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2021: e.T181007989A204404464. 

4

Gopala, A., Hadian, O., Sunarto, ., Sitompul, A., Williams, A., Leimgruber, P., Chambliss, S.E. & Gunaryadi, D. (2011). Elephas maximus ssp. sumatranus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2011: e.T199856A9129626.

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