The Asian elephant is the only surviving species in the Elephas genus. Two extinct subspecies of the Asian elephant are known: the Chinese elephant (pink-tusked elephant) population disappeared after the 14th century B.C. and the Syrian elephant, said to be one of the largest subspecies of the Asian elephant, became extinct around 100 B.C. It is estimated that only 35,000 Asian elephants remain, making it the largest endangered animal on the planet. Since 1986, the Asian elephant has been classified as Endangered by the IUCN. The population has declined by at least 50% over the last three generations.
The Asian elephant tends to grow 7-12 feet (2-4 meters) in height, and 6,500-11,000 lbs (3,000-5,000 kg) in weight. It is smaller than its relative, the African elephant. The easiest way to differentiate the two species is that the Asian elephant has smaller ears. Asian elephants can live up to 60 years in the wild. The females have a 22-month pregnancy - longer than any other mammal. They usually give birth to one calf every 2-4 years.
Elephants are highly social animals that form close bonds and family units with a strong hierarchy. Elephant herds follow seasonal migration routes, with the eldest elephant leading the way from memory. Asian elephants are self-aware and extremely intelligent. They can exhibit behaviors of grief, learning, mimicry, selflessness, cooperation, language, memory, and compassion.
Asian Elephants are found in the tropical forests and grasslands of Cambodia, China, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia, Indochina, and parts of Indonesia. Generally, they reside on the edges of tropical forests where open, grassy areas are accessible. Asian elephants are considered “keystone” species – they help open up forest clearings and paths and also distribute the seeds of trees and shrubs. Most elephant habitats and corridors throughout Asia have been fragmented into islands; there are only seven intact elephant corridors left – the Southern Cardamom Mountain Range in Cambodia being one of them.
Advancement of agriculture, the destruction of tropical forests, and the encroachment of humans pose the greatest threats to the preservation of Asian elephants. Farms built on traditional elephant migration routes are often trampled, engendering hostility and conflict toward elephants. Approximately 20% of the world’s human population lives in or near Asian elephant herds, making human-elephant conflict one of the biggest threats to elephant survival. Poaching elephants for their ivory, tusks, meat, skin, teeth, reproductive organs, and bones also poses a severe threat to remaining wild populations. Between 2010 and 2014, the price of ivory in China has tripled, and illegal poaching has skyrocketed.