African and Asian elephants are two distinct species, which belong to separate genera. They are generally similar in size, appearance, physiology, and social behavior (Eltringham 1982; McKay 1973). The African elephant is the largest land mammal with the Asian elephant coming in as a close second.
Males are larger than females, and both sexes continue to grow throughout their entire lives. Some of the most unique features of both species of elephant are the ears, tusks, trunk, and feet.
The African elephant has larger ears than the Asian elephant. In both species the ears are used for communication—behavior and auditory—and in regulating body temperature.
The tusks are upper incisors that grow throughout the elephant’s life. Both male and female African elephants can have tusks, while it is usually only the male Asian which carries large tusks. The female Asian elephant’s tusks seldom extend beyond the upper lip. These tusks are called “tushes.” In both species, “tuskless” elephants have been observed.
Both the African and Asian elephant have trunks. The trunk is an elongated nose, the upper lip and nose combined. The elephant uses its trunk to breathe, explore its environment, communicate to and about conspecifics, pick up, push, carry, and to drink water or give itself a shower of water, mud, or dirt. It is essential to the survival of the elephant (although some elephants are able to successfully adapt their feeding and drinking behavior after severe trunk injuries). The tip of the trunk of the African elephant has two finger-like projections while the Asian elephant’s trunk tip has only one.
The feet of both species of elephants are round with a large circumference in relation to the legs. The elephant’s weight rests on a pad, which cushions the toes. This pad grows continuously and is worn down by the natural movement of the elephant. The number of toenails on both species of elephants appears to vary from individual (Csuti et al. 2001, Eltringham 1982). Typically Asian elephants have five toenails on each forefoot and four on each hindfoot. The African elephant has four toenails on each forefoot and three or four on each hindfoot.
Populations of both elephant species continue to decline in the wild. Human encroachment, habitat loss, and poaching pose major threats to the extant populations. Conflicts are frequent as the population of humans increases and suitable habitat for elephants decreases. Human or elephant fatalities are often the result.
In recent years, a significant amount of information regarding the social structure of wild African elephants has been published. This information has painted a fairly complete picture of the social nature of elephants in Africa. Less information is available on the Asian elephant, as their social behavior is much more difficult to observe due to their fewer numbers and habitat of dense forests. Based on limited existing data, indications are that some of the social behavior of the Asian elephant appears to be similar to that of the African elephant.
Female elephants are social animals, spending much of their time rearing calves. In the wild, the African elephant family unit averages five to eight females and their offspring, although there are large variations in family size. The Asian elephant family unit appears to be smaller and less cohesive. Most females stay within the family group into which they were born, splintering into smaller subgroups when the family becomes too large. Family groups make up clans that fluctuate in size as family segments come and go, often depending on the availability of food and water.
Male elephants leave the family as they enter their teenage years. Adult males spend a majority of their time away from females except during breeding opportunities. Males, once separated from the natal group, will form loose associations with other bulls except while in musth, at which time they are solitary (Douglas-Hamilton 1975; Moss 1988).