Elephants are important cultural icons throughout Asia, particularly within Hindu communities because they are the physical incarnation of one of their most important gods, Ganesha, also known as the Remover of Obstacles. Throughout Asia, elephants are generally thought of as a symbol of wisdom and strength, and are the national animal of both India and Thailand.
Africa vs. Asia
Asian elephants may be the largest land mammals in Asia but they are smaller than their African cousins and also sport much smaller ears; while African elephants have ears shaped like, rather handily, Africa, Asian elephants have smaller, more rounded King Lears. And that's not all, Asian ellies have just one 'finger' on the upper lip of their trunk while their African counterparts have 'fingers' on both their upper and lower lips.
Officially there are three subspecies of Asian elephant - Indian, Sri Lankan and Sumatran, but according to some studies the Borneo pygmy elephant could be another. Indian elephants are the widest ranging and largest in number, while Sri Lankan elephants are restricted to just a few small parts of Sri Lanka, and Sumatran elephants are now critically endangered, only surviving in fragmented populations. Pygmy elephants have more baby-like faces, and to match their adorable appearance they are also much less aggressive than other elephants. No small man syndrome here, then.
Food Glorious Food
Elephants need to eat a staggering 330lbs of grass, bark, roots, leaves and stems per day to survive. They're also rather partial to cultivated crops such as bananas and rice, which unfortunately can land them in a certain amount of trouble with local farmers. Aside from the pilfering though, their diet helps to shape the landscape around them because they create clearings in forests as they eat, allowing sunlight to reach new seedlings. They also dig for water when there is none on the surface, creating water access for other creatures.
Frances Mavor, Asia Specialist
Visit Kipling Camp in India's Kanha National Park to meet Tara, one of the most famous domesticated Indian elephants in the world
One of the main threats to Asian elephant populations, along with poaching (which is not as much of a threat as it is in Africa) is habitat loss. A huge proportion of the elephants' former range has been lost as a result of the continuing population growth across Asia. Ancient migratory routes are cut off by human settlements, and elephants' habitats have been fragmented by large development projects. Sadly there is also a major problem of elephants being taken from the wild for the live elephant trade, including for the tourism or timber industries.
Where To See Them
Throughout Sri Lanka's national parks, such as Minneriya, Yala and Wilpattu, we can arrange jeep safaris to try and get you as close as possible to these beautiful beasties. In Gal Oya National Park, also in Sri Lanka, we can arrange boat safaris where, if you're lucky, you can spot elephants swimming. In Indonesia, head to Gunung Leuser National Park on the island of Sumatra, where we can arrange for you to stay at a remote jungle lodge in the heart of the rainforest, where a community run project looks after a herd of ex-logging elephants. While here, along with at several other elephant camps, you can bathe and walk with them. Pygmy elephants can be found along the Kinabatangan River and around the Tabin Wildlife Reserve in Borneo, either on a boat, walking or jeep safari.
Jacqui Brooks, Asia Specialist
In Minneriya National Park in Sri Lanka, we can arrange jeep safaris to witness the incredible 'elephant gathering', a natural gathering of hundreds of elephants in the Minneriya National Park during our summer.
- 300 pounds - Average amount they eat per day
- 100,000 muscles - In an Asian elephant's trunk
- 19 hours - Average time spent feeding per day