Asian elephants are smaller than African elephants, and their backs are more convex or level. Their head has two domes rather than one, and they have smaller ears. Their trunk has just one “finger” while African elephants have two, but they are both just as dextrous. Unlike their African counterparts, predominantly only male animals have tusks, and even tuskless males – makhnas – are regularly recorded. Some females have just short, stunted tusks known as tushes. Their skin is smoother than African elephants, grey-brown in colour, and often lacking pigment in patches on the trunk, ears and neck, which consequently appear pink. Males can be taller than 3m at the shoulder, with females reaching up to 2.5m.
They can live for up to 55-70 years in the wild, but only one in five may make it to this age, and as many as half may die before they are 15.
Because of the vast areas they need in which to roam, the foremost threat to Asian elephants is habitat loss on a massive scale. The spread of human settlements, plantations, farming, mining and railways in rapidly developing nations is leaving elephant groups marooned in ever-decreasing pockets of forest. Approximately 95% of their original habitat has been destroyed by people. Deprived of their habitat, and increasingly isolated from other groups, elephant numbers are falling. Those that survive are forced into areas of human activity, if not just to pass between forest patches, then directly to raid crops. The once harmonious relationships between elephants and people are breaking down, and all too frequently both people and elephants are killed when conflict flares up.