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Exploring the Elephant Habitat

Girija Shinde
Aristotle, one of the greatest thinkers ever to walk the Earth, had this to say about elephants, "The beast which passeth all others in wit and mind". Isn't it an apt description of elephants? Elephants are said to be one of the most intelligent species around. Ironically, there are only two species of elephants in existence today.
Elephants are one of those species of animals that can adapt to almost any habitat. Forests, woodlands, grassy plains, savanna, swamps and deserts are some of the ecosystems where they easily survive. Research on elephant history revealed that elephant fossils were found in all continents except for Antarctica and Australia.
At present, elephants live mainly in Asia and Africa. In Africa, they are found mainly in the Southern regions. Due to poaching, the number of elephants have decreased alarmingly, largely in West Africa, and in lesser proportions in North and East Africa.
Elephants are also found in Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, China, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia. Due to the capturing and taming of elephants, they can now be found in many other countries too.

Species of Elephants in Existence

Family: Periodontal
Species: Loxodonta Africana
Sub Species: Loxodonta Africana Africana (African Bush Elephant) and Loxodonta cyclotis (African Forest Elephant)
Family : Elephas (Eurasian elephants)
Species: Elephas maximus (Asian elephants)
Sub Species: Elephas maximus indicus (Indian Elephant), Elephas maximus maximus (Sri Lankan Elephant), Elephas maximus sumatranas (Sumatran Elephant), and Elphas maximus boornesis (Borneo Elephant or Asian Pygmy Elephant).

African Bush Elephant

The African Bush elephant or the African Savanna elephant, commonly recognized as the Bush elephant, is the largest of the two species of the elephants that exist in Africa. These elephants are characterized by a short neck, huge head, two large ears that keep the body cool, and have a rotund body. The skin exudes a radiant grayish color.
The bush elephant has 4 toenails on the front foot and 3 on the hind. The forehead is smooth and it has a long muscular trunk.
  • Length: 19.7 - 24.6 ft
  • Height at shoulder: 10.8 ft
  • Weight: 7 tonnes (15000 lbs)
  • Molars (teeth): 4 molars in all, 2 on each side of the jaw. Each molar is 10 cm in width and 30 cm in length.
  • Life expectancy: 65 - 70 years
  • Length: 17.7 - 22.6 ft
  • Height at shoulder: 8.9 ft
  • Weight: 3 tonnes (6600 lbs)
  • Molars (teeth): 4 molars in all, 2 on each side of the jaw. Each molar is 10 cm in width and 30 cm in length.
  • Life expectancy: 65 - 70 years
These elephants are herbivores and eat in accordance to their surroundings. Those living in the forests and grasslands feed on different proportions of herbs and plants. Shrubbery leaves are a delicacy for these animals.

Lake Kariba

This is the worlds largest artificial lake in terms of volume, and flanks the shores of Zimbabwe and Zambia with many islands surrounding it. The area is full of life and is home to a large species of fish, crocodiles, hippos, and a majestic herd of African elephants. This particular herd is known to thrive on underwater plants of Lake Kariba.
Four strong molars help the elephant in breaking down the hard branches and consuming the leaves with relative ease. African Bush elephants in particular are known to consume 225 kilos of plants daily. However, they can't digest all their food, and hence, and most of it is excreted.
Elephants are wanderers by instinct and cover large distances in search of food. Their defecation over long distances contribute in dispersion of plant life as the feces are nutritious and germinate in the mound. Elephants also consume large amounts of water, accounting to an average minimum of 200 liters per day. Other habitats of these elephants include:

Serengeti National Park

This is reserve is located in Tanzania and marks the migration of over one and a half million wildebeest and 250,000 zebras. Serengeti literally translates as endless plains, and the vast grasslands cover around 30,000 sq km, out of which, the park spans a total area of 14,763 sq km. All the animals here are in a natural habitat with predators circling around the hunting grounds.
Located in the north, this park inhabits the African elephant and other animals like:
  • African leopard
  • Lion
  • Black rhinoceros
  • African buffalo
  • Giraffe
  • Cheetah
  • Ostrich
  • Gazelles
Most of the documented videos on National Geographic and Discovery are shot in these areas. The park is home to large herds of wildlife that survive here. The African elephant here has no threats from predators, however, the young ones do occasionally get mauled by lions.
The surroundings are plentiful in treeless grasslands, a perfect habitat for herbivores. The elephants can be found in the bushy savannas of the North. The climate around here is dry but receives a heavy downpour during the rainy seasons.

African Forest Elephant

These elephants can be found in vast tropical forests and wetlands of the Congo Basin in West Africa. The Congo Basin stretches over 3.7 million square kilometers and forms a diverse wildlife habitat. The climate around here is tropical and is bestowed with heavy rainfall spanning two rainy seasons throughout the year.
The basin is also home to many endangered species like the mountain gorilla. Located in the highlands and mountains of the African rift, these are a source for plenty of long rivers and great lakes, forming an ideal surrounding for the African Forest elephants, better known as the pygmy elephant.
A study conducted in 2010 confirmed these to be a separate species from the African Bush elephants. The distinction of both these species occurred sometime close to the divergence of the woolly mammoth and the Asian elephants.
African Forest elephants are much shorter in size as compared to the African Bush elephants. They have been known to mature physically due to their environmental conditions.
  • Height at shoulder: Maximum height reaches up to 10 ft approx.
  • Weight: 7 tonnes (15000 lb)
  • Molars (teeth): 4 molars in all 2 on each side of the jaw. Each molar is 10 cm in width and 30 cm in length.
These elephants are characterized by 5 toes on the front-foot and 4 on the hind (similar to that of an Asian elephant), diminutive height and a convex forehead, a pinkish tinge on the tusks, which are straight unlike the curved tusk of the African bush elephant, and an approximate D.N.A. difference of ⅔ from the latter.
These animals are herbivores and survive on leaves, barks and occasional mineral licks from rocks and solid surfaces. Fruits are savored in high quantities by these elephants. However, they are not to be confused with the extinct dwarf elephants who evolved to a smaller size due to island dwarfing (a growth phenomenon on island surroundings pertaining to evolution).

Indian Elephant

These sub-species of the Asian elephant are revered animals in the mythology of Central Asia. However, they are enlisted in the list of endangered species due to depletion in their habitat and degradation of the surroundings. The back is convex and distinctly curved, whilst the skull is broader, and the ears are shorter in comparison to their African counterparts.
The females have no tusks, unlike the males. These creatures are passive by nature, and are also tamed and raised commonly by people. Indian elephants have broad toes, and their abdomen is proportionate to their body weight, making them petite in size. Indian elephants can commonly be found in the following regions of India:

Up North

The foothills of Himalayas up north in the states of Uttaranchal and Uttar Pradesh. The habitat here spans the Katarniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary, a 400 km stretch which is also part of a popular tiger reserve on the east, and also connects to the Bardia National Park in Nepal.
The ecosystem exudes mesmerizing locales that are rich in Sal and Teak forests, pristine grasslands, steaming springs and wetlands, which make it a popular tourist attraction. The area is also home to a variety of endangered animals which include:
  • Gharial (Indian crocodile with a long and unique snout)
  • Indian rhinoceros (The fourth largest land animal)
  • Gangetic dolphins (National Aquatic Animal of India and is a river dolphin)
  • Barasingha (also known as the swamp deer with spectacular antlers on the stags)
  • Bengal bustards (also known as the Bengal Florican, a rare bird species from the Indian subcontinent)
  • Indian vulture (also known as the long-billed vultures, these majestic birds circle around the Indian savanna)

Down South

The southern part of India is extensively rich in elephant population, and they are fragmented over the states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The area is flanked by the Western ghats and the famous Nilgiri Hills, which have recently been enlisted for the World Heritage Site.
The Nilgiri Hills extend to all the four states mentioned above, and feature a variety of forests like tropical moist forests, broad leaf forests, evergreen forests, and deciduous grasslands, which are a mecca for elephant habitat.
The area is home to the Asian elephant, and more than 100 species of mammals, 350 bird species, 80 species of reptiles, 31 amphibians, 60 species of reptiles, and 316 species of butterflies. Some of the Indian elephant locations here include:
  • The Silent Valley National Park
  • Annamalai Forests
  • Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary
  • Periyar National Park
  • Neyyar Wildlife Sanctuary
In the north-east regions around India, elephants reside in the following states:
  • Himalayan region of Arunachal Pradesh
  • Vast plains of Assam
  • Foothills of Nagaland
  • Sub-tropical forests of Garo Hills in Meghalaya
  • Nepal has 100 - 125 elephants in the Bardia National Park.
  • 150 - 250 elephants in Bangladesh in the Chittagong Hills, rich in fertile soil and indigenous trees.
Tourists are often awed when they spot an elephant on the road in parts of India. Elephants here are commonly domesticated and ornamented during religious festivals. Ganesha - a demigod in Hindu mythology, has the head of an elephant and the body of a man, a symbolic holy figure worshiped for bestowing peace and prosperity to the people.

Sri Lankan Elephant

Sri Lankan elephants are the largest sub-species, towering at a height of 11.5 ft, and have 19 pairs of ribs. They weigh around 4,400 - 12,000 lbs. Their coat is dark in color and they have dis-pigmented patches on the body. Approximately 7% of these elephants grow tusks fully.
The habitat of Sri Lankan elephants are confined to the dry lowlands around the country. Some of the prominent elephant locations here are:

The Peak Wideness Sanctuary

This is the third largest sanctuary in Sri Lanka. The area compromises of a tropical rain forest around Adams Peak, a famous mountain which bears the footprints of Lord Buddha, making it an important pilgrimage site amongst the Buddhists, and is simultaneously a Hindu mythological place too.
Located at 1000 - 7360 ft above sea level, it has unusual geographic landscapes compared to other reserves. Bena Samanala is one of the tallest mountains here, ranging up to 6579 ft. The Kelani, Kalu, and Walave rivers flow down from the massive mountains of Dotalugala and Detanagala.
The many waterfalls formed from these rivers are a striking feature of the area. The Sri Lankan elephant here thrives in the huge forested hills around this area, which is abundant in vegetation.

Wilpattu National Park

This reserve is located on an island in Sri Lanka. What makes this place unique is the existence of Willus, which are natural lakes. The area is sand-rimmed, similar to a beach, and forms a water basin due to rainwater. The park is 131, 693 hectares and 152 meters above sea-level.
Nearly sixty lakes make up this whole area. The park is also known for its considerable numbers of leopards. The park receives an annual rainfall of 1000 meters, and monsoons are prominent during the year.
The vegetation around here is unique, and the elephants thrive on salt grass, fruits, flowering plants, pinnate leaves, and drupes, which are flesh fruits with kernels inside. It is also home to 31 threatened species of animals, like the spotted deer, mongoose, and sambar.

Ruhuna National Park

Ruhana National Park is home to 250 bird species, the great Sri Lankan elephants, Sri Lankan Sloth bear and the Sri Lankan leopard. This area has a herd of 350 elephants that feed on mangroves, paddy and various plant species along the grasslands.
The area has diverse ecosystems, which include moist and dry monsoon forests, grasslands, wetlands, and sandy beaches. The habitat also includes a spread of lagoons and water-holes, but is under constant threats of poaching and terrorists.

Sumatran Elephant

The Sumatran elephant is native to the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. These elephants are 10.5 feet tall and weigh around 4,400 - 8,800 lbs. These elephants have 20 ribs, and their physical features are similar to those of the Indian elephants.
Sumatra earlier had a handsome population of elephants, but sadly today, their population has declined by 80% since the past couple of decades. These elephants are under constant threats of habitat loss and poaching. In a recent case three Sumatran elephants were found dead after they consumed bars of soap that were laced with poison.
There are fewer than 3000 Sumatran elephants in existence today. The government has altered the endangered status to critically endangered following the decrease in the number of these animals.
Sumatra is the sixth largest island in the world. The Barisan mountain ranges cover a 1700 km stretch from the north to the southern tip of the island. The area features volcanic activity, and has also been prone to the most powerful earthquakes witnessed on the planet. This region has endless scenic locales, and the soil here is very fertile.
The island is home to 201 mammal and 580 bird species. Endangered animals here include:
  • Sumatran Tiger
  • Sumatran orangutan
  • Sumatran rhinoceros
  • Sumatran elephant
  • Sumatran striped rabbit
  • Malayan tapir
  • Bornean clouded leopard
  • Malayan sun bear
The island has three national parks that have been listed as World Heritage Sites, and the Sumatran elephants reside here.

The Gunung Leuser National Park

The Gunung Leuser National Park flanks the northern border of Sumatra covering a stretch of approx 8,000 km. This area consists of 11 peaks which are around 3000 meters high. Sumatran elephants here graze on Indo-malayan vegetation, which includes around 10,000 different plant species; an ideal venue for the elephants.
The moist dense forests are abundant with high species of fruit trees, and is home to the largest flower species on earth - Rafflesia, which are very commonly found here. The park overall is an ideal breeding ground for the elephants. One of every 32 mammals on the earth are found here.
Some other herbivores found here are the sambar (large deer with antlers), Muntjac (Barking deer), and the Mouse deer.
The Leuser ecosystem is the most abundant expanses of rainforests in Indonesia, stretching over an area of 2.6 million hectares, and is the last place on earth which inhabits the Sumatran elephant, Sumatran rhinoceros, Sumatran orangutan, and the Sumatran tiger, all in the same vicinity.

Kerinci Seblat National Park

This is the largest National Park in Indonesia which covers an area of 13,791 sq km. A large part of this area is formed by the Barisan Mountain ranges which have a total of five active volcanoes.
This is a haven for the elephants who walk the misty plains, wander amongst scenic waterfalls and rapid rivers. The view around the park is breathtaking and has the highest lake in Southeast Asia. The area is also rich in many hot water springs.
The elephants here feast on 4000 exotic plant species that include some diverse and rare plants. The area is also of particular interest to geologists. Mount Kerinci at 3,805 meters, is the highest peak on the island of Sumatra. The pine forests around the mountain are a prominent habitat for the Sumatran elephant. The park also inhabits more than 300 bird species.

Borneo Elephant or Asian Pygmy Elephant

These are pygmy elephants from the north-eastern area of Borneo. They have characteristics similar to that of the Asian elephant. However, they are short and both the sexes are similar in height. Their lifespan is around 50 - 70 years.
These elephants in particular, are very docile creatures, and are believed to have descended from a domestic collection. They can exclusively be found in Malaysia in the state of Sabah, rich in tropical woodlands, and along the Borneo Island in parts of Indonesia.
These elephants inhabit the area of Borneo which has one of the most dense forests in the world. This elephant has also been a prominent part in history, and a herd were said to have been gifted to the Sultans of Sulu. Borneo elephants here occupied the deep tropical lowlands and dense forests.
The forests are rich with more than 15,000 species of flowering plants, 420 species of birds, and 221 species of animals. The surroundings of the Borneo elephants are 130 million years old, and account for being the oldest rainforest in the world.
The locales around this area are unique with alpine meadows, lowland rainforests, lush mangroves, jungle streams, and spectacular waterfalls. This area, however, is under threat of deforestation and poaching.
Elephants are known to be gentle giants. These animals are under constant threat of losing their habitat. Poaching in massive proportions has led to the downfall of their existence on our planet.
Commercialization and extended farming, due to conversion of forest land into agricultural land, has led to a major habitat reduction, not only for the elephants but also for all other animal species. Encroaching forest land has seen repercussions with conflicts between these animals and humans.
Thankfully, the ban on International Ivory trade has seen elephants retain their numbers to a certain extent.