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Asian elephant

Elephas maximus


Elephants have long captured our imaginations. They are the largest living land animals and have strong and long-lasting social bonds within their herd.

Asian elephants inhabit the dense forests of India and South East Asia. They are considerably smaller than their African cousins and are the rarer of the two species. They have smaller ears and tusks and their heads, not their shoulders, are the highest part of their bodies. The Asian elephant has four toes on the hind foot, unlike the African elephant that has three toes. Female Asian elephants do not have tusks.

Even though Asian elephants are smaller than their African cousins, they can still reach between seven and 12 feet in height. Their large size means that they can’t reach the ground with their mouth. The elephant’s trunk is a fusion of the nose and the upper lip. It contains over 40,000 muscles and is used for breathing, eating, drinking, dust bathing, showering, as a snorkel while swimming, communication, smelling, lifting and as a defence. The trunk is extremely versatile and can pick up something as small as a peanut or something as big as a tree trunk.

Asian elephants are in increasing trouble. They’ve been hunted for more than a century for their tusks, as part of the profitable ivory trade. They are also increasingly losing their land to the growing human population in Asia and the increased commercial demand for products such as coffee, tea, rubber and hardwoods.

We are part of the European breeding programme for Asian elephants. As part of the breeding programme, we have become a sanctuary for elderly, non-breeding females (some with difficult backgrounds).

One of our best known and most loved animals was Tina, the Asian elephant. Tina arrived at Belfast Zoo in 1966 and became known for her mischievous behaviour. She often stole visitors’ umbrellas, handbags and property. Sadly, Tina passed away on 5 November 2017, aged 54.

Make sure you read the signs in the elephant and giraffe walk or call by at feeding time to find out more about our work with Asian elephants, the role we play in their conservation and to learn more about Yhetto and Dhunja. 

  Fun fact They can weigh up to 5,000 kilograms.

Animal class

Mammal

Conservation status

Asian elephants are endangered and face a very high risk of extinction. They have been hunted for more than a century for their tusks and other body are chiefly threatened by habitat destruction by humans.

Habitat

Forest, shrubland and grassland – found in India and 12 other parts of South-east Asia.

Population

It is estimated that there are only 35,000 to 50,000 Asian elephants left in the wild today. The species faces a real risk of becoming extinct in the wild.

Diet

Herbivore – eats grass, bark, roots, leaves, tree stems and shrubs.