Updated on March 05, 2024

With their massive bodies, wrinkled gray skin, gleaming tusks and those amazing trunks, you might think all elephants look pretty much the same. But truth is, there are three distinct species of elephants: the African forest elephant, the African savanna elephant and the Asian elephant.


An Asian elephant walking. Its ear is outlined in yellow and tusk in blue to highlight their differences from other elephant species.

Elephant facts

  • The easiest way to distinguish African elephants from Asian elephants is to look at their ears. African elephants have much larger ears that are shaped like the African continent.
  • Asian elephants have a twin-domed head that looks like it has a part in the middle. African elephants have rounded heads.
  • Only male Asian elephants can grow tusks, but both male and female African elephants can have them. It’s worth noting not all male Asian elephants nor all African elephants develop tusks.
  • Asian elephants have freckles.
  • An elephant’s trunk is made up of more than 100,000 muscles of the face, nose and upper lip!
  • Asian elephants live in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.


Three Asian elephants standing in a cluster. They all have grass in their mouths and trunks.

Credit: Lisa Hubbard

Threats to Asian elephants

  • Habitat loss and fragmentation: As human populations expand, agricultural activity and development increase, causing natural habitats of Asian elephants to be divided, isolated and reduced in size. This leads to the loss of important feeding grounds, as well as migration pathways and opportunities to connect with other populations to breed.
  • Human-elephant conflicts: Increased encounters between humans and elephants, driven by changes in habitat, frequently lead to conflicts. Elephants move through agricultural land and cross highways and railway lines as they seek food or other elephants. These movements often result in loss of property and crops, and sometimes injuries and fatalities for both humans and elephants.
  • Poaching for ivory: Global illegal ivory markets drive demand for elephant tusks. Since Asian elephant females lack tusks, males face pressure for ivory, disrupting the male-to-female ratio in native range countries. This imbalance affects breeding opportunities and overall population stability. It may also have played a role in the evolution of tuskless males in certain parts of their range.
  • Changing climate: The worldwide use of fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, releases excess amounts of carbon dioxide gas into the atmosphere. This is a significant heat-trapping gas that is changing global climate patterns, which impacts habitat health and disrupts the availability of water and food resources for both elephants and humans.

An Asian elephant in water up to its ears. It has its mouth open as if it's smiling.

Asian elephant conservation strategies and solutions

Preserving the vast habitats of Asian elephants not only safeguards their future but also ensures survival of other wildlife and supports the livelihoods of human communities living alongside them. By championing the well-being of elephants, we inherently protect the diverse ecosystem they call home.

  • Habitat protection and restoration: Reducing habitat fragmentation and enhancing connectivity of elephant populations is part of the equation. Through land use planning, community engagement and policy, we can establish and maintain protected areas and connected corridors for Asian elephants.
  • Railway and highway interventions: In places where rail lines and highway density are high, warning signs and patrollers are situated in densely forested areas and known frequent crossings of elephants. Trains and vehicles are signaled to slow down to prevent collisions.
  • Community engagement and coexistence education: Empowering communities living alongside elephants is crucial. Many of these communities already possess a foundation of cultural tolerance and religious reverence for Asian elephants. Involving them in strategies to mitigate conflicts between humans and elephants ensures a secure future for both.
  • Innovative farming and community warning systems: Deploying beehives as fences around a farm plot discourages elephants from entering the property. Planting crops that elephants dislike, such as sunflower, eggplant, lemongrass, ginger, black pepper, garlic, red chilies, citrus and various herbs, minimizes property damage and crop losses, thereby reducing conflicts. Additionally, these crops have versatile uses in popular food dishes, sauces, spices, livestock feed, soaps, candles and more.
  • Public safety and compensation programs: Early warning that elephants are close to a community or farm is very helpful in preventing loss of property or human-elephant injury. Motion-activated lights, alarms, community-wide text alerts and other warning systems provide information and safety for all. If an elephant does cross into farms or towns and causes damage, there are programs that will help farmers fill out paperwork and submit to the government to receive compensation for those losses.


Three Asian elephants standing next to each other.

Credit: Lynn Smart


Asian elephant conservation at Cincinnati Zoo

The Asian elephant has been identified as an Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Saving Animals From Extinction (SAFE) species. The SAFE program brings together the expertise of AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums to help protect vulnerable animals.

Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden plays a leadership role in developing and implementing the AZA SAFE Asian Elephant program. It has cared for Asian elephants for decades and is in the final stages of building its Elephant Trek exhibit for its growing herd, which will include a bull elephant, five adult females, and two young males. The exhibit is set to open this summer.

Additionally, the zoo collaborates with local communities and organizations in the elephant’s native range to implement innovative conservation solutions, ensuring the coexistence of humans and elephants. Some partner organizations include International Elephant Foundation (several countries), Bring the Elephant Home (Thailand), Conservation Initiatives (India).

Through behind-the-scenes elephant tours, the zoo raises funds to support these conservation efforts.


Resident elephants

The elephants at Cincinnati Zoo are beloved, and residents flock from all over the state to see them. Meet the herd.

A list of Asian elephants at the Cincinnati Zoo that includes a picture of each with their birthday and traits. There are eight elephants on this graphic - Schottzie, Mai Thai, Jati, Sabu, SheRa, Kabir, Anak and Sanjay.


Creating connections to Asian elephants

Cincinnati Zoo is committed to inspiring visitors with wildlife and bringing people close enough to care about animals they might not otherwise see in person.  Creating a personal connection to endangered species, such as the Asian elephant, encourages empathy and a respect for nature. With more than 330,000 school-aged children visiting the Cincinnati Zoo annually, and even more visiting the more than 200 AZA-accredited zoos across the country, the hope is that a lifelong love for wildlife blossoms.

Providing the opportunity for families and students to learn about and become part of conservation efforts is vital to saving endangered species, such as Asian elephants.


A phone screen with a vibrant cartoon drawing of an elephant on it. Above the elephant, it says "Harmony" and below the elephant, there is a yellow play button.

Video game encourages Asian elephant conservation

In a creative endeavor to promote wildlife conservation, the Cincinnati Zoo is partnering with Conservation Initiatives and Game Design Plus to develop a video game called “Harmony: Hero of Elephantia.”

In this game, players rescue Asian elephants from the clutches of wicked “Shadows” while receiving an empowering conservation message. When battling the evil Shadows, players confront their own negative behaviors, learning to become heroes who stand up for elephants.

Scheduled for release in March 2024 for Android platforms, the game aims to deepen players’ connection with these majestic creatures while promoting peaceful coexistence in regions where human-elephant conflict is common.

It especially highlights communities near Kaziranga National Park in Assam, India, where actions, such as harassing elephants, have resulted in serious consequences.


Want to learn more about the amazing conservation work happening at Cincinnati Zoo? Check out this story about Fiona and Fritz, famous resident hippos and see what they’re doing to save the manatees. We also caught up with Cincinnati Zoo partner, International Elephant Foundation, to learn if elephants can recognize their grandparents.

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