The Difference Between African And Asian Elephants

By Debra Kelly on Tuesday, December 17, 2013
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“They say the heat and the flies here can drive a man insane. But you don’t have to believe that, and nor does that bright mauve elephant that just cycled past.” —Terry Pratchett, Discworld

In A Nutshell

African and Asian elephants might look basically the same, but they actually belong to two different genera: The scientific name for the Asian elephant is Elephas maximus, while the African belongs to the genus Loxodonta. The two different species of African elephant are much larger than their Asian cousins, outweighing them by a ton on average. The ears of an Asian elephant are proportionally much smaller, and when the Asian elephant moves, its head is higher than its shoulders, as opposed to the African, which appears to walk with its head down.

The Whole Bushel

At a quick glance, the size of the elephant’s ears are the quickest way to tell the difference. The Asian elephant has relatively small ears that don’t reach down past its chin, while the African elephant has ears that are much, much larger, often close to the size of the animal’s whole head.

On the whole, the African elephant is much larger. Averaging 3,600–6,000 kilograms (8,000–13,200 lbs), they can outweigh their smaller cousins by as much as one ton. The weight range for a healthy Asian elephant is 3,000–5,000 kilograms (6,600–11,000 lbs), with the males of both types being larger than the females. African elephants have the distinction of being the heaviest land animal on Earth.

The two elephants also carry themselves differently. The back of an African elephant has a defined slope, while the Asian elephant has a flatter back. The Asian carries its head higher than its back and shoulders, while the head of the African elephant is set lower, making the shoulders the highest part of the animal.

The tusks of an African elephant are actually their incisor teeth, and both genders have them (unlike the Asian elephants, whose females don’t have tusks.) An African elephant has four molars that are gradually ground down then replaced up to three times as the individual ages. The teeth of the Asian elephant are very different; the front teeth are worn down to nothing, and teeth from the back gradually move forward to replace them. Very, very old elephants that have worn down all of their teeth have been known to starve to death.

As their names suggest, the elephants also have different habitats. The rapidly dwindling numbers of Asian elephants can be found throughout India, southern China, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, while the African elephants roam through as many as 37 countries in Africa. Most of the lands inhabited by the Asian elephant are tropical or evergreen forests, while the African elephants prefer the wide open savannahs or swamps and hot rain forest areas of Africa.

There are two different types of African elephant: the African forest elephant and the African bush elephant. Again, as their names suggest, they are found in two different types of environments in Africa. The forest elephants are slightly smaller than the savannah elephants, stop growing sooner (at between 10 and 12 years), and lack the flaps that hang from the top of the savannah elephant’s ears. They also have different numbers of toes—the forest elephant has four toes on each of its front feet and three on its back, while the savannah elephant has five toes on its front feet and four on its back. Because they have to pass through thick forests, forest elephants have adapted with tusks that are straighter and thinner than the tusks of the savannah elephants.

Asian elephants have one offspring at a time, while African elephants have one or two (though it’s more common for one baby). A female Asian elephant will typically bear her young every three or four years, with the baby reaching complete independence when they are about four years old. (Asian elephants have an estimated 70-year lifespan in the wild.)

A female African elephant will typically only bear young once every four to nine years, and it takes a mind-blowing 13 years for the baby elephant to reach complete independence. A typical life span for a wild African elephant is about 70 years. While in captivity, that drops to 33.

Show Me The Proof

National Zoo — Asian Elephants
Elephas maximus
Loxodonta cyclotis
Loxodonta africana