Borneo’s pygmy forest elephant (Elephas maximus) in lowland rainforest, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia © / Juan Carlos Munoz / WWF

Borneo’s pygmy forest elephant (Elephas maximus) in lowland rainforest, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia © / Juan Carlos Munoz / WWF

Asian elephant

In Hinduism, the powerful deity honored before all sacred rituals is the elephant-headed Lord Ganesha, the 'Remover of Obstacles'. Elephants have been revered for centuries in Asia, however religious and cultural significance is no guarantee of protection.


All three recognised sub-species of the Asian elephant – the Sumatran, Indian and Sri Lankan elephants – are in peril. Roaming in herds, these large mammals need extensive land to survive, feeding for up to 19 hours a day to meet their energy requirements. But Asia's growing human population has its own demands, and people are increasingly competing with elephants for resources.


Healthy forests and the many endangered species they support depend on elephants. They influence forest composition and density by creating clearings and gaps in the canopy that encourage tree regeneration, and many seeds need to pass through an elephant's digestive tract before they can germinate. If we can protect the Asian elephants, then that removes another obstacle to protecting animals like the Sumatran rhino, tiger and orangutan.


What we're doing

See our conservation work on the Asian elephant.

Sumatran forest elephants bathing in Indonesia © / Nick Garbutt / WWF

Sumatran forest elephants bathing in Indonesia © / Nick Garbutt / WWF

Why it matters 

More than 100,000 Asian elephants may have existed at the start of the 20th century, but numbers have halved and continue to decline. With only 40,000-50,000 left in the wild, Asian elephants are now classified as endangered, and they occur in possibly only 5% of their former range in Asia.


The trouble is, this dwindling elephant population shares its reduced habitat with a growing population of people eager to convert more tropical and subtropical forest to farmland. Few of these people appreciate that elephants follow ancient seasonal migration routes and that each individual needs, on average, 150 kilograms of food each day to survive. An elephant will spend more than two-thirds of its day satisfying this hefty appetite.


Wherever they go, elephants deposit the seeds necessary for the healthy forests upon which many other species depend. Large they may be, but elephants benefit even the smallest residents of these Asian forests.

Borneo pygmy elephant, Malaysia © / Tim Laman / WWF

Elephas maximus

Species Bio

Common Name

Asian Elephant

Scientific Name

Elephas maximus


Asian elephants differ in several ways from their African relatives. They’re much smaller in size and their ears are straight at the bottom, unlike the large fan-shaped ears of the African species.


Listed as Endangered (under IUCN Red List).


The baby-faced pygmy elephant of Borneo, with its oversized ears and plump belly was isolated at least 18,000 years ago from its cousins on mainland Asia and Sumatra.


Did you know?

The legs of elephants are unique, designed to support the weight of the largest terrestrial animal. Asian and African elephants have different numbers of toenails.


The challenges they face

Habitat loss
The primary threat to elephants is the loss and fragmentation of forests. Mammals of this size require large areas to roam in search of sufficient food. However, commercial timber plantations, agriculture, logging and palm oil plantations continue to encroach on and replace natural forest. This is destroying elephant habitat and reducing contact between dwindling elephant populations.

Human-elephant conflict
As a result of the rapid development and deforestation in southern Asia, elephants often come into contact with humans. They raid crops, trample homes and sometimes hurt or kill people. Those affected sometimes retaliate by poisoning or shooting elephants.

Male Asian elephants typically have smaller (if any) tusks compared to their African counterparts but this is enough to tempt poachers operating in the illegal ivory market. The death of male elephants skews the sex ratio, further limiting rates of reproduction.

What you can do to help

Don't buy ivory products. The illegal trade in ivory is one of the greatest threats to elephants today.

Buy and use sustainable palm oil. By purchasing certified sustainable palm oil, retailers, traders and manufacturers can help to limit the conversion of Asian elephant habitat into palm oil.

Consumers can help by demanding that products contain only sustainable palm oil.

Adopt an elephant to help support our elephant conservation work.

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