Differences Between Asian and African Elephants

The difference of African and Asia Elephants

The pachyderm indigenous to Thailand is the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus). The main differences between African and Asian elephants are their size, and the shape of their ears and heads. Asian elephants are smaller than their African counterparts, with their average maximum heights being 3.5 metres and 4 metres respectively. Really though, it’s the shape of their heads and ears that are the obvious distinction.

The ears of African elephants are large, matching or even surpassing the size of their head. The shape of their ears are said to resemble the continent of Africa, which is also a handy way to remember which is which. Asian elephants meanwhile, have smaller ears, often around half the length of their head.

You may have heard about differentiating the types of elephants by their ears, but there is another, lesser known method of identification: when looking at an elephant front-on, the African genus have fuller, more rounded heads, while the Asian elephants have more of an ‘m’ shaped head, domed on either side with an indentation down the middle.

While it may be considered the Indian subset of an Asian elephant, the Thai elephant has slightly different features again. It is a smaller elephant, with a shorter stature and stouter body than other varieties.

Herbivores with a voracious appetite, an elephant spends up to 18 hours per day eating! Favourites include grass, bark, roots and of course, fruit. For this reason, in the wild, elephants need access to around 100 km of forested area in order to find enough food. An issue that, as we’ll discuss, has become increasingly difficult due to deforestation.

Asian Elephant at Elephant Hills

Elephants in Thai Tradition

In Thai Tradition Elephants feature in performances this one
How people in the past lived with elephants in an Elephant show at Surin, Northeastern province in Thailand

Elephants and their predecessors are thought to have been in Thailand since approximately 16 million years ago. A massive collection of fossils were excavated in the Tha Chang area in Northern Thailand, including the ancient Prodeinotherium, an ancestor of elephants dating from the early Miocene era.

Elephants have a rich, ingrained place in Thailand’s culture and identity. The first recorded mention of elephants in Thailand was in 1292. In an inscription carved in stone, King Ramkhamhaeng the Great of Sukhothai described a battle in his youth with rival chief Khun Sam Chon, in which his elephant, Bekhpon, advanced on the enemy, defending his father while his soldiers fled.

In fact, elephants have such a long tradition of being associated with the royal family, that in the Wild Elephant Protection Act of 1921, King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) ruled that all wild elephants were to be considered the property of the Thai government. In addition to this, it was decreed that any domestic elephant that had unique features, such as white elephants, were also to be presented to the king. Despite their misleading name, ‘white elephants’ are actually a dusky pink/grey colour. While not albino, they are a much lighter hue than ordinary Asian elephants.

Thailand’s War Elephants

In much the same way that horses were used by the cavalry on other parts of the world, elephants have historically been a part of Thailand’s war effort. Prior to the introduction of firearms, elephants were employed to break the ranks of opposing troops and bring fear to the enemy. Male elephants were used in part because of their tendency toward a more aggressive nature, but also because female elephants will run from a charging male elephant – when elephants were used on both sides, this presented a problem.

In South East Asia it was tradition for the kings or generals of both sides to ride atop the the neck of their elephants, armed with a ‘ngaw’, a long pole with a sabre at the end. In one famous battle between Burma and Siam (now Myanmar and Thailand) over the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, the fighting continued until Prince Mingyi Swa of Burma was killed by King Naresuan of Siam.

Elephants use to be part of Thailand’s war in the past; this show was set at Surin, North Eastern province in Thailand

Recent History of Elephants in Thailand

Elephant herd in Elephant Hills’ camera of Wildlife Monitoring Project

Royalty aside, the elephant has long been a part of Thailand’s history. A national symbol of strength and intelligence, the elephant serves as the ‘official animal’ of Thailand and over the years, has adorned national and provincial flags.

For centuries elephants were used as draught animals, working on the land for tasks such as pulling ploughs. Due to their strength, elephants in Thailand were also used to haul timber in the logging industry, effectively being employed to cut down their own habitat.

While in the early 20th century there were thought to be around 300,000 wild elephants in the forests of Thailand and 100,000 captive or domesticated, those numbers have dropped dramatically. It is now thought that around 6,000 elephants remain in Thailand, with 50% of those being wild. The largest populations of wild elephants in Thailand are along the Burmese border, though there are thought to be around 200 animals within Khao Sok National Park and we have been able to document some of these through our Wildlife Monitoring Project.

The Problem of Deforestation in Thailand

Ratchaprapha Dam or Cheow Lan Dam Surathani province, Thailand

In less than 40 years, Thailand’s forest has been decimated due to agriculture and illegal logging. The total forested area dropped from around 27,360,000 hectares, to just 12,900,000 hectares. To put that in context, that is the equivalent of Italy shrinking down to the size of Greece!

This removal of the elephant’s habitat led to clashes with human populations, particularly in agricultural areas. Combined with the issues of ivory and trophy hunting, the result was numbers dropping so severely that the Asian elephant was listed as an endangered species in 1986 on the IUCN Red List.

These issues are part of the reason we started the Elephant Hills tree-planting project – to replace the habitat that these beautiful animals deserve and reduce the human/elephant tensions that plague many areas of the country.

The Dawn of Elephant Tourism

An Elephant drawing a picture in the tourist industry

In October of 1988, following flash floods and landslides caused by deforestation, there was mounting public pressure to end the logging trade. The Thai government acted swiftly, implementing a law in January of 1989 which is still in effect today, banning the harvesting of timber and exporting of logs from natural forests. With this, many new national parks were established and the beginning of forest conservation in Thailand was able to begin.

After the logging industry becoming illegal in 1989, as many as 70% of domesticated elephants were out of work. Due to the destruction of much of Thailand’s forests, there was not enough habitat remaining for these elephants to survive.

This presented the next dilemma, as now elephant owners found themselves with unemployed pachyderms to feed. As elephants easily consume around 200 kg of food per day, taking care of these gentle giants is not an easy task – and certainly not a cheap one either. Dark times of illegal logging, begging and malnourishment awaited many of Asia’s largest land animals.

Before the logging industry banned, Elephants usied their trunk to shelving logs

As mahouts (elephant trainers) looked for new ways to earn money, many of them travelled with their elephants to large cities such as Bangkok and Chiang Mai, capitalising on the areas with the most profitable entertainment and tourism industries. Tourists would be encouraged to buy fruit from the mahout and offered the opportunity to feed an elephant by hand – a novelty not many tourists were willing to pass up. The elephant tourism industry was born.

Elephants were now walking the city streets, and as competition increased, so were the expectations put on them. Many were now being trained to perform tricks in order to differentiate themselves and draw in the tourists. Thankfully, in June of 2010, elephant protection laws made these begging and related street acts illegal.

How Elephant Riding Came About

Riding elephants for travelers in tourist industry

After begging was made illegal, more emphasis was put on one of the remaining aspects of elephant tourism – the predominant one of these being elephant rides. Regions of Thailand became well known among travellers for being destinations you could go to experience the ‘thrill’ of riding atop an elephant.