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How Do Asian and African Elephants Differ?

To date, all of our elephant residents have been female Asian elephants. But we do have elephants awaiting rescue that are female African elephants. Our first African elephant at sanctuary will be Kenya from Mendoza in Argentina, then Pupy and Kuky from Buenos Aires. In addition to the uniqueness among the personalities of individuals, there are also significant differences between Asian and African elephants as species. 

On a very basic level, there are physical differences between Asian and African elephants. Perhaps the two most obvious are their ears and tusks. Asian elephants have smaller and rounder ears than their African cousins, whose ears are larger and often compared to the shape of the African continent. All elephants use their ears to dissipate heat, but African elephants developed larger ears over time, due to the hotter climate of their natural environment. As for tusks, only male Asian elephants are able to develop tusks, but both male and female African elephants can have them. Female Asian elephants have what are called tushes

Asian and African elephants also have specific head shapes. You have surely noticed that all of our current residents have what’s referred to as “twin-domed” heads, with a divot that runs down the middle; African elephants have rounded heads, without any divots. In general, African elephants are larger in physical size and weight than Asian elephants, which you will probably notice right away, once our new residents join us. 

The species have a number of other unique qualities that we will explore as time goes on and we introduce our new residents. Each will have specialized diets, but they also have diverse qualities of their feet, tusks, number of toenails, teeth, lip shape, and skin texture. But they do share similarities, like their well-defined social structures in the wild. Both African and Asian elephants are matriarchal, with males eventually leaving the herds once they become old enough. 

There is no overlap in nature between the physical ranges of African and Asian elephants, so they do not live together in the wild. This is one of the reasons we have opted to build unique habitats for the specific types of elephants. There are also potential behavioral differences that could come into play. As with the arrival of any new elephant, the addition of African elephants to our current Asian group will bring exciting challenges and lots of unknowns. We are enthusiastic about the opportunity to expand our sanctuary family and to see how each individual grows into their new space. 

Photo of Rana, Mara, and Bambi showing their twin-domed heads

Comments(17)

  1. REPLY
    Joy Ellouise Taylor says

    I find it a bit scary to have them so close to each other. I believe I read that the African elephants are more confrontational. With the size and tusk difference that is worrisome.

    • REPLY
      Kat Blais says

      they won’t be able to even see each other, so no worries

  2. REPLY
    Bill says

    This is extremely valuable information for us observers of the events in the refuge.

  3. REPLY
    Carey says

    I very much look forward to learning about their differences, I’m wondering about communication similarities and differences, ie in your experience are Asian female elephants more chatty than African female elephants, and do they make different or similar noises?

    • REPLY
      Kat Blais says

      their noises are definitely different. African elephants trumpet and rumble more, but also have other noises. one we used to call the ‘percolator’ it sounds like an old-school coffee pot. they don’t make the same chirpy squeaky noises that Asian elephants make.

  4. REPLY
    Julie says

    Yes. It is going to be very interesting to observe the differences through your expert eyes as you fill us in. Thank you for the nice pic and blog.

  5. REPLY
    Anna says

    Even if the African and Asian elephants can’t see each other, they will be aware of each other’s close proximity, yes? They can hear each other, smell each other? Might you expect some nervousness at first?

    • REPLY
      Kat Blais says

      yes, they will be able to hear and smell each other. i wouldn’t anticipate any nervousness because of that. African elephants are always on high alert, but there will be so many new things in their surroundings. the Asian elephants are all comfortable, so it will probably cause more curiosity than anything. but we never truly know until things happen. 🙂

  6. REPLY
    JoAnn Merriman-Eaton says

    Great information about the differences in Asian and African elephants. I think I missed the update regarding the mother and daughter rescue. Would you bring me up to date please?

    • REPLY
      Kat Blais says

      we just did an update about all of the rescues a couple of days ago. you can just look back in the blogs. 🙂

  7. REPLY
    Carol in Vancouver, Canada says

    How exciting! Your posts bring so much joy; thank you for educating – and entertaining – us with your wonderful blog. These beautiful creatures, and all animals really, deserve better treatment by humans. It’s wonderful that you at GSE is providing Sanctuary to its residents and trying to get more elephants ‘home’. I wish all candidates could make it to Sanctuary. Thank you for what you do, every day, to make things better. You all have my respect and gratitude. Cheers

  8. REPLY
    SHEILA says

    VERY GOOD INFO! IM SO EXCITED TO SEE ❤️🐘KENYAS RESCUE, I PRAY IN NEXT MONTH OR TWO! SHES BEEN SO LONELY FOR SO LONG‼️WHEN I SAW HER STANDING SO CLOSE TO THE ELEPHANT 🐘PICTURE ON THE WALL AT ZOO! I CRIED 😭FOR 🐘KENYA. I DID NOT REALIZE AFRICAN HABITAT DOES NOT ALLOW FOR. LONG DISTANCE VISUAL VISITING. OF THE ASIAN LADIES,
    IS THIS SET UP THIS WAY FOR SECURITY ISSUES❓ I THINK INTERMINGLNG OF AFRICANS & ASIANS HAS HAPPENED ALOT IN CIRCUSES AND ZOO, BUT IM CERTAINLY NOT SAYING THEY SHOULD AT BRAZIL SANCTUARY!

    • REPLY
      Sara says

      We’re hoping all of the elephants will get here as soon as possible, but as our last update said, we don’t have a timeline for any of them. There are cases in zoos where Asian and African elephants share the same areas, but they are often rotated in and out, so that the different species aren’t sharing space at the same time. We will have separate habitats for Asian and African elephants here because their temperaments are different and because they would not co-mingle in the wild.

  9. REPLY
    Andrea says

    So fascinating. Can you say whether there’s direct conversation between African and Asian elephants in situations like this, meaning when they’re in relatively close proximity. Thank you!

    • REPLY
      Sara says

      It’s difficult to know. They will be able to smell one another but, beyond that, they will not be able to see one another – so we can’t say anything for sure.

  10. REPLY
    Patricia says

    Thank you so much! I’ve been wondering! 💗

  11. REPLY
    Anita Janusz-Wong says

    This is VERY exciting! Can’t wait now! Will be sitting on the edge of my seat till they all start arriving and settling in! I am sure when the Covid19 dies down a bit everything will start happening:-))) Thank you for this very informative update…:-)

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