Let’s Dive Deeper


The Species

For centuries it has been accepted that there have been two identified species of elephants living today African elephants, (Loxodonta Africana) and Asian elephants (Elephas Maximus).

African Savanna

Elephant herd

However, in 2001 scientific data identified that African elephants are actually two different species: the African Savannah, (Loxodonta Africana) and the African forest (Loxodonta cyclotis). The primary physical differences are that the African forest elephant is more slender and slightly smaller with straighter, smaller tusks, and their ears are more rounded.  African savannah elephants are found in savannah zones in 37 countries south of the Sahara Desert. 

African Forest

African Forest elephant

African forest elephants inhabit the dense rainforests of west and central Africa.


Ramba in Chile

The Asian elephant has four subspecies: Sri Lankan, Indian, Sumatran and Malaysian. Each of these subspecies have slightly different characteristics, and many are difficult to distinguish. Sri Lankan elephants tend to be slender with larger ears, and many Sri Lankan male elephants are tuskless. Indian elephants tend to be lighter-skinned, Sumatran elephants are slightly stockier, and Malaysian elephants are a little smaller in stature. There are reports of pigmy elephants in Borneo but little is know about them due to the dense forest and inaccessible regions where they live. Elephants from Burma are not classified as a subspecies but they tend to have a lot of hair and darker complexions.

"Mammoths most closely resemble Asian elephants, while Mastodons resemble African elephants. "

The elephant taxonomic order, proboscidea, has only 3 members today, but it used to have over forty. Most of these thrived until the end of the last glacial period, 12,500 years ago. These creatures were generally similar in size to modern Asian elephants, although there were tiny dwarf elephants and the humongous deinotherium, 15 ft. (4.5 meters) tall and weighing 30,000 lbs. (14 tons).

Within proboscidea, the mastodon family mammutidae are modern elephants and the very famous mammoths. Mammoths most closely resemble Asian elephants, while Mastodons resemble African elephants. Mammoths had long curved tusks and were much hairier than even modern Asian elephants.

The last mammoth to go extinct was the woolly mammoth, whose numbers had dwindled as the climate warmed and was finally hunted to extinction in Europe, Asia, and the Americas 12,000 years ago – although some populations isolated from humans persisted until as recently as 4,000 years ago. Though the rock hyrax is the closest living relative to elephants, other close relatives include manatees and rhinoceroses.


Communication is vital to elephants, who rely on a social network for survival. Although elephants can make a very wide range of sounds (10 octaves), they mostly communicate through low-frequency sounds called “rumbling.” In fact, elephants are capable of producing and perceiving sounds one to two octaves lower than the human hearing limit.

As lower frequency sounds travel farther than their higher counterparts, their range of communication is extensive. Furthermore, elephants have the ability to judge the distance from another elephant based on the pitch of his/her call. As the sound travels over distances, the higher tones will fade out, leaving a lower pitch.

Click on the following sound files to hear examples of Asian elephants communicating:



Recent discoveries have shown that elephants can communicate over long distances by producing these sub-sonic rumbles that can travel through the ground faster than sound through air. Other elephants receive the messages through the sensitive skin on their feet and trunks. It is believed that this is how potential mates and social groups communicate.

Mating & Musth

Elephants are the only animals to have a temporal gland. When this gland becomes active, the elephant enters a state of behavior known as “musth.”  In the languages of northern India, musth (originally a Persian word) means a state of drunkenness, hilarity, ecstasy, desire, or lust.

Musth is a condition unique to elephants, which has still not been scientifically explained. It affects sexually mature male elephants usually between the ages of 20 and 50. It occurs annually and lasts for a period of between 2-3 weeks in the wild, usually during the hot season. During this time, the elephant becomes highly agitated, aggressive, and can be dangerous. Even normally placid animals have been known to kill people and other elephants when in the full throes of musth. It generally lasts 4 to 6 weeks in captivity, but has been said to have lasted as long as 2 months.

The reasons for its occurrence are not fully understood. The animal is sexually agitated, but musth is not thought to be entirely sexual in nature. Elephants mate outside the musth period and it is not the same as the rutting season common in some other mammals. When in musth, a strong smelling oily secretion flows from a gland above the eye and elephants will also constantly dribble urine.

The temporal gland discharge can be quite free flowing and run down the elephant’s face dripping down their chin. While in musth, everything changes with the elephant: the way they walk, their interactions with other elephants, the degree of aggression and, as mentioned, the odor they exude. In rare circumstances, if two male elephants in musth cross paths the ensuing fight can turn into a fight to the death.

It is difficult to describe just how extreme musth can affect an elephant’s normal disposition. Captive elephants experiencing musth are usually kept securely chained or isolated and managed from a distance until the torment subsides, after which they will return to their usual character.

Historically, captive male elephants in musth have been chained by all four legs, with chains from their tusks down to their feet, and from tusk to tusk in front of their trunks to prevent them from lunging with their heads and swinging their trunks at trainers. From the age of 45-50, musth gradually diminishes, eventually disappearing altogether. On very exceptional occasions, a form of musth has been recorded in females but little is known about its purpose.

Both sexes may become sexually mature at as early as 9 years, but males usually do not reach sexual activity until 14-15 years and, even then, they are not capable of the social dominance that usually is necessary for successful reproductive activity. There is usually competition among the males for females that are in estrus.

If there is a male in musth present around females in estrus, non-musth males will generally back away from the competition; the level of testosterone in a musth male creates an unmatched degree of anger, aggression, and strength. Often more than one male will gather around the area of a female that is ready to breed, and the most dominant male is the one who is allowed to carry out breeding. This can be decided peacefully, especially if the size and strength difference is obvious, or sometimes the elephants will fight over that rite.



In recent years, most zoo pregnancies are created through artificial insemination. This is an invasive procedure that the elephants have to be trained for. The elephant needs to stand still for long periods with minimal movement, sometimes necessitating the use of chains. A long, flexible hose is then inserted into the elephant’s winding, 3-foot-long reproductive tract, then sperm is pumped through the hose.


Females are only fertile for a few days each year, typically 2-3 days every 14-16 weeks. Blood samples are collected repeatedly to monitor hormone levels, to most accurately depict when to attempt artificial-insemination. The most attempts at artificial-insemination on record was an elephant who underwent the procedure 91 times in a 4-year time span.

Miscarriages and premature and stillborn deaths from artificial-insemination pregnancies reach approximately 54%. Out of 27 artificial-insemination pregnancies since 1999, documents show that eight resulted in miscarriages or stillborn deaths and an additional six calves died from disease, including from the herpes virus (The Seattle Times).



The infant-mortality rate for elephants in zoos is almost triple the rate in the wild. The overall infant-mortality rate for elephants in zoos is a staggering 40%. There are several causes behind this statistic, one is an elephant herpes virus known as EEHV, a disease that is most deadly in elephants under the age of 10. The virus, believed to spread by contact, could lie dormant for years, then move so swiftly it could destroy internal organs in hours.

Researchers have yet to develop a test to detect the virus in its dormant stage. An emerging theory is that the dormant virus may already reside in the bodies of elephants; when it turns active, it can spread by contact or be passed from mother to calf during pregnancy. This problem is compounded further by circulating elephants around the country to try to breed much-desired offspring. This disease has now been reported in over a dozen zoos throughout the country, as of 2012.

This link contains a brief description and animation that defines some of the harsh realities of captive elephant breeding programs.

Other causes of calf deaths can be related to psychological impact. Elephants in captivity are not surrounded by a nurturing herd of their relatives, who instinctively aid in child rearing and pass down their knowledge and experiences throughout generations.

Some elephants just do not know how to be mothers and there have been instances of mothers killing their own calves, a behavior that has never been reported in the wild.

As a result, some institutions chain the mothers during birth to ensure the safety of the calf, and closely monitor their interactions. Calves sometimes are removed from their mothers and supplemented with bottle feeding when the mother acts out toward the calf or is resistant to nursing.

Frequently captive females are bred at a much younger age than they would breed in the wild. Not only can this potentially compromise the health of the calf and mother but, with limited life experience, can cause complications with the care the young mother provides to her calf.


Elephants are some of the most intelligent animals on Earth. Their brains weigh 11 lbs. (5 kg.), much more than the brain of any other land animal – and they have the largest brains of any living or extinct land animal. Their brains have more complex folds than all animals except whales, which is thought to be a major factor in their intellect. At birth, the elephant’s brain already weighs 30%-40% of its adult weight. Both Asian and Afirican elephants have a very large neocortex, similar to humans, other apes, and certain species of dolphins. The size of the cerebral cortex, which contributes to cognitive processing, is larger than any primate species, and it is suggested that elephants are on the same level of great apes in terms of cognitive abilities for tool use and tool making, and are equal to dolphins in terms of problem-solving.

They commonly show grief, humor, compassion, cooperation, self-awareness, tool-use, playfulness, and excellent learning abilities. An elephant in Korea surprised its zoo keepers by independently learning to mimic the commands they gave it by verbalizing with the end of its trunk, successfully learning 8 words and their context.

Elephants have a more developed hippocampus, a brain region responsible for emotion and spatial awareness, than any other animal, and studies indicate that they are superior to humans in keeping track of multiple objects in 3D space. There are many reports of elephants showing altruism towards other species, such as rescuing trapped dogs at considerable cost to themselves.

They respect their dead and have death rituals. There are stories of the herds of elephants killed by humans retrieving the poached bones and returning them to the place of death to bury them. There are also reports of elephants avenging the death of a herd mate by going into the village of the individual who was responsible and hurting nothing or no one except the person responsible.

Aside from their ability to learn through watching and mimicking, elephants in captivity easily learn how to open simple locks and many master more complex ones, something impossible for most other animals due to a lack of dexterity and intellect.

Working elephants in Asia wear bells that help their mahouts locate them at night. In some cases elephants, have stuffed their bells with mud, silencing their movements which allows them to sneak into neighboring fields of rice, corn and sugar cane.

Watch this video to see how the elephants outsmarted the creators of the intelligence test and found a way to cheat!

Elephant Population in the Wild

The estimated numbers for elephants in the wild is 25,600 to 32,750 Asian elephants and 250,000-350,000 savanna elephants and 50,000-140,000 forest elephants. Numbers from different studies vary, but the result is still the same: elephants are disappearing from the wild.

One study states African elephant population dropped by 50%, from 1.3 million to 600,000, between 1979 and 1989 because of poaching. About 8 elephants an hour (70,000/year) were poached during this period, until the CITES Ivory ban in 1989.

Another study published with 60 scientists in the journal PLOS One, who ran the largest study ever conducted in the central African forest, where elephants are being poached out of existence, has their own findings. Their study revealed 62% of forest elephants vanished from central Africa between 2002 and 2011. Asian elephants don’t fare any better. It is estimated that the population has fallen by at least 50% over the last 60-75 years.

Although African elephants are discussed more in regards to population decline and poaching, Asian elephants are also fighting a battle for survival. They are classified as endangered by the IUCN ( International Union for Conservation of Nature). Asian elephant population has fallen significantly over the past several generations due to habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation. Asian elephants are also the victims of poaching for ivory, meat, and leather. Additionally, many elephants are killed when they come into contact with local human populations.



The continually growing human population of tropical Asia has encroached upon the elephant’s dense but dwindling forest habitat. About 20% of the world’s human population lives in or near the present range of the Asian elephant. Fierce competition for living space has resulted in human suffering and a dramatic loss of forest cover. In the face of rapidly growing human populations, the Asian elephant’s habitat is shrinking fast and wild elephant populations are mostly small, isolated, and unable to mingle as ancient migratory routes are cut off by human settlements.

Large development projects (such as dams, roads, mines, and industrial complexes), plantations, and spreading human settlements have fragmented what was once contiguous elephant habitat into small pieces. These groups consist of fewer than 10 populations comprising more than 1,000 individuals in a contiguous area, greatly decreasing their chances of survival.

Most of the national parks and reserves where elephants reside are too small to accommodate viable elephant populations. The conversion of forested areas to agricultural use also leads to serious elephant-human conflicts. In India, up to 300 people are killed by elephants each year. Incidents of elephants raiding crops and villages are on the rise.

Retaliation by villagers often results in killings of these elephants. Experts already consider such confrontation to be a leading cause of elephant deaths in Asia. In some countries, the government provides compensation for crop damage or deaths caused by elephants, but there is still often strong political pressure on wildlife authorities to eliminate elephants near populated regions. As human populations continue to increase, the elephant-human conflicts are likely to rise as well.

Many techniques are used across Africa and Asia to try to minimize elephant-human conflict, but are often not very effective as elephants learn quickly how to deal with things like lighting fires, banging drums, firecrackers, and even electric fences.

Other management methods include the creation of larger trans-frontier national parks and corridors, better parks management, buffer zones of unpalatable crops (e.g. chilli, tea or tobacco), better land-use planning and the promotion of economic activities that are not prone to elephant damage, compensation schemes, translocation of elephants, and the highly controversial and ethically unacceptable culling (killing).

EAL (Elephant Action League) is currently supporting an HEC (human-elephant conflict) mitigation project in the Niassa area (Mozambique) run by Dr. Lucy King,  based on the use of beehives fences. This ongoing research initiated a few years ago, explores the use of bee populations in simple wooden beehives as an elephant deterrent and as a social and economic boost to poverty-stricken rural communities through the sustainable harvesting of honey.

Elephants have tough skin but bees can sting them in sensitive areas, like around the eyes and inside the trunks. This elegant and ecological solution not only helps reduce human-elephant conflict but also provides the farmers with honey to sell.



Poaching of Asian elephants for ivory and meat remains a serious problem in many countries, especially in southern India (where 90% of the bulls are tuskers) and in north-east India where some people eat elephant meat. From 1995-1996, poaching of Asian elephants for hide, meat, and ivory increased sharply. The illegal trade in live elephants, ivory and hides across the Thai-Myanmar border has also become a serious conservation problem.

A 1997 TRAFFIC report indicated that 7 years after international trade in ivory was banned, illegal commerce continued in the Far East, with South Korea and Taiwan being major markets. A significant number of adult male Asian elephants are tuskless, and the percentage of males carrying ivory varies by region (possibly reflecting the intensity of past ivory hunting), from only about 5% in Sri Lanka to 90% in south India.

Although poaching is an issue with Asian elephants, most of the illegal ivory appears to come from African elephants. African elephants also suffer from land encroachment and human-elephant conflicts, but the leading cause of population decline is poaching for ivory. In recent years, growing demand for ivory, particularly from Asia (China is the largest market for ivory), has led to a surge in poaching. The African elephant is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, but is not listed as endangered.

African elephants play a vital role in maintaining ecological harmony in their natural habitats. They ingest plants and fruits, walk for miles, and excrete the seeds in fertile dung piles. In this way, new plants can grow in different areas and can cross-fertilize. In fact, 90 different tree species rely on the elephant for propagation. African elephants also dig holes to expose underground springs. This allows smaller animals to access water in drier times. The loss of the species will have far-reaching effects across its native lands.

At sites monitored through the CITES-led (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) Monitoring Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) program alone, which include approximately 40% of the total elephant population in Africa, an estimated 17,000 elephants were illegally killed in 2011. Initial data from 2012 shows that the situation has not improved. However, overall figures may be much higher. Large-scale seizures of ivory (consignments of over 1800 lbs. (800 kg)) destined for Asia, have more than doubled since 2009 and reached an all-time high in 2011.

Poaching is spreading primarily as a result of weak governance and rising demand for illegal ivory in the rapidly growing economies of Asia, particularly China, which is the world’s largest destination market. During the last 10 years, the elephant population declined by 62% and the land area inhabited by elephants dropped by 30%. Areas lacking guards, closest to roads, and in countries with high levels of corruption had the most elephant population decline.

Though less of a threat, there is also the issue of trophy hunting. Those individuals who travel to Africa to shoot and kill one of the big 5 (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and buffalo), so they can stand next to the body and take a picture, or if they pay someone enough money, have a trophy or skin to bring home. Although this has less of an effect on the population, it encourages the thinking that those animals are there for us, and for no other reason.

Life In Captivity

The longevity of elephants in the wild versus those in captivity is a highly argued subject. National Geographic published an article in 2008, referencing a study done by British and Canadian scientists in 2002. They conducted a 6-year study, looking at data from more than 4,500 wild and captive African and Asian elephants.

The data included elephants in European zoos (which house about half of the world’s captive elephants), protected populations in Amboseli National Park in Kenya, and the Myanmar Timber Enterprise in Myanmar (a government-run logging operation where Asian elephants are put to work).

Only the survival rates of females were analyzed because of their importance to future populations. Their conclusion was that for African elephants, the median life span is 17 years for zoo-born females, compared to 56 years in the Amboseli National Park population. For Asian elephants, females only live 19 years in zoos, versus Myanmar timber elephants which, on average, survive until 42.

The team also discovered that Asian elephants bred and born in captivity died earlier than those imported into zoos from the wild. In 2004, Robert Wiese, collections director at the San Diego Zoo in California, co-authored a paper showing that zoo elephants live as long as those in the wild, directly contradicting the numbers found by independent scientific analysis.

What we do know is that, in general, life in captivity does not offer elephants even a fraction of what they would have in their natural lives and what they need to be healthy both mentally and physically. Elephants are highly social animals, and the stress of captivity often results in shortened life spans.

In the wild, elephants move constantly, migrating as much as 30 miles per day, and are active for 18 hours a day. A zoo’s lack of space creates health problems in elephants, such as muscular-skeletal ailments, arthritis, foot and joint diseases, tuberculosis, reproductive problems, high infant mortality rates, obesity, and psychological distress. Captivity-induced health problems are the leading cause of death of elephants in zoos. Lack of exercise and long hours standing on hard surfaces are major contributors to foot infections and arthritis, the leading causes of death among captive elephants.



Captive elephants live with little normal social contact with their own kind (some elephants are housed alone and have no social contact), and in an environment that deprives them of what they would experience in the wild in terms of sensory input and cognitive processing. They are intelligent beings who would spend the day problem-solving as a means for their survival but are reduced to standing around for most of the day. In order to compensate for such low-level stimulation, elephants engage in stereotypic, repetitive, compulsive actions like swaying, rocking, pacing, rubbing and other behaviors that are self-stimulating, and are a symptom of ‘boredom’ in most species.

Stereotypic behaviors have an obsessive-compulsive, addictive element that has been shown to involve the production of natural opiates to help relieve the stress and frustration of confinement. This swaying varies from a gentle back and forth motion, but can progress to a multi-stepped process of swaying, lifting a foot, touching something, then returning to the original position. Stereotypical behaviors sometimes lead to self-mutilation where the elephants rub, scrape, or scratch themselves to the point of causing harm. This stereotyping can correct itself if situations improve and if there is additional stimulation, but it is harder for the behavior to go away completely once it has become habitual.

“Captive elephants live with little normal social contact with their own kind (some elephants are housed alone and have no social contact), and in an environment that deprives them of what they would experience in the wild in terms of sensory input and cognitive processing.”


Many zoos are investing millions of dollars to slightly increase the size of their elephant exhibits, but elephants in captivity do not need a few additional square feet or even a couple of extra acres; they need a few additional square miles. There are some zoos that are trying to improve the lives of their elephants by implementing positive reinforcement training, engaging ways for them to forage, and exercise programs, but it is hard to achieve the level of stimulation truly necessary for their well-being.

Because of space limitations in zoos – no matter how well-intentioned they may be – they simply cannot provide the most basic physical and social needs: miles to wander, a variety of natural foods to forage, and a complex family group. As of 1991, 14 zoos in the United States have either closed their exhibits or announced they intend to do so, citing an inability to provide proper husbandry.

In recent years, even more zoos have closed their elephant exhibits: the Jackson Zoological Park relocated its elephants to the Nashville Zoo in 2010; the Brookfield Zoo closed its exhibit in 2010; the Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens closed its exhibit in 2011; BREC’s Baton Rouge Zoo relocated its elephants to Smithsonian’s National Zoo in 2013; and the Toronto Zoo relocated its elephants to the PAWS sanctuary in 2013 with our co-founder Scott Blais assisting in that move.

Click here for a complete listing of all performing animal bans across the globe.

“Captive Asian elephants are often referred to as domesticated, but this is an erroneous use of the term. Captive elephants are tamed, not domesticated. True domestication requires many, many generations of selective breeding, isolated from wild populations, and results in genetic adaptation to living in the company and service of people.” 

Dr. Joyce Poole


Circus elephants not only face all of the emotional and physical issues that zoo elephants deal with, but also a list of additional struggles. Circus elephants live a life being loaded into trucks and trains, carted from one city to the next, all in the name of “entertainment.” These modes of transport are usually neither heated nor cooled, so they are exposed to whatever the temperatures of the cities they drive through provide.

They are confined in these small, dark spaces for hours and sometimes days. They are then unloaded and kept in an area approximately the size of your living room. If they are lucky, they just wait there until it is time to perform, while others are taken away to walk in small circles, with numerous people on their back, for hours on end. They perform for the crowd, for five short minutes, and then the cycle starts all over again.

The cruelest part of their reality is what it takes to get an elephant to learn the arcane tricks they perform, and the toll it takes on their body and psyche. Most tricks do not simulate anything an elephant would be found doing in the wild.

It is very unnatural for an elephant to stand upright on its back legs, and it can be very detrimental to their physical conformation, especially while the body is growing or in more geriatric years.

Tricks are taught through dominance training. It is much faster and easier to train an elephant to do something they would be resistant to in this manner than by using positive reinforcement.

Bullhooks (ankus) are an artificial extension of a circus trainer’s arm. A wooden or metal stick with a hook on the end, this object is said to be a “guide,” to help show the elephant what is wanted. Unfortunately, circus elephants are covered from scars resulting from the use of the bullhook. The hook end is used on the most sensitive parts of the body, for the greatest impact: the ears, by the eyes, the armpits, and the rectum.

The stick end is used for hitting and is used on almost any part of the body, but most frequently the legs and head. Hotshots (electric prods) are also used by some trainers and have even been used in the rectum of an elephant. Even when the behaviors and tricks are learned, the abuse continues, keeping the elephant in a constant state of fear, making sure they know who is in charge.

As babies, these tricks are taught by using ropes to pull up the front legs, force the calf to lie down and to control the trunk.

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Want to Learn More?

Understand More
Interested enough to want to work with elephants?  Find out how.
Meet Our Elephants
Take a look at their diary and get to know Maia, Rana, Lady, Mara, and Bambi.
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Sign up for our e-newsletter to hear about everyday joys and new happenings.