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Elephants in the wild Questions & Answers (FAQs)

The three species of Elephant

Only two species of elephants have been recognized until quite recently: the African and Asian elephants. However, conclusions from several research studies revealed that there are actually three species of elephants roaming earth:

  1. African bush elephant (also known as the African savanna elephant)
  2. African forest elephant
  3. Asian elephant

As the names imply, all three species can be found in different areas of Africa and Asia. However, their natural habitats and the way the live in the wild differ greatly. Forest elephants live in tropical rainforests and swamps while bush elephants live on open savanna grasslands. Asian elephants mainly reside in dry forests but also inhabit wet swampy areas near rivers or lakes for bathing and cooling purposes.

In this article we’ll break down the many differences between the three different species of elephant.

(Evolution of elephant species: https://www.britannica.com/animal/elephant-mammal)

African bush elephant

This species is the largest living land animal on earth. The African bush elephant can be found in eastern, southern and central Africa in savanna woodlands and grasslands.

Description of the African bush elephant

They have a reddish-brown to gray coat with lighter underparts. Additionally, their large ears help to radiate excess heat. In African elephants, upper incisor teeth become tusks that grow throughout the animal’s life.

Quick facts:

  • Scientific name: Loxodonta africana
  • Trophic level: Herbivorous Encyclopedia of Life
  • Lifespan: 60-70 years
  • Gestation period: 22 months
  • Speed: 40 km/h (maximum)
  • Mass (weight): 3,000-6,000 kg (adult)
  • Height: 2.2-3.2m (adult, measured “at shoulder”)

African forest elephant

The African forest elephant can only be found in the Congo Basin and parts of Gabon. They inhabit the dense rain forests of Central Africa, where they are expert at navigating the understory in search of food.

Description of the African forest elephant

The African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis), which lives in rainforests, was quite recently recognized as a separate species and is generally smaller than the savanna elephant. They have a chocolate brown to gray coat with lighter underparts. Forest elephants have smaller ears than bush elephants, and their tusks are straighter and grow downwards.

Quick facts:

  • Species: L. cyclotis
  • Mass (weight): 2,700-6,000 kg (adult)
  • Class: Mammalia
  • Order: Proboscidea
  • Genus: Loxodonta
  • Family: Elephantidae
  • Kingdom: Animalia

Asian elephant

The Asian elephant has many similarities with the African bush elephant. They are both found on open grasslands and have tusks which grow throughout their life. However, there are also a number of differences between these two species:

Description of the Asian elephant

Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) have a distinctively shaped head and smaller ears than African elephants. They have a grayish or brownish coat with lighter underparts, and their upper incisor teeth do not become long tusks as those of African elephants do. Asian elephants weighs about 5,500 kg and has a shoulder height of up to 3.5 metres. The Asian elephant have three subspecies:

  • The Indian, or mainland (E. maximus indicus)
  • The Sumatran (E. maximus sumatranus)
  • Sri Lankan (E. maximus maximus)

It has larger ears than its African peer.

Quick facts:

  • Scientific name: Elephas maximus
  • Conservation status: Endangered (Population decreasing)
  • Lifespan: 48 years (adult in captivity)
  • Order: Proboscidea
  • Family: Elephantidae
  • Mass: 2,700-4,000 kg (adult)
  • Height: 2.4-2.8m (adult, measured “at shoulder”)

African Elephant vs Asian Elephant

The main differences between the African elephant and the Asian elephant are their size, habitat, and physical features.

African elephants are larger than Asian elephants and live on the savanna (savannah elephant) while Asian elephants mainly reside in forests. Additionally, African elephants have larger ears and tusks while Asian elephants have smaller ears and their ivory tusks grow downward instead of out to the side.

Differences in size

The African elephant is the largest terrestrial animal. Males weigh between 5,000-7,000 kg (11,023-15,432 lb), while females weigh around 2,700-3,500 kg (5,951-7,716 lb). On the other hand, Asian elephants only grow to around 3,000-4,000 kg (6,614-8,818 lb) for males and 2,000-2,700 kg (4,409-5,951 lb) for females.

One way to tell African elephants apart from Asian elephants is by their size. African elephants are the largest terrestrial animals, while Asian elephants are much smaller. African elephants weigh between 5,000 and 7,000 kilograms, while Asian elephants only weigh between 3,000 and 4,000 kilograms.

Differences in other physical characteristics

African elephants have much larger ears than Asian elephants. African elephant ears can be up to 2.5 meters long and 1.2 meters wide, while Asian elephant ears only grow to be about 1 meter long and 0.5 meters wide. African elephants also have much larger tusks than Asian elephants. African elephant tusks can grow to be up to 3 meters long, while Asian elephant tusks only grow to be about 1 meter long.

Differences in body temperature

African elephants also have a much higher body temperature than Asian elephants. African elephants have a body temperature of around 37 degrees Celsius, while Asian elephants have a body temperature of around 35 degrees Celsius.

Differences in habitat

Another way to tell these two species of elephant apart is by their habitat. African elephants live on the savanna, while Asian elephants mainly reside in forests. African elephants are also found in woodlands, scrublands, and deserts, while Asian elephants are found in rainforests and mangrove forests.

Differences in behavior

African elephants are more social than Asian elephants. African elephants live in herds of 10-30 individuals, while Asian elephants typically live in smaller groups of 3-6 individuals. African elephants also have a more complex social hierarchy than Asian elephants. African elephants use a variety of vocalizations and body language to communicate with each other, while Asian elephants primarily communicate through touch and smell.


Quick FAQ about Elephant species

What are the 3 species of elephants?

The three species of elephant are the African forest, African bush and Asian elephants.

What is the rarest species of elephant?

The Asian elephant is the rarest species of elephant.

What is the largest species of elephant?

The African bush elephant is the largest species of elephant.

What is the smallest species of elephant?

The Asian elephant is the smallest species of elephant. If you include subspecies the Borneo pygmy elephants is the smallest.

How many species of elephants exist?

There are three species of elephants.

What is the primary difference between the three species?

The primary difference between the three species is their size. The African bush elephant is the largest, followed by the African forest elephant and then the Asian elephant which is the smallest.

Article by Ethan Smith

The Elephant Man is a huge fan of elephants. He lives in the United States, but travels to Africa every year to go on safari and see the big 5: African elephant, African lion, Cape buffalo, Black rhinoceros and White rhinoceros. The Elephant Man doesn't have much time for other hobbies because he only has one true love - elephants!

2 replies on “The three species of Elephant”

Your article says Asian elephants are the smallest. Then it says African Forest elephant is the smallest. Which is it?

Hey jkw,

You’re right, that was a mistake. I’ve updated the information and included some relevant information about the Borneo pygmy elephant, which technically is the smallest if we include subspecies.

The short answer is: The Asian Elephant is the smallest.

Have a great week!

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