What are the 3 Main Species of Elephants?

The three main species are the African Savanna and Forest Elephants and their smaller cousin, the Asian elephant. Within the Asian elephant family, there are also four subspecies.

Sep 28, 2023By Andrew Olsen
main species elephants

Although elephants are the largest land-dwelling mammals, the family has three species. Africa is home to two species – the African Savanna elephant and the African bush or forest Elephant. Within the Asian elephant family, there are four subspecies each within the family, namely: the Indian, Sri Lankan, Sumatran (and Bornean) elephant. Let’s go on a journey and visit each of these elephants and see what we can learn about these gentle giants.

Quick Evolutionary and Biological Overview

Evolution elephants
Photo credit: Encyclopedia Britannica

All elephants are cousins of the now-extinct woolly mammoth. Elephants are part of the family Elephantidae, the largest living mammal on land. They are characterized by their long trunks – an elongated nose and upper lip. They have thick legs resembling columns and massive heads with broad, flat ears. Their thick skin ranges from gray to brown. Although they have very little body hair, it is present and coarse. They live in savannas, grasslands, forests, swamps, and deserts and are found in Africa and across Asia.

Asian elephants are more tactile and sometimes use their trunks to touch each other to communicate, while the African species do not. Overall, elephants use various communication methods, such as trumpeting noises and stomping.

1. African Savanna or Bush Elephant

African savanna elephant
An African Savanna elephant

The African savanna elephant is the largest member of the elephant family. They have thick skin that ranges from reddish-brown to gray, and their undersides are lighter. They have large ears that help them radiate heat and cool down. Their upper incisor will become tusks that continually grow throughout their lives.

African Savanna or Bush Elephant Quick Facts

Scientific nameLoxodonta africana
Adult Height2.2–3.2 m at the ‘shoulder’
Adult Weight3,000 to 6,000 kg (6,613 to 13,2227 pounds)
TusksCurved tusks
LifespanBetween 60 and 70 years
Top speed40 km/h (24.85 mi/h)
Gestation period22 months
Natural habitatGrasslands and savanna woodlands
TemperamentGentle unless provoked
Place foundEastern, Southern, and Central Africa
Social structureComplex matriarchal society. The matriarch leads the herd of females and calves. Males break away during puberty (between 8 and 12 years) to live alone or in small bachelor groups
IUCN statusVulnerable

2. African Forest Elephant

african forest elephant herd
Photo credit: Frederick J. Weyerhauser / WWF

Slightly smaller than their grassland-dwelling cousins, the African Forest elephant was only recognized as a separate species between 2000 and 2010. They live primarily on fruits, leaves, and tree bark and are essential seed distributors. Their skin ranges between chocolate brown and gray with a lighter underside. They have smaller ears than their Savanna elephant cousins.

African Forest Elephant: Quick Facts

Scientific nameLoxodonta cyclotis
Adult Height2.4–3 m at the ‘shoulder’ (8–10 feet)
Adult Weight1,800 to 5,400 kg (±4,000 to 12,000 pounds)
TusksStraight, slender, growing down
LifespanBetween 60 and 70 years
Top speed40 km/h (24.85 mi/h)
Gestation period22 to 24 months
Natural habitatRainforests in the Congo Basin
TemperamentGentle unless provoked
Place foundEastern, Southern, and Central Africa
Social structureSmall family groups of up to 20 individuals
IUCN statusCritically Endangered

3. Asian Elephants

srilankan tusker elephant
Sri Lankan tusker elephant showing depigmentation

Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) are smaller than their African counterparts and have smaller ears. Unlike their African counterparts, some males grow tusks. In contrast, others don’t, and females sometimes also have tusks, referred to as ‘tushes.’ Three recognized subspecies are acknowledged:

  1. Indian or mainland elephant (E. maximus indicus)
  2. Sumatran (E. maximus sumatranus)
  3. Sri Lankan (E. maximus maximus)

A fourth subspecies is the Bornean pygmy elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis). Their origin is still debated among scientists. We’ll focus on the three main subspecies below.

Sri Lankan Elephant

As the name suggests, these elephants live on the island of Sri Lanka. Active conservation efforts are in place to protect the few thousand living individuals at risk of further population decline. Frequent lethal interactions with humans are also leading to a decrease in their numbers. Adults can reach 3.5 m (11 feet) and weigh between 2,000 and 5,400 kg (4,440–12,000 pounds), with the males being 20–30% larger than the females. They are primarily gray with lighter spots or freckles due to depigmentation (lack of pigment), like other Asian elephants. They have small, angular ears with a double dome shape tucked behind their heads. They aren’t picky eaters, and scientists have identified around 100 types of plants they like to forage and eat.

male indian elephant
Photo credit: Yathin S. Krishnappa

Indian Elephant

The most common Asian elephant is the Indian elephant, with around 26,000 to 30,000 individuals left in Asia. They reach a shoulder height between 2 and 3.2 meters (6.6 and 10.5 feet) and weigh between 2 and five metric tons (4,400–11,000 pounds). They can eat up to 150 kg (330 pounds) of grass, bark, stems, roots, and leaves in a day, but they also enjoy sugarcane, bananas, and rice. Due to their size, they don’t have natural predators. Unfortunately, humans can be seen as their biggest threat due to cities and villages spreading into their natural habitat. Bengal tigers are known to take down calves because they are small enough to capture. They usually live in small groups of 20 closely related female elephants headed by the matriarch. Male elephants tend to be loners, especially during their early years.

sumatran elephant 2
Photo credit: dindaariztha / Shutterstock.com

Sumatran Elephant

The Sumatran elephant is the smallest of the three acknowledged Asian elephants; their skin has a universal color with less depigmentation. They are native to Indonesia and live on the Island of Sumatra. They live primarily in rainforests but occasionally travel to rivers or hills depending on their needs. They enjoy eating fruits, seeds, leaves, and grass and drink up to 200 liters (52 gallons) of water daily. They are critically endangered, and humans are the main culprits for their decline. Sumatran tigers are their only natural predators targeting baby elephants who wander off from the herd.

Andrew Olsen
By Andrew Olsen

Andrew is a proud cat dad of three spoiled cats, Schopenhauer, Poppy, and Empress Sisi. Growing up with various pets instilled a lifelong love for animals in him. His work in environmental management, particularly water governance, gave him first-hand experience with the delicate balance between humans and animals — domestic and wild. His favorite hobbies include browsing and buying cat toys, gardening, growing fresh catnip for his cats, drinking tea, and reading with a cat on his lap.