Different Types of Elephants

On your Thailand vacation in Phuket, you may opt for the once in a lifetime experience of riding an elephant. This experience is memorable, as elephants are one of the most fascinating, beautiful, and intelligent creatures on our planet. If you choose to ride an elephant in Thailand, make sure you do your research. The company you go with needs to treat their elephants well. Elephants are treasured throughout the world and have a long history in Thai culture. A reputable elephant sanctuary will have plenty of information on the caretaking and welfare of their animals.

Once you choose a quality elephant camp, you might decide that you want to get to know more about the animal you are about to have a personal encounter with. And you should! Elephants are one of the world’s most beloved animals for good reason. Their biology and social structure is truly unique. The first thing you should know is that there are two different types of elephants: the African elephant & the Asian elephant. These two species have a lot in common, but they also have some marked differences. Which type are you riding? Read on to find out how the spot the differences.

Both Asian and African elephants are considered the largest land mammal. Elephants are huge—shockingly huge—but the African elephant tends to be a little bit larger than the Asian elephant. Full-grown male elephants in both types tend to be about 12 feet tall at their highest point, but African males average around 14,000lbs and Asian males average around 11,000lbs. In both African and Asian types, females will be a few feet shorter and several thousand pounds lighter.

The main difference between the two types, and the one that is easiest to spot, is the shape of the ears. African elephants have much larger ears that are shaped like a fan, or like the continent of Africa itself. These large ears help the elephants cool off in the hot Savannah sun.  Asian elephants, however, have much smaller ears. Asian elephants tend to live in thick jungle environments, so they do not need large ears to help them cool off.

All African elephants have tusks, even the females—although the tusks on the female elephants are slightly smaller. Asian elephants do not always have tusks. Females very rarely have tusks, and if they do they are quite small. Most males have tusks. This can pose a special problem for Asian elephants. It is illegal to kill them, but some hunters break the law and still. Most of the time hunters are after the tusks, so that means males are at a greater risk to be killed. Because of this, females have fewer males with good genes to breed with. This brings us to numbers. There are far more African elephants still living in the wild than Asian elephants. It is estimated that there are around 400,000 wild African elephants, while there are only around 50,000 wild Asian elephants.

There are other smaller, more detailed physical differences between Asian and African elephants. African elephants tend to have skin that is more wrinkled, while Asian elephants have smoother skin. Another aspect that surprises most people when they meet their first elephant is that they are covered in wiry, coarse hair. The younger the elephant, the more hair it will have. The head of African and Asian elephants can also give you a clue on what type of elephant you’re meeting. African elephants have large, rounded heads with a single dome at the top. Asian elephants have longer heads that are topped with a “double dome” structure. The feet of African and Asian elephants vary as well. Asian elephants have four toes on their back feet and five toes on their front. African elephants have only three toes on their back feet and five on their front. You can also count the “fingers” on the tips of their trunks. Asian elephants have a single “finger” on their trunks while African elephants have two.

Both African and Asian elephants should be treasured and protected. Elephants are naturally gentle beasts. They are exceptionally smart and have complex social structures. Both types of elephants are normally open to interactions with humans. If you decide to ride elephants while on your Thailand vacation, be sure to use your new-found knowledge to see if you’re riding an Asian or African elephant, and make sure that the place you choose treats these amazing creatures with the respect and care they deserve.