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To most people, Asian and African elephants are simply living in different parts of the world, rather than being recognised as being so different, that scientists grouped them into two entirely separate categories (genera) – Elephas Maximus (Asian elephants), Loxodonta Africana (African savanna elephants) and Loxodonta Cyclotis (African forest elephant).
The name “African elephant” usually refers to the African bush elephant, or the African savanna elephant, who roams the grassland of 37 African countries. The Asian elephant, on the other hand, can be found throughout the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia.
It was only in 2000 that biologists recategorised the African elephant species into two distinct groups. About as genetically different as tigers and lions, they still have more features in common with one another than with their Asian counterpart, and it’s important to know how to tell the difference.
Asian and African elephants can be differentiated most easily by their size, ears, head shape, and their tusks.
The African elephant is generally bigger. As the largest and heaviest land mammal on earth, the male African elephant is about 3.2 meters tall, weighing six tons on average. The largest specimen can reach a shoulder height of 3.96 meters. The Asian elephant is much smaller in size – males at about 2.75 meters tall, weighing four tons.
African elephants have fuller, more rounded heads. The top of the head is a single dome, and Asian elephants have a twin-domed head with an indent in the middle. The lower lips of the two species also differ, being long and tapered in Asian elephants and short and round in Africans.
African elephants’ ears are like a map of Africa and Asian elephants’ ears are smaller and in the shape of India. African elephants’ ears are much bigger and reach up and over the neck, which does not occur in Asian elephants.
Both male and female African elephants have tusks. The magnificent tusks can be very long and quite spectacular. The longest known tusk of an African bush elephant measured 3.51 meters and weighed 117 kg. On the other hand, only male Asian elephants have tusks, and they are called “tuskers”. The tuskers are much shorter and lighter than those from their African cousins.
The African elephant’s trunk is visibly more heavily ringed and is not as hard as the Asian trunk.
The trunk tip is a major difference between the species. The African trunk has two distinct ‘fingers’ which it uses to pick up and manipulate objects. The Asian elephant has only one ‘finger’. The Asian compensates for this by holding objects against the underside of the trunk and appears not to suffer from any lack of maneuverability.
Both African and Asian elephants are threatened by poaching and habitat loss.