African elephants have a sub-Saharan distribution, with forest elephants primarily inhabiting western and central regions of Africa and savanna elephants inhabiting the eastern and southern regions.
Range States for the Forest Elephant (L.a. cyclotis)
Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, C όte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Niger, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Togo, and Uganda.
Range States for the Savanna Elephant (L.a. africana)
Angola, Botswana, Burundi, Chad, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
Asian elephants inhabit the southern, eastern, and southeastern parts of Asia.
Range States for the Indian Elephant (E.m. indicus)
Bangladesh, Bhutan, Borneo (Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, and Indonesia), Cambodia, China, India, Lao PDR, peninsular Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Range States for the Sumatran Elephant (E.m. sumatrensis)
Island of Sumatra
Range States for the Sri Lankan Elephant (E.m. maximus)
The southwestern portion of Sri Lanka.
African elephants inhabit a diverse array of habitats including tropical forests, savannas, grasslands, and woodlands.
Tropical forests are characterized as having little variance in temperature (around 23°C) and length of daylight (around 12 hours). However, rainfall varies considerably in the tropics and is a primary factor as to the type of vegetation that grows in an area.
Savannas are characterized as grasslands with widely scattered trees. They generally have distinct dry and rainy seasons.
- Dry Season: Usually between June and November
- Rainy Season: Usually from October to December and March to June
Grasslands are characterized as having cold winter temperatures. Seasonal droughts, occasional fires, and grazing by large mammals prevent woody shrubs and trees from becoming established. Grassland soil is very nutrient rich and perennial grass roots are often deeply embedded.
Woodlands are characterized as an area covered with trees and shrubs. Woodlands differ from forests by having a large, open canopy with sunlight filtering between treetops. Forests have a largely—closed canopy in which sunlight does not readily filter through the treetops and almost continuous shade is provided.
Asian elephants primarily inhabit tropical forest habitats.
Both Asian and African elephants migrate and generally follow the same migratory routes annually. Migration distances vary considerably depending on environmental conditions. During a prolonged dry season in Africa, elephant migration distances were recorded to extend over 100 km (62 mi.). Studies documenting Asian elephants in deciduous forests of southern India, with numerous water sources, reported elephant migration to extend between 20 and 50 km (12 and 31 mi.).
African elephants usually migrate at the beginning of the dry season, between June and November; heading toward more hospitable locations near rivers and water sources that are not prone to drying. When the rainy season arrives, usually from October to December and March to June, elephant herds return to native regions to feed on the lush, green vegetation the rains helped regenerate. Elephant migration allows time for the re—growth of vegetation in exhausted grazing areas.
Elephant migrations occur in one of the following three ways. The migration method depends on environmental conditions.
- Individual family groups separate themselves from the larger herd. This method may be used in response to limited food supplies encountered during a dry season migration. If food sources are scarce along the migratory route, it is more efficient to travel as individual families, rather than large herds. Family groups traveling in this manner are generally led by a dominant female at the front of the group and another at the back, to guard the rear. The young travel between the dominant females for protection and supervision.
- Several family groups, usually between two and five, may form a larger group called bond groups for migration. Bond groups provide additional security due to more sets of watchful eyes. Females share leadership and supervisory responsibilities based on age, experience, and temperament. These groups require more food resources along the migratory route but benefit from increased protection.
- Occasionally, entire populations of elephant herds join together in mass migration, with estimates as high as 500 individuals reported. This method provides maximum protection for herds but food resources must be present along the migratory route in sufficient quantity.
African elephants are estimated to have a total population between 400,000 and 660,000 individuals. Individual forest and savanna populations have not been reported by the IUCN—The World Conservation Union, pending further genetic and phylogenic research for various hybrid classifications. The IUCN currently lists the African elephant as threatened.
Currently, all Asian elephant subspecies are classified as endangered by the IUCN, with a total population estimate ranging between 25,600 and 32,750 individuals. The Indian elephant (E.m.indicus) is the most numerous with population estimates ranging between 20,000 and 25,000 individuals. The Sumatran and Sri Lankan elephants are critically endangered, with populations estimated to be between 2,440 and 3,350 for the Sumatran elephant and 3,160 and 4,400 for the Sri Lankan elephant. The most endangered of all Asian subspecies is the Borneo elephant with population estimates ranging from 1,000 to 1,500 individuals.