A male elephant steps over an electric fence on a moonlit night at the edge of Sri Lanka’s Kaudulla National Park. The island’s nearly 3,000 miles of electric fencing isn’t foolproof: Elephants often examine wires with their trunks or push trees onto fences and then step between the fallen wires.
BY SRINATH PERUR
PHOTOGRAPHS BY BRENT STIRTON
PUBLISHED APRIL 13, 2023
In parts of India, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia, elephants jostle with people for space in an increasingly human-dominated landscape. Once, these supremely social animals ranged across Asia, into China and as far west as the Euphrates. Now an endangered species, Asian elephants hang on in only about 5 percent of their historic range.
Expanding cities and infrastructure fragment habitats, and invasive plants that crowd out their usual food sources may pose a further threat. Living peacefully with such an intelligent and adaptable animal requires a thorough understanding of its social structures, and the Asian elephant is far less studied by scientists than the African savanna elephant—especially in the wild. So over the past two decades, a dedicated group of researchers has been filling in these gaps, revealing an animal that’s different from its African cousins.
IN THE WILD
Highly adaptable, Asian elephants can live in various human habitats. They form close bonds and grieve dead relatives.
There’s an emerging consensus that Asian elephants are highly intelligent, on par with species such as dolphins and chimpanzees. For instance, some have shown an awareness of their own body and mirror reflections, an exceedingly rare skill in the animal kingdom.
Not only that, they’re also very flexible, navigating a variety of habitats, from open grasslands to agricultural fields to tea plantations heavily used by people.
Young elephants in India’s Bandipur National Park throw dirt on themselves. This is a behavior they observed from their mothers to protect their skin from sun and insects.
Born at around 200 pounds, calves (such as this one in India’s Bandipur National Park) rely on their mother’s milk for three years. Females remain with their herd for life, while males strike out on their own when they reach puberty.
Near the Kahalla-Pallekele nature reserve in Sri Lanka, a female elephant touches a calf with her trunk while leading a group of young to water. Elephants take years to mature, all while observing adult behavior. Some juveniles help care for younger calves.
For a long time, scientists assumed Asian elephants had social structures similar to those of African savanna elephants. This was certainly true on the surface: Both long-lived species gather in herds of related adult females and calves, with males leaving the group during adolescence, when they’re eight to 13 years old.
But a key aspect of African savanna elephant society—that the oldest female, the matriarch, is the most dominant—doesn’t appear with Asian elephants. Instead, these pachyderms live in smaller, less hierarchical, and more loosely collected groups that can separate and reunite over time—a fluidity that allows them to adapt to rapidly changing resources.
They’re also persistent in finding food, as illustrated by the preliminary results of a study in Thailand, in which more than half of wild elephants tested could use their trunks to open at least one door of a complex puzzle box to get fruit inside. Finding out more about how elephant minds work may help people learn how to live alongside their multi-ton neighbors, experts say.
Read the full findings at
Naional Geographic Magazine - May 2023 issue
Secrets of the Elephants
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