Calf interacting with a juvenile  Calf and mahout playing in river  Training session  Street view with elephant  Mahout on a male elephant  Mahout with a juvenile male

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One-year-old calves playing.

Elephant behaviour, senses and cognition

Elephants differ from other animals in many aspects. In addition to their size and possessing a trunk, they are among the most intelligent of all mammals. Scientists have also started to uncover more details of their intensive social and emotional lives.

What are "domestic" elephants?

It is common practice in Asia to call elephants in captivity "domestic elephants". Despite this, they are genetically equivalent to wild elephants. Many of the elephants in captivity today, have been born in the wild and later captured. Those born in captivity often have a wild-born mother. Even more commonplace is to have a wild father, as some elephant camps have nearby wild males visiting females at night.

In its biological meaning, the word domestication refers to genetic changes taking place during tens and hundreds of generations of captivity. This is the process behind familiar domestic animals, such as dogs or cattle. Even in genuinely domesticated animals, most behavioural needs still remain the same as in their wild ancestors. In genetically non-domesticated animals such as elephants, this is even more the case.

Asian and African elephants

This website focuses on Asian elephants, because they are the species most commonly kept in captivity. However, almost everything on these pages concerning elephant biology and their needs in captivity, also applies to African elephants.

Female savannah elephantPreviously, elephants were classified as only two species: Asian and African. Today, three species of elephants are recognized, since the two African types previously classified as subspecies have been found to be distinct species. The savannah elephant, pictured on the right, is the one usually seen in wildlife documentaries and on safaris. The rarer forest elephant is smaller, with straighter tusks and rounder ears.

Asian elephants are still classified as one species, with several subspecies differing somewhat in appearance.

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Photo copyright © Elephant Experts and the photographers:
Minna Tallberg, Helena Telkänranta, Marc Pierard, Karpagam Chelliah,
Nirvay Sah, Sudhir Yadav and Ramesh Belagere