A common misconception amongst guests at Londolozi often occurs in the differentiation between – and identification of – the African and Asian elephants, and even more so the Cape or African buffalo and a Water buffalo.

I will delve deeper into the differences between the buffalo species in a later blog, but for now will try to give a better insight into the varying features of the African and Asian elephants. I hope to dispel some of the misconceptions surrounding these similar, yet distinct animals by evaluating some of the unique aspects and easily identifiable dissimilarities between them.


A large herd of African elephants slake their thirst at a nearby waterhole. Photograph by Callum Gowar

Despite both the African and Asian elephants originating from the same taxonomic family, Elephantidae, they are unique due to their differing genera, Loxodanta africana and Elephas maximus respectively. Moving past the often complex scientific taxonomical classification, there exists a vast difference between their distribution and physical and physiological characteristics.


Two Asian elephant bulls size each other up in a battle for supremacy and the rights to females. Photograph by Avijja Fonseka


Two African elephants cover themselves in mud as a way of thermoregulation. The drying mud traps a layer of moisture between their skin and the mud and also protects them from the harsh African sun. Photograph by Callum Gowar

Outlining the geographic distribution of the African and Asian elephants make for a good point of trajectory in establishing where a particular animal might be found and thus eliminating any confusion. By looking at the modified map below, one is able to complete contrast in the distribution between these animals and thus resultant of the differing names.


A rough geographical distribution of the African elephant (green) and the Asian elephant (red).

Without looking at too many facts and figures, by examining the physical differences between the Asian and African elephants one will be able to better identify such animals in the future. African elephants are larger than an Asian elephant and can vary in weight between 4000kg to 7000kg and 3000kg to 6000kg respectively. African elephants are tallest at their shoulders and reach between 2.5m to 4m in height. This is in contrast to the Asian elephant where the tallest point exists at their head, with fully grown adults varying between 2m and 2,7m in height. The ears of the Asian and African elephants differ significantly with those of the African elephant being considerably bigger and shaped similar to the African continent whereas the Asian elephant has much smaller ears relative to its body size and more rounded in shape. An interesting point to note is that elephants use their ears as a form of thermoregulation due to the large concentration of blood capillaries behind their ears. This may be due to the differing climatic conditions experienced in Africa and Asia and thus the varying need to regulate their internal body temperature.


A size comparison between the African and Asian elephants. Photograph courtesy of www.knysnaelephantpark.co.za

Colouration differs between the two species with African elephants having a more consistent dark colouration in comparison to the more freckled appearance (due to patches of de-pigmentation) in the Asian elephant. Furthermore, African elephants have two ‘fingers’ at the end of their trunks compared to just one ‘finger’ of the Asian elephant. This may have lead to the African elephants being more efficient at manipulating vegetation and thus have evolved to be much larger. Although genetically variable between individuals of each species, the African elephant has larger tusks to that of the Asian elephant, in which only males exhibit tusks.  A last easily identifiable physical difference occurs on top of the head with the African elephant having a single, rounded dome and the Asian elephant a twin dome.


The colour differentiation and smaller ears is evident in this Asian elephant. Photograph by Avijja Fonseka


An enormous African elephant bull with massive tusks strolls gracefully through a clearing. Photograph by Callum Gowar

Under closer examination, the more subtle differences will become more apparent with the African elephant having a more wrinkled skin and has 4 toenails on their forefeet and 3 on their hind feet, as opposed to the smoother skin and 5 toenails on their forefeet and 4 on their hind feet its Asian counterpart.


The toenails and single ‘finger’ are clearly visible in this close-up image of an Asian elephant. Photograph by Avijja Fonseka

I hope this was useful in helping to understand the differences between the African and Asian elephant.

Look out for an upcoming blog that examines the differences between the African and Water buffalo…


Filed under Wildlife

About the Author

Callum Gowar

Field Guide

Growing up in Cape Town, the opposite end of South Africa from its main wildlife areas, didn't slow Callum down when embarking on his ranger training at Londolozi at the start of 2015. He had slowly begun moving north-east through the country anyway, ...

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on The African and Asian Elephant: Defining features

Join the conversationJoin the conversation

Wendy Brislin

Thanks for the elephant info. Very informative. Hopefully I’ll never be confused again. Thanks for a fantastic blog.

Judy B.

Very informative! I know some of the difference in ears but not the feet, size, and dome. thank you!

Anna Lee

Goodness gracious! How easy will it be from now on to instantly know the difference between African and Asian elephants! Sooo helpful. Thank you!!

This reminds me of a post not too long ago defining the differences between a cheetah and a leopard. That, too, was a post that made an enormous difference for me and I can now instantly discern which is a leopard and which is a cheetah.

Again, thank you for such a wondrous job educating all of us out here. Good stuff!! 🙂

Jill Larone

Great write up Callum, and very interesting and informative. I’d read about the ear size difference before but had no idea about all the other differences. Thanks for a great blog!

Muhammad Atif

African elephants have fuller. What is meant by fuller? any idea plzzz

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