Last Modified 03/01/2019

Elephant Reference

Part 1         Part 2

Elephant Reference



The following page is devoted to elephants and their differences, mainly just a quick guide for color and types.


Quick Compare modern elephants side by side:

Asiatic Elephant

African Bush Elephant

Photos by Tom Moon

Here you can see the key differences in elephant anatomy from the African to the Asian. Both of these are females from the San Diego Zoo.The largest male African elephant ever measured came in at 13 feet at the shoulder- unfortunately it seems that many miniature companies make their elephants this size, which is the outside extreme. The largest bull Asian elephants come in at around 11 feet at the shoulder. Asian females do not have exposed tusks.

More elephant info:

One thing that gets confused often is whether an elephant is African or Asian.  The modern concept is that the African elephant is bigger than an Indian or Asian beast. This is true, the African bush elephant is the largest land animal.

Ancient armies rarely used the larger but difficult to domesticate African bush elephants. They used smaller African forest elephants of a breed that are now extinct in North Africa. A variety has been found in the Congo that is linked genetically with the smaller African elephants that were used by the Ptolemies, Kushites, Numidians, Carthage, and Rome.

New research into genetic archeology has revealed that some of the larger African elephants may have been in the Eretria area and may have been used by the Ptolemies, and may have been captured and traded by the Nabataeans. So it is possible- but rare that the large Savannah elephants would find their way into Carthaginian or Ptolemaic armies.
Hannibal's largest elephant was Surus a Syrian (Asian) elephant that survived the trek across Northern Italy.

The elephant to the left is an African Savannah elephant and shows the general traits of the African breeds. This female lives at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, where I took these photos.
This side view shows some key features of African elephants. Notice how her back sways up towards the rear hips. The large ears and the pointed or squared off forehead.  The trunk is more wrinkled than Asian elephants.

Here the gang is out for play.... showing   their swayed backs  and ear shapes.
This image shows the big Africans from the San Diego Safari Park. This shot is from the San Diego Zoo  journal "ZooNews".

These are Asian elephants, grouped together.   This shows the size difference between the bull male and the cows. Note how the arch of the spine is higher towards the front on Asian elephants.  The male seems to be humming the tune "I'm in the mood for love".. but the ladies seem more interested in gossip :)

Here we see the head shape of the Asian breed and can be compared to the Africans above.
This s a good place to pause and note coloring.
Elephants are brown or dark grey when wet, but they throw dirt all over themselves to protect their skin from bugs and the sun.  This leaves them in all sorts of multi-toned earth shades.  Depending on how the light is hitting them they will appear grey, brown or olive as their massive bodies reflect the green grass.

Note also how much less wrinkled the trunk is than the African variety.   The ears are much smaller and more floppy and folded, and with  distinctive shape difference from Africans.

Here is the big tusker at the WAP, he dispels the myth that Indian or Asian elephants have smaller tusks than African ones.  These are very impressive. Note, they are teeth and not horns. It's sad that elephants in the wild will be extinct soon, too many people or too many people taking ivory illegally.

I was sad enough that these impressive animals were dragged into battles of men along with dogs, and horses, but now to see them slowly being rubbed out or pushed into zoos and preserves... oh well I can only hope I'm gone before the elephants are.

One of the new African herd at the Safari Park had a baby in captivity (a rare event, but she was in gestation in a park in Africa and was going to be culled). The new herd of seven elephants is very impressive to see.

Baby African Elephant:

Currently more than eight elephants have been born at the Safari Park.
Here is one of the new babies born in 2018, and the family (below).

African vs. Asian elephants at the battle of Raphia 217 BCE

African Elephant size compare with Asian:

African Forest Elephant:

The species of North African elephant use by Carthage, Rome, and the Ptolemaic Empire were smaller than the Savannah or Bush elephantsknown today.
This is noted in the description of the battle of Raphia by Ptolemy. This sub-species wasthought to be extinct but in recent years scientists have rediscovered the smaller species in the Congo:

   Elephant size comparison- Bush elephant vs. Forest elephants

Elephant Details:

   Elephant differences- Trunk

Elephant toes:
Asian elephants have an extra toe, with five on the front feet and four on the back feet (compared with four and three).

Elephant eyes:
Most eyes are golden brown in color.  Elephants have small eyes with long lashes and poor eyesight.

Elephant freckles:
As Asian elephants get older they start turning pinker and develop freckles.

More on elephant comparisons:

Elephant Power:

This is a very tragic thing I saw on the internet, and felt it was relevant for wargamers.
This man has been killed by his elephant as it went berserk. Elephant handler is still one of the most dangerous jobs on the planet, and whatever happened to cause this event has cost this man his life. But I felt that even though it is kind of morbid, that is shows the massive power of the elephant and how it could literally toss soldiers around like rag dolls, as was described at the battle of the Hydaspes.


Of course this also explains why people and elephants don't get along on those frontiers where fields are raided and destroyed, and people are killed defending their food from animals forced off their usual lands by drought or population pressures. It sure shows the fear that such an animal could cause when one is only armed with a sword or pointy stick.

There's a few more differences between African and Asian elephants I'll get to another day.



Other links:


Polybius, “The Histories”,  V.82.1

Pliny the Elder. “The Natural History”

H. H. Scullard, “The Elephant in the Greek & Roman World”, Cornell University Press, 1974.

J. P. Mahaffy, “The Army of Ptolemy IV at Raphia”, 1899   HERMATHENA Vol. X.

Slingshot Magazine September 1995 Issue 181,  “The Elephant Forum”(pages 32-35), Authors-
Michael Young,  Simon MacDowell,  Phil Barker,  Justin Taylor,  John Bailey,  Philip Sabin,  Dave Letts.

Slingshot Magazine Issue 90, July 1980,  “The Elephant in the Mediterranean Wars”, Russel King.

Michael B. Charles, “Elephant Size in Antiquity - DNA Evidence and the Battle of Raphia”, Historia, 2016/1, 53-65.

Rance, Philip, "Elephants in Warfare in Late Antiquity”, Acta Antiqua Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 43 (2003) 355-384.
Rance, Philip, "Hannibal, Elephants and Turrets in Suda Θ 438 [Polybius Fr. 162B] – An Unidentified Fragment of Diodorus", Classical Quarterly 59.1 (2009) 91-111.

“Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World”, by Carlos A. Picón and Seán Hemingway
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016,  Elephant Terms Glossary,




Part 1         Part 2

Elephant Reference


   Edited 03/2019