Southern India, one of the last strongholds of the endangered Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), harbours about one-fifth of the global population. We present here the first population genetic study of free-ranging Asian elephants, examining within- and among-population differentiation by analysing mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and nuclear microsatellite DNA differentiation across the Nilgiris-Eastern Ghats, Anamalai, and Periyar elephant reserves of southern India. Low mtDNA diversity and 'normal' microsatellite diversity were observed. Surprisingly, the Nilgiri population, which is the world's single largest Asian elephant population, had only one mtDNA haplotype and lower microsatellite diversity than the two other smaller populations examined. There was almost no mtDNA or microsatellite differentiation among localities within the Nilgiris, an area of about 15,000 km2. This suggests extensive gene flow in the past, which is compatible with the home ranges of several hundred square kilometres of elephants in southern India. Conversely, the Nilgiri population is genetically distinct at both mitochondrial and microsatellite markers from the two more southerly populations, Anamalai and Periyar, which in turn are not genetically differentiated from each other. The more southerly populations are separated from the Nilgiris by only a 40-km-wide stretch across a gap in the Western Ghats mountain range. These results variably indicate the importance of population bottlenecks, social organization, and biogeographic barriers in shaping the distribution of genetic variation among Asian elephant populations in southern India.