Karnataka state in southern India supports a globally significant—and the country’s largest—population ofthe Asian elephant Elephas maximus. A reliable map of Asian elephant distribution and measures of spatialvariation in their abundance, both vital needs for conservation and management action, are unavailablenot only in Karnataka, but across its global range. Here, we use various data gathered between 2000 and2015 to map the distribution of elephants in Karnataka at the scale of the smallest forest managementunit, the ‘beat’, while also presenting data on elephant dung density for a subset of ‘elephant beats.’Elephants occurred in 972 out of 2855 forest beats of Karnataka. Sixty percent of these 972 beats—and55% of the forest habitat—lay outside notified protected areas (PAs), and included lands designated foragricultural production and human dwelling. While median elephant dung density inside protected areaswas nearly thrice as much as outside, elephants routinely occurred in or used habitats outside PAs wherehuman density, land fraction under cultivation, and the interface between human-dominated areas andforests were greater. Based on our data, it is clear that India’s framework for elephant conservation—which legally protects the species wherever it occurs, but protects only some of its habitats—while beingappropriate in furthering their conservation within PAs, seriously falters in situations where elephantsreside in and/or seasonally use areas outside PAs. Attempts to further elephant conservation in production and dwelling areas have extracted high costs in human, elephant, material and monetary terms inKarnataka. In such settings, conservation planning exercises are necessary to determine where the needsof elephants—or humans—must take priority over the other, and to achieve that in a manner that is basednot only on reliable scientific data but also on a process of public reasoning.