Understanding species distribution patterns has direct ramifications for the conservation of endangered species, such as the Asian elephant Elephas maximus. However, reliable assessment of elephant distribution is handicapped by factors such as the large spatial scales of field studies, survey expertise required, the paucity of analytical approaches that explicitly account for confounding observation processes such as imperfect and variable detectability, unequal sampling probability and spatial dependence among animal detections. We addressed these problems by carrying out ‘detection-non-detection’ surveys of elephant signs across a c. 38,000-km(2) landscape in the Western Ghats of Karnataka, India. We analyzed the resulting sign encounter data using a recently developed modeling approach that explicitly addresses variable detectability across space and spatially dependent non-closure of occupancy, across sampling replicates. We estimated overall occupancy, a parameter useful to monitoring elephant populations, and examined key ecological and anthropogenic drivers of elephant presence. Our results showed elephants occupied 13,483 km(2) (SE = 847 km(2)) corresponding to 64% of the available 21,167 km(2) of elephant habitat in the study landscape, a useful baseline to monitor future changes. Replicate-level detection probability ranged between 0.56 and 0.88, and ignoring it would have underestimated elephant distribution by 2116 km(2) or 16%. We found that anthropogenic factors predominated over natural habitat attributes in determining elephant occupancy, underscoring the conservation need to regulate them. Human disturbances affected elephant habitat occupancy as well as site-level detectability. Rainfall is not an important limiting factor in this relatively humid bioclimate. Finally, we discuss cost-effective monitoring of Asian elephant populations and the specific spatial scales at which different population parameters can be estimated. We emphasize the need to model the observation and sampling processes that often obscure the ecological process of interest, in this case relationship between elephants to their habitat.