I don’t know why, but I have always loved those gentle giants, elephants. Whether it is because of growing up in India (a large part of the Indian subcontinent is home to Elephas maximus, the Asian Elephant), or listening to the stories of Ganesha, the cute-but-powerful and mischievous god of Hindu theology, or reading about Hathi, the old and respected head of the elephant troop, who becomes a friend to Mowgli in Kipling’s The Jungle Book, my perennial favorite – I don’t know… But these gorgeous animals fascinate me. [Confession: I felt immeasurably sad watching the Oliphaunts die under attack in Lord of The Rings.]

In his 1936 essay Shooting an Elephant, George Orwell had described watching an elephant “beating his bunch of grass against his knees, with that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have“. I have witnessed this firsthand at the Periyar National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary, an elephant and tiger reserve in Kerala, a southern Indian state; only there, it wasn’t a merely leisurely activity. I watched (from a safe distance) how female elephants would pick up bunches of grass with their trunks, beat clean the loose chunks of earth around the roots, and feed that grass to young calves. A rather memorable experience of my childhood. 

Zoology isn’t my area of scientific expertise, so pardonnez moi s’il vous plaît when I state my wholly unscientific, untested, personal belief that in order for a species to be domesticated by humans, it must share certain cerebral traits with humans. Ignorant as I am of the science behind this, my belief recently found corroboration (Yay!) in the recent study with dogs, in which brain scans of dogs revealed that they respond to human voices the same way as humans do. Well, elephants are remarkably intelligent animals, their intelligence being expressed through a wide variety of behaviors associated with higher cognitive functions – such as learning, playing, problem-solving and tool use, a range of emotions (including grief and anger), empathy-cooperation-altruism, long-term and spatial memory (Elephants never forget!), social and familial structures, and so forth. Zoologists consider that their large and highly complex neocortex (a feature also seen in the brains of humans, apes and certain dolphin species), as well as their large hippocampus (a brain structure associated with emotion and memory) may play a role in that. Recently it was discovered that elephants, like humans, may innately understand the concept of pointing as a non-verbal communication cue. (For references to these statements, please look at the list of links appended at the end.)

I have earlier written about self-cognition – the ability to recognize themselves in mirrors – in elephants, also mentioning an instance of amazing artistic ability of some elephants. The wikipedia article in my link list has other examples of artistry and musicality discovered in elephants. Therefore, the story about smart elephants by ace Scientific American science-blogger Ferris Jabr – which appeared in my Twitterfeed this morning – came as no surprise. With his usual facility with words, Ferris describes some further research studies which elaborated on various higher cognitive abilities of the elephants, including their ability to innovate and use tools to accomplish a task. He points out:

In the past 10 years […] researchers have realized that elephants are even smarter than they thought. As few as eight years ago there were almost no carefully controlled experiments showing that elephants could match chimpanzees and other brainiacs of the animal kingdom in tool use, self-awareness and tests of problem-solving. Because of recent experiments designed with the elephant’s perspective in mind, scientists now have solid evidence that elephants are just as brilliant as they are big: They are adept tool users and cooperative problem solvers; they are highly empathic, comforting one another when upset; and they probably do have a sense of self.

However, thereafter Ferris brings up an important aspect that has so far been largely overlooked: should the practice of keeping elephants in captivity be outlawed, especially given our “sharpened awareness of elephant sentience“?

Ferris goes on to make compelling arguments for his stance, describing how humans and elephants were contemporaries in their adaptation to life in Africa, as well as their migration to Europe and Asia, and how both the species co-evolved to develop societies and communications with common features. He quotes Joyce Poole, one of the world’s foremost elephant experts and co-founder of the charity ElephantVoices, which promotes the study and ethical care of elephants:

Being part of an elephant family is all about unity and working together for the greater good […] When they are getting ready to do a group charge, for example, they all look to one another: ‘Are we all together? Are we ready to do this?’ When they succeed, they have an enormous celebration, trumpeting, rumbling, lifting their heads high, clanking tusks together, intertwining their trunks.

All the accumulated evidence of higher neural functions in elephants have intensified the debate around the idea of elephants in captivity, posits Ferris. Assessments of physical and mental health of captive elephants in the zoos of North America and the UK seem to demonstrate eloquently that they do not, in fact, do well in captivity, displaying a variety of physiological and psychological debilities resulting from their unnatural habitats. And it is also a matter of fact that few zoos have the ability to adequately recreate either the habitats or the complex social lives of these animals (which have come to light with more recent studies).

I am glad to find that Ferris further touches upon the current conundrum as to what to do next with all that knowledge. Researchers and people with knowledge about the situation agree that it is impossible to end elephant captivity abruptly by decree. There isn’t enough wild habitat left in North America and Europe to accommodate the close to 380 elephants in the US and UK zoos. Some concerted efforts have been put in place to create sanctuaries for elephants, utilizing large tracts of land and the knowledge about elephant behavior, but such efforts are few and far between – and cannot adequately address the lack of proper habitat.

Noted elephant expert Joshua Plotnik of Mahidol University in Thailand, whom Ferris quotes, brought up another aspect peculiar to Asia: elephants have been put to use as beasts of burden – to perform heavy physical work, such as help in harvesting and logging – in many parts of Asia where they are found; in Thailand and India, they are considered cultural icons, and used as ceremonial and/or religious transport. In India, various Forestry Departments use domesticated elephants for patrolling as well as for help in dealing with occasional wild elephants separated by chance from their herd. Except in rare situations, most of these elephants live in poor, unhygienic, and even cruel conditions. Nevertheless, the call to release all these elephants from captivity may not be sustainable or practicable.

The world over, elephants face several threats. Poaching of tusker bull elephants for ivory is a constant threat, which additionally skews the male-female ratios in wild herds of Asian elephants. Illegal wildlife trade often results in the capture of the calves after killing the mother, and crude capture methods often lead to high fatalities. Deforestation and loss of habitat have increased the occurrences of human-elephant conflict, resulting often in death of wild elephants. Even where laws exist for their protection, such as in India, poor enforcement provides no succor to these elephants. Plotnik and other concerned scientists consider that steady conservation efforts targeted towards maintenance of wild elephant populations is the way forward. For example, the World Wildlife Fund is involved in several efforts across Asia, in India, Cambodia, Vietnam, Sumatra, and Myanmar, to protect and extend elephant habitats, halt poaching and stop illegal trades, provide solutions to mitigate human-elephant conflicts, and do educational outreach activities amongst local communities. Similar approaches may work in North America and Europe also. These magnificent creatures do not deserve a life of captivity; when born and living free, the elephants will still have a lot to teach us.

Asian Elephant female with calf - photo taken at Laos conservatory

Photo of baby Asian elephant born in October 2011 in the Laos Elephant Conservation Center, in Sayaboury Province, Laos; photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons user Sophie47, distributed under a CC-by-SA 3.0 unported license

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