How smart are elephants?

- Bina Phuyal, Pokhara

     Bina Phuyal    
     Sunday June 13, 2021

The death of a loved one is the most hurtful form of tragedy for anyone but did you know there is a species other than humans that mourns death just like humans? Yes, elephants are the only non-human species to mourn their dead even many years after death, performing burial rituals and returning to visit graves. The intelligence of elephants is something that is often overlooked by humans; however, it is clear that they are very smart creatures but exactly how smart are elephants?

The elephant has one of the most closely knit societies of any living species. Elephant families can only be separated by two ways; death or capture.

In an event (1976) involving a family of African elephants, two members of the family were shot by poachers, who were subsequently chased off by the remaining elephants. Although one of the elephants died, the other remained standing, but with knees beginning to give away. Her mother and one more family member leaned in to hold her up but couldn’t. She grew so weak, fell to the ground, and died. However, the two family members didn’t give up but continually tried to lift her. Other family members became more intensely involved in the aid too and tried to put grass in her mouth but she had passed away. They did not leave her, instead, they began to bury her in a shallow grave and throw leaves over her body. They stood over her for the night and began to leave in the morning. The last one to leave was her mother.

The elephant has one of the most closely knit societies of any living species. Elephant families can only be separated by two ways; death or capture. Two circus elephants that briefly performed together rejoiced when they met after 20 years. They remember not only their companions but other creatures that have made a strong impression on them. Elephants also remember humans they bond with even after decades but their memory is not the only aspect of their intelligence.

In Kenya, researchers have observed many cases of maternal and non-maternal elephants defending calves from dangerous situations, helping baby elephants climb up muddy banks and out of holes and swamp to find a safe path or break through electrified fences. They have been spotted assisting others that are injured, plucking out tranquilizing darts from their fellows, and spraying dust on others’ wounds.

Not only to their own species but they have shown concern to other species as well. Sometimes elephants encountering injured humans have stood guard and gently comforted them with their trunk and vocalization. There have been instances of working elephants refusing to perform tasks that harm another animal. On the other hand, elephant attacks on human villages occurred right after massive poaching and culling, suggesting deliberate revenge.

Self-awareness is yet another indication of the vast capacity for thinking and intellect that exists in the elephant. They can, in fact, recognize themselves in a mirror. Three Asian elephants in the Bronx Zoo examined themselves in front of mirrors just like humans instead of interacting with their reflections the way most other animals would do. Elephants also have no shame in an elicit display of joy, they play games, greet family and friends. They rejoice in special events such as the birth of a baby elephant by bellowing and blaring. Elephants can also mimic the sounds. Elephants in Africa self-medicate by chewing on the leaves of a tree, which induces labor. This tree is used by Kenyans for the same purpose. They have used brushes to make abstract art with the help of their trunk and elephant band is a real thing.

Elephants manifest a wide variety of behaviors associated with grief, compassion/empathy, learning, mimicry, cooperation/team-work, altruism, self-awareness, play, memory, problem-solving and communication. Asian elephants have been found to use tools such as boxes in the form of step-stools to reach fruits, sticks to scratch themselves in areas they couldn’t reach.  They may also be able to communicate non-verbally by pointing at objects by extending fingers or equivalent. The capabilities that are defined by scientists are just touching the tip of the iceberg of what is the elephant’s capacity for thought, insight and, discernment. And these capabilities in turn continue to captivate researchers and onlookers alike in their eternal quest to understand the mystery of the elephant psyche.

Aristotle described the elephant as” the animal that surpasses all others in wit and mind”. Looking inside their heads, we can see why. They have the largest brain of any land mammal, as well as an impressive encephalization quotient, (EQ): the ratio between the actual mass of an animal’s brain and its brain mass based on its overall body size. The largest whale’s brain is barely twice the mass of an elephant’s brain, although they have body masses twenty times those of a typical elephant.

The parallels between humans and elephants suggest a convergent cognitive evolution possibly related to complex society and cooperation. Unfortunately, humanity’s treatment of elephants reflects something completely different. They continue to suffer from ivory poaching in Africa, habitat destruction across Asia, and mistreatment in captivity worldwide. Humans have often denied the emotional intelligence of animals and viewed them as mere stimulus/response machines but there really is no quality that humans possess that is not also possessed to some degree in other animals, especially the bigger mammals. Apart from being incredibly emotional and social, elephants are considered to be one of the world’s most intelligent species. Because of their high intelligence and family ties, it is morally wrong to cull them. Their numbers are declining at an unprecedented rate mainly due to human intervention led habitat destruction which should be stopped. Effective and strict measures are needed to significantly reduce poaching and illegal ivory trade. Use of Bull hooks and other brutal fear-based methods to tame wild elephants followed by substandard living conditions in Southeast Asia should be brought to an end.

In Nepal, working elephants are overworked and undernourished with no access to clean drinking water and are chained up when not working. This is detrimental to their survival and existence. Effective laws formulation and enforcement in regard to elephants import/export is a major solution to this problem. Besides, wrong promotion of elephants for entertainment purposes should be banned.

Effective laws formulation and enforcement in regard to elephants import/export is a major solution to this problem. Besides, wrong promotion of elephants for entertainment purposes should be banned.

Elephant tourism is fueled by public demand and there is a role general public has to play in this by refusing to be a part of such cruelty. Elephants, we all know, are in peril. We, humans, are waging what amounts to a war against them. Given what we know about elephants and what they continue to teach us about animal intelligence, it is more important than ever to ensure that what the English poet John Donne described as ‘nature’s great masterpiece’ doesn’t vanish from the world’s canvas.

(Bina Phuyal is a conservation enthusiast with a special interest in elephants)