We admire elephants in part because they demonstrate what we consider the finest human traits: empathy, self-awareness, and social intelligence. But the way we treat them puts on display the very worst of human behaviour -- Graydon Carter
Elephants are more intelligent than we've realised. Over the last decade, studies have shown much about their emotions, intelligence and social behaviours, and revealed that they're smarter than previously thought and share greater similarities to us than we believed. And in a world where we seemingly respect creatures that are more intelligent, we can only hope these revelations about how brilliant they really are can drive enough action to save them from extinction.
It's been well documented that elephants have exceptional memories, and that they're capable of expressing a myriad of emotions including joy, compassion, anger and grief.
Elephants have also been observed to console others who are upset or disturbed, using soft vocalisations and gentle touches, a strong indication of empathy seen only in highly social and intelligent animals.
In another study, elephants showed a remarkable sign of self-awareness by not only seeing and recognising itself in a mirror, but in a particular case, noticing and touching a painted mark on its face by looking at its own reflection. Studies have revealed elephants demonstrating awareness of their own bodies and when they needed to cooperate with others.
Their sophisticated communication systems enable them to live within their complex social and family structures, but it appears they can also differentiate between human languages: elephants acted more defensively upon hearing the language of the Maasai, who often have conflicts with elephants, than when they heard the language of another tribe. They also created different alarm calls for humans and bees.
Observations of their empathy and intelligence have also been commonly observed in the wild. Joyce Poole, a renowned elephant conservationist, recalls seeing an elephant flinch as it looked at another elephant reaching out towards an electric fence which was once live, highlighting both memory and empathy.
These traits, in addition to their instinct to mourn the dead, grieve and have rituals when they come across the bones of a dead elephant, show the complexities of their mental capacity and levels of cognition.
If science continues to reveal more about how much they are like us -- will we treat them with more respect, and do more to prevent them from being hurt, or becoming extinct?
In a time when the African elephant population is rapidly plummeting due to poaching for the ivory trade, habitat loss and trophy hunting, we need not only recognise how smart they are, but perhaps to demonstrate how smart we are, by changing the way we treat elephants so that these brilliant creatures can live on.