Sunday, 28 February 2010

Elephant in the Room

“And remember, an elephant never forgets!” – Colonel Hathi, The Jungle Book
Elephants may be well known for their top-notch memory capacities, but what may not be as readily recognized is overall, the elephant’s personality and sociality. For centuries, the wondrous arch great, the elephant, has been looked to as the animal embodiment of human emotion, socialization, and complexity.
Elephants are an extraordinary mammal, and mirror human interaction through highly complex and cooperative social relationships, remarkable intelligence, unusually good memory for individuals and environments, communication, self-awareness and empathy with one another, especially in death situations. Similar to humans, each elephant displays a strong individual personality that affects how they interact with other elephants, how other elephants perceive them and how well they are able to influence members of their group. In other words, there are popular, well-liked, distrusted and grumpy elephants as there are likewise, the same types of people. Elephants also live in tight groups within a social structure hierarchy, much like that of humans. The foundation of elephant socialization is rooted in the family, which eats, sleeps and travels together, forming the closest-knit bond and observable by the “greeting ceremony” family members perform upon meeting, according to The hierarchy extends up to bond groups, which are groups of families that live and travel together, clans, which are elephants that share the same ecological home range.
Unique to elephant existence are their long lives, anatomically big brains and social intelligence in which they have been long considered the most socially intricate and emotionally complex non-human species in all of nature. They have been observed to anticipate the outcome of certain actions, working well in a group with minimal instruction, guarding the bones of dead loved ones, recognizing both human and elephant individuals they have been exposed to and providing comfort to stressed individuals. According to, for almost two thousand years biologists and philosophers have even viewed elephants as quasi-moral agents and many tribal communities still look to the elephant as a communicator from the gods.
In an article published in Orion Magazine titled, “Gray Thunder: Listening to Elephants,” author Cyril Christo breaks down the human/nonhuman divide by revealing some of the tales from mythic times of when humans and elephants lived symbiotically. Much of the lore of the human/elephant relationship came from the early Ndorobo tribe in Kenya and detailed the dependent nature between man and elephant. One tale recounted how the tribe received milk from an elephant cow during drought, and in turn, the elephant clan received honey from the tribe, signaling their inclusion as part of the family. Today in Kenya, the Turkana hold the elephant in high revere, believing it to be next to God and utilized as a communicator between people and God. In believing the elephant to be lord over the land, the Turkana believe that elephants sense when rains are coming, a signal of relief for the tribe that frequently experiences times of drought. The Turkana explain that when people lived in harmony with elephants, without hunting them or invading their territory, that there would always be rain. Since the decline of elephant species and the restlessness of the remaining populations, the Turkana claim to see more of elephants when rain is expected to come.
The Samburu and Maasai use the word tenebo to explain the coherence of elephant family dynamics, using elephant socialization as a model for human interrelationships, according to the Orion article. Psychologically, elephants have been observed to be nurturing, compassionate and attached to what is comfortable and familiar, according to These psychological traits have also been shown to bring out the worst in elephants. After thirty years of elephant poaching and territorial invasion, elephants have displayed the human psychological traits developed after intense stress situations. It has been determined through research and studies that remaining elephants can and have developed post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of being pushed off their land and seeing clan members killed by hunters. Recent events have seen elephants acting out in rage, much like the irrational actions of humans, by killing villagers, raping rhinos and destroying their environment.
An elephant conservatory has been created for some of these elephants suffering from post-traumatic stress in Hohenwald, Tenn., called The Elephant Sanctuary. Founded in 1995, The Elephant Sanctuary is the U.S.’ largest natural habitat refuge developed purposefully for endangered elephants, according to The Elephant Sanctuary’s website. It operates on 2,700 acres with two main goals: to provide a haven for sick or needy elephants in a setting of green pastures and forests and to provide public education about the crisis facing these endangered elephants.
Elephants are considered a species that has evolved along with humans. After years of exploitation, and the violence displayed by elephants today, these creatures need healing and respect from those who have terrorized them. The human bond with elephants that reaches back to the beginning of time should be relied upon once again in pursuit of the discovery of who we were and are as a people.
“Today, humanity needs to reach out to elephants and hear a singular voice, a mind that has evolved with us and influenced us biologically, culturally, and mythically, for our entire evolution.” -Cyril Christo

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