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The Elephant in the Room

by Mary Tjotjos

The Greek philosopher Aristotle described the elephant as “the animal that surpasses all others in wit and mind.” Today, most scientists would agree. They consider the elephant to be one of the most intelligent of all species. Elephants engage in tool use, such as using branches for accessing food that is out of reach of their trunks, and they cooperate with one another to solve problems, such as working together to rescue a calf. They recognize themselves in mirrors, which is one of the criteria scientists use to determine if an animal is self-aware. Their impressive memories enable them to remember one another, as well as other animals and humans, over several decades.

Elephants communicate over long distances (as far as six miles) by making very low infrasonic (below the range of human hearing) rumbling sounds that they “listen” to with the pads on their feet. Their incredibly sensitive feet can also sense approaching storms that are as far as 150 miles away. In captivity, elephants have demonstrated that they can mimic both human speech and the vocalizations of other elephant species. Elephants have long been known for their remarkable memories, and scientists now believe that they may actually pass on memories from matriarch to matriarch in a kind of cultural transmission. Finally, elephants perform ritual-like behaviors around newly dead elephants and even over the bones of long-dead elephants, suggesting that they have an understanding of death.

Despite their impressive “wit and mind,” it is the elephant’s heart that seems to have touched us most deeply. Known for their kindness and compassion, elephants care for and protect one another by providing assistance to ill, injured and trapped herd members. They have been seen holding one another up when injured, rescuing one another’s calves from river currents and predators, and removing darts and spears from one another’s bodies. They have rescued and protected humans and acted altruistically toward other species, too.

Given all the remarkable qualities that these extraordinary animals possess, why is our species still slaughtering them? According to the Elephant Crisis Fund (elephantcrisisfund.org), an elephant is killed every 15 minutes for his ivory tusks. This amounts to roughly 100 elephants per day and 33,000 per year.

The website tells us that the crisis isn’t just devastating to the elephants, but also to the natural ecosystems of Africa and Asia. The Elephant Crisis Fund explains that the ivory trade supports multinational crime syndicates, terrorist organizations, and is linked to drug smuggling and human trafficking. So killing elephants doesn’t just impact elephants—it impacts all of nature and humanity, too.

There are plenty of reasons to stop killing elephants. But why do we even need a reason to stop killing such a magnificent, kind, intelligent and altruistic species? When it comes to conservation—of elephants and any other species—the “elephant in the room” is the increasingly pressing question: What sort of species do we want to be? Do we really want to be the species responsible for the extermination of creatures as extraordinary as elephants? Or tigers? Or monarch butterflies? Or any of the other 41,000-plus species facing extinction?

In his book, Elephantoms: Tracking the Elephant, naturalist Lyall Watson describes an encounter with a female elephant who was the last remaining member of her herd. The elephant hadn’t been seen in months when she happened to appear at the same beach where Watson was whale-watching. Watson knew that blue whales produce low-frequency calls, and he assumed that the vibration he felt was coming from the whale’s infrasonic calls. But when he sensed a vibration coming from the land behind him, he was puzzled. So he looked around and saw the missing elephant matriarch standing at the edge of the ocean.

Watson was struck by the image of loneliness that the elephant presented—a grandmother of many without any of her own kind. As he was pondering the elephant’s plight, he felt the vibration again and saw the blue whale on the surface of the sea. It was then that he realized the elephant had come to the beach for the whale. The largest animal in the sea and the largest on land were only 100 yards apart and Watson was convinced that they were communicating in infrasonic frequencies. He mused that they were there—each almost the last of its kind—to call out to each other across the species divide.

Adapted in part from When Animals Rescue: Amazing Stories About Whales, Lions, Elephants, and More Who Save, Protect, and Comfort by Belinda Recio (Skyhorse Publishing, 2020)

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