Sara Boboltz The Huffington Post 12/08/2014 13:30 BST |Updated 06/12/2017 22:18 GMT page 1
Okay, fine -- elephants aren't people. But they're like people in a lot of ways, and on World Elephant Day, that counts for something. And yet around 35,000 of these pachyderms were killed in 2013 alone, and there's a continuing demand for their valuable ivory tusks. If we aren't careful, most of these creatures could be extinct by 2020, according to some conservationists. It's a tragedy for any animal to face extinction, but it would seem like a special tragedy to lose this one. Our very history is entwined, with elephants and humans evolving in parallel hundreds of thousands of years ago. While we're still learning about elephant intellect -- a far greater number of studies have been conducted on other large-brained mammals like chimps -- what's been found so far suggests a creature that's kind, self-aware and very loyal. Surprisingly, elephants aren't so different from us.
1. They have a sense of self, like chimps, dolphins and humans... In a 2006 study of three Asian elephants, Emory University researchers placed a mirror in the enclosure of three female Asian elephants. Each creature investigated the mirror by touching it with their trunks to see if it was really another elephant, exploring the back side to see if there was another elephant hiding there, or inspecting some part of herself to see if the reflection copied her. One, named Happy, even passed the "mark test," which included touching a white X the researchers had painted on her (and the other elephants') foreheads, only visible in the mirror. The fact that Happy passed that test, the researchers said, indicates
the capacity of elephants to recognize themselves as individuals rather than just part of a pack. Another test showed that elephants understand pointing, using, of course, their trunks. It sounds simple, but pointing indicates a sense of self, too -- your independent thoughts may be communicated to another through gesture. Even chimps have trouble with pointing.
2. Which allows them to be more empathetic. Having a sense of self, the Emory researchers suggested, may be a reason for elephants' social and altruistic habits. Evidence suggests helping one another out is a regular part of life in an elephant herd. Researchers at an elephant park in Thailand studied 26 elephants in six groups to determine that elephants comfort other elephants during suffering. (No, they didn't stress the creatures out on purpose -- they waited for such an occasion to present itself naturally, like a snake rattling in the grass or the sound of a dog nearby.) They saw the elephants make chirping noises and reassure the unhappy ones with a kind "hug." Previously, this behavior was only seen in apes, wolves and some kinds of birds. Certain anecdotes suggest their compassion extends to other creatures, as well. An elephant in India trained to lower heavy wooden posts into pre-made holes once refused to place one of them until a sleeping dog was shooed from the bottom of the hole.