What I Wish More People Knew About Elephants

Written by Dereck Joubert

If you haven’t heard yet, you will soon: thousands of elephants are being slaughtered each year. When elephants “give up” their teeth (ivory) to us to make amazing carvings or pianos or trinkets, they are actually "giving up" their lives!

A survey in China found that around 80% of its 1.3 billion citizens either have some ivory or want to own some. When pushed further, 84% of those who wanted ivory had absolutely no idea that ivory came from dead elephants! (Somewhere along the line, in some TV show or magazine or at a bar, the rumor started that elephants' teeth drop out and can be collected.)

Well, what actually happens is that their teeth wear down and are pushed out. While tusks are technically the remnants of incisors, they are not teeth any more. Elephants keep their tusks for life. They are only "relinquished" by a traumatic death and a bloody procedure that usually involves hacking the face off. Last year alone, 30,000 elephant faces were hacked off.

But let’s step back a little and try to understand why we should care. Personally, I always find it helpful if I share something with that other individual — a language, a value system — anything that makes it easier to identify with, and bond the two of us. Once I find this common ground, it's much harder to have zero empathy.

Years ago, scientists assured us that that we humans deserved dominion over animals. One characteristic that was believed to be uniquely ours, and thus a sign of our superiority, was intelligence. And intelligence was thought to be signified by communication and the formation of language.

So one of the things I would like for everyone to know is that elephants have language and have mastered the art of communicating in ways we have not even thought of ourselves. The great scientific work of Cynthia Moss and Joyce Poole in Kenya as well as Katy Payne in Namibia all confirm that not only do elephants have a wide range of calls that mean different things, but many of these sounds are below our audible range limit, meaning they've been hidden from us until recently.

Another, once distinguishing feature of Man was often said to be our ability to think in Past, Present, and Future (both Jung and Freud agreed on this). While of course every being thinks in the present and there is no debate about that, guess what? Elephants understand the past. In fact, we have seen extraordinary burial rituals and evidence of memory as old companions come by piles of bones and old ivory from a fallen herd member and spend hours there, rumbling and groaning, rolling the bones and marching off with the ivory.

Elephants also understand future-thinking. We’ve seen them plan a shortcut to a waterhole or a round-trip around a new camp and sense the rain in a storm 50 miles away and start a journey, knowing that at a certain spot in the future, there will be fresh water and grass shoots will emerge.

We humans have made ourselves feel better by saying our problem-solving abilities are unique. Well, I’ve seen elephants look at a life-threatening problem and figure it out quickly. I’ve seen them knock down a tree to get over a ravine or (less nobly) seen an old bull elephant come to an electric fence, sense the pending shock (future thinking) then call a young bull over, (language) and knock him over the fence and short it out (problem solving). We've seen that same elephant step gently through the wires and go on his way (leaving behind a stunned, but wiser young bull).

We once thought that altruism was uniquely ours as humans. It’s that fairly unique ability to be unselfish, one that frankly we have not yet embraced fully ourselves, but that is considered the highest form of a civilized person. It's a complex and sophisticated behavior. I knew a man once who shot elephants for a living. His name was Clem Coetzee, and he was not an unlikeable man, given that he had shot over 10,000 elephants by the time we met. Even though we were on polar opposites of the debate about "managing" elephants, we still had many tense conversations.

Clem explained that shooting a herd of elephants is easy because all you have to do is identify the matriarch and walk right at her. She will call her herd together silently alarmed at first (language) then more vocally, and they will bunch together, then she will charge to protect everyone else, often giving them a chance to get away, selflessly throwing herself at the danger. The first bullet was reserved for her, then as she collapsed, the rest of the herd mulled around confused, leaderless, not wanting to leave her in case their help would save her (altruism again). And the rest was easy.

In fact, through conversations with Clem, I realized that elephants are so much like us in every way: They practice language, problem solving, altruism, compassion, forward thinking, and the ability to enjoy play for no reason but for fun. They have even been known to paint very impressive art.

But elephants have yet to achieve a unique behavior that we can claim as wholly ours. Only we, homo sapiens, are capable of killing other species simply for pleasure and fun. Of course, I understand that we human are unrivalled in our mental sophistication. Elephants won't produce the next Mozart (though they can appreciate him). We are the one species that can so completely alter our landscape and everything in it, positively or negatively.

Hunting one of the last giant elephant bulls and mounting those tusks as a trophy and sign of power is an aberrant past-time. It demeans us. As humans, we all understand that compassion and empathy are good things, but we still go out and destroy something beautiful and magnificent and we don’t do it for meat but as "recreation" in the West.

We display the trophies of these animals as a sign of our wealth and power and youth (even though the average age of a hunter of elephants is over 60). In the East, we buy ivory because we love the stuff, it looks good on display, and says something about our wealth and power and taste.

But all it really does is display our weaknesses, our selfishness, our lack of empathy, lack of respect, and limited intelligence. Elephants embody all the traits we hold dear in ourselves, and as their population dwindles from nearly five million 50 years ago to just 350,000 today and we kill them at a rate of five an hour, we drift further from those very admirable traits ourselves and I am left with the realization that perhaps early scientists were right, we’re not anything like elephants at all.

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