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The common ground of elephants and humans

The common ground of elephants and humans

Elephant family mourning
Elephant family mourning

Throughout time, elephants have had a curious effect on people, creating a sense of reverence and respect. Of course, their massive size and immense strength is enough to demand it. But elephants and humans have much in common, including their intelligence.

An elephant’s life span of upwards of 65 years in the wild matches that of humans and has a parallel rate of development, reaching sexual maturity in the early teen years. Both people and elephants have complex social lives and family structure.

Both love, protect, and nurture family members and educate the young with the skills and knowledge they need to survive. Like humans, elephants are not born with natural survival instincts and need to be taught these by their mothers and other female guardians. Lessons include how and where to feed, to use tools, what to be aware of and to understand their place in their social structure. Elephants live within tightknit family units, or breeding herds, that may form part of larger kinship groups. The matriarch is usually the oldest and largest, while her immediate family herd is comprised of daughters, nieces, sisters and the young male counterparts.

Juvenile males will begin spending less and less time with their immediate family as they enter their teen years. They eventually leave their family herd to bond with other males living among a loose group of friends, or bachelor herds, that may travel for years together, break, regroup and occasionally visit their own family from time to time.

Within both types of elephant groups there is a hierarchy and they show respect to their elders. They can be devastated by the death of one of their members. Elephants can reason and display emotions, including joy, playfulness, grief and mourning.

In addition, elephants are able to learn new facts and behaviours. They mimic sounds that they hear, can selfmedicate, play with a sense of humour, perform artistic activities, use tools and display compassion and altruistic behaviours. They have been known to come to the aid of other species in distress, including humans.

Elephants even display self-recognition and recognise themselves in a mirror, which is extremely rare in the animal kingdom. Scientifically, this can be explained by the fact that the elephant’s brain is similar to that of humans in terms of structure and complexity. It is specially designed to accomplish life-long learning. It has as many neurons and synapses as a human’s; the volume of their cerebral cortex (used for cognitive processing) exceeds that of any primate species.

The hippocampus (linked to emotion and memory) is proportionally larger than that of humans or other known intelligent species, and is highly convoluted, which is associated with complex intelligence. This possibly explains why elephants suffer from psychological flashbacks and the equivalent of post-traumatic stress disorder. For me, as someone who has spent many hours, many days for many years monitoring and documenting elephants, the physiological facts only confirm what I believe can easily be observed.

Conservation issues concerning elephants are multifaceted and complex. I believe if more people were to understand elephants as beings, they might appreciate elephants’ similarities to their own lives. Which would, I hope, create respect and consideration for efforts to help both species share land and resources.

If you encounter an elephant along the roadside, show respect for its space and appreciate the moment together. If you aren’t paying attention and don’t choose your behaviour carefully, he will. And remember this, truly, an elephant never forgets!

Read more about the region in our destination guide:

Read more from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 06, Sept 2011)

Read more on elephants from the Zambezi Traveller:

From the Zambezi Traveller Directory:
Elephants Without Borders