Before I started to work with elephants, I only knew about their appearance (big, grey, long trunk, wrinkled skin) and ability to cry and remember things for a very long time. That was about it. Taking care of them enhanced my knowledge at once. Who knew they eat up to 200kg a day (and therefore spend most of their day eating), drink 3 times a day, and only need 5h of sleep?
Fascinated by these animals, I’ve spent the last week reading up about them (e.g. ‘Elephants on the Edge: What animals teach us about humanity’ by G.A. Bradshaw) and discovered new astonishing facts. Check out my current favorites below!
1) Elephants can recognize themselves in a mirror.
According to scientists, this demonstrates elephants’ self-awareness. Few other nonhuman species are able to do so, such as (some) chimpanzees, gorillas, and dolphins. Elephants’ self-knowledge and sense of self gives them the ability to wait, plan and seize a propitious fleeting circumstance to act upon… just like humans!
2) Elephants are vocal learners.
Similar to parrots, elephants can recognize different sounds and imitate them. For example, they have been heard mimicking the sound of lawnmowers or trucks.
3) Elephants show an understanding of death.
They display grief, bury their victims, and visit the bones of long-lost relatives repeatedly (mostly once a year). These grieving and mourning rituals all form part of a complex ‘elephant culture’, which – yes! – does exist.
4) Elephants’ personalities and moods are as colourful as ours.
Each elephant has a unique set of personality traits and features. While one elephant is sensitive and easily wounded, another is courageous and adventurous. Scientists have known gentle, loving and caring elephants as well as shy and remote ones. The range of feelings and moods elephants display is just as diverse. They can feel happiness, sadness, envy, jealousy, compassion and depression. They are placid or volatile, act fiercely competitive, throw tantrums, and clearly miss an absent loved one.
5) Inter- or intra-species violence is uncommon among elephants.
In fact, the majority of male-male contests end with the weaker male backing down, having both recognised its opponent’s superior strength and assessed the likelihood of winning a fight. Unfortunately, elephant behaviour has changed recently, with attacks on other species (rhinoceros!) and human-elephant conflicts (HEC) now occurring throughout the world. These violent outbursts arise in particular as a result of loss of natural habitat, increased human populations and other human actions (e.g. poaching, abuse in captivity).