The Psychology of an Elephant
We all know elephants are smart, but remarkably, little empirical, scientific evidence exists to support this. Why? Well, it's very difficult to study elephants in the wild, and even more difficult to find situations in which controlled experiments with elephants can be conducted. 50 years of systematic field observations by researchers in Africa (and to a far lesser extent, Asia) have provided a very good starting point for those interested in studying the elephant mind. Elephants live in complex societies with family units at their core, made up largely of adult females and their young. Males leave their family units at maturity and either form bachelor herds or go off on their own to seek out unrelated mates. The social relationships of elephants described in popular books and scientific papers authored by some of the world's best known elephant researchers suggest elephants are highly emotional, empathic, altruistic animals that defend their family from potential predators and threats. It is this empathic behavior – e.g., helping prostrate or injured animals out of precarious situations, targeting help toward others in need, or mirroring the distress of others – that drives much of the work done by TEI scientists.
An Evolutionary Conundrum with Elephants
Psychologists and evolutionary biologists typically study non-human primates to better understand where along the evolutionary tree human traits originally evolved. In other words, how far back can we find common ancestors for particular human traits? We study chimpanzees to better understand human physiology, anatomy, behavior, and the brain. The common ancestor for chimpanzees and humans is believed to have lived 5-7 million years ago, whereas the common ancestor for humans and elephants lived at least 600 million years ago. Thus, the similarities between humans and elephants are likely due to the environment and not genetics. This means that finding similarities in human and elephant social behavior, problem-solving, and memory is exciting because it would support the idea that certain species evolved separately from humans but under similar environmental circumstances. Why are elephants so social? Why do they live in such complex family groups? Do they have empathy, and how can we test this?
How do elephants "see" their world - with their eyes, their ears or their trunks? These questions lead us to testable hypotheses and hopefully exciting answers about the evolution of intelligence in this remarkable animal.
Applying Elephant Behavior to Conservation Practice
By studying elephants, we hope to better understand how intelligence evolves in nature, and how animals think about their natural world. This is interesting and exciting not only from a biological perspective (described above), but also from a practical, conservation perspective as well. Elephants are highly endangered in range countries, due almost entirely to human-elephant conflict and poaching. In the former, elephant and human habitat are rapidly and dangerously overlapping, leaving farmers desperately trying to protect their crops from invading elephants and elephants desperately trying to protect their families from invading humans. It is a problem that many conservation organizations are trying to tackle simultaneously and from different angles. Recently, government officials have expressed frustration with the lack of progress, specifically citing a general lack of elephant behavior knowledge. How can we solve such a complex problem if we only take a human perspective? Think Elephants International's view is in line with trying to alleviate this frustration. The more we can learn about how elephants "see" their world and what environmental pressures drive their physical and social needs, the more likely we are to develop successful protocols for mitigating human-elephant conflict.