Published: March 2007
Did you Know?
In Did you Know? the National Geographic magazine team shares extra information we gathered to expand your knowledge of our featured subjects.
Did You Know?

Many people who have worked with elephants for years, observing them in the wild and watching their interactions with their family and friends (and, yes, elephants have friends), have spoken of them in largely anthropomorphic terms. Now studies are proving that elephants have both self-awareness and chemical and brain responses that are similar to those shown in humans under similar study conditions.

A team of researchers, including Joyce Poole and Cynthia Moss of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project, reported in Nature in 2005 that elephants in high cull or poaching zones are exhibiting signs similar to human post-traumatic stress disorder, including depression, asocial behavior, and hyperaggression. They state that, "Calves witnessing culls and those raised by young, inexperienced mothers are high-risk candidates for later disorders." Young elephants depend on the older elephants in their strong social structure to rear them in the ways of being elephants—when the family and herd structures break down, so does behavior. (It should be noted, though, that Mike Fay said he did not see any signs of trauma in the Zakouma elephants, just joy.)

In November 2006, after studies had shown that dolphins were capable of recognizing themselves in a mirror—an indicator of self-awareness—Asian elephants were tested and were shown to be responsive to "mark tests." This means that if an elephant saw a mark on the elephant it saw in the mirror, it reached to touch that spot on itself. MRI scans of an elephant's brain taken in 2006 show a huge hippocampus, as well as a structure in the limbic system, and together these may indicate strong memory and emotion centers.

The findings of these studies become particularly relevant when elephant family structures are broken in regions where human and elephant populations live in proximity, and these herds are often the main targets for culling. The IUCN (World Conservation Union) African Elephant Specialist Group has come up with guidelines for moving elephants in crowded areas and recommends that herds be moved intact to avoid social fragmentation, but the measure is voluntary and quite expensive.

The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust has posted a moving account of the care needed to raise a healthy and well-adjusted baby elephant that can be successfully reintroduced to the wild. With a carefully regulated diet of milk formula and hands-on personal care and attention, the Sheldrick Trust has helped more than 30 orphaned elephants thrive in the past 20 years. While a notable accomplishment, it would be better if young elephants, like these orphans, had been raised by their own families, and, thus, were able to pass on centuries of valuable, accumulated elephant social knowledge.

—Elizabeth Snodgrass