Many people are aware that Hannibal brought elephants with him across the Alps when he attacked Rome over two thousand years ago. But a lot fewer people realize that long before that, elephants roamed California.

Fossil evidence shows that the elephant family was once composed of dozens of species, distributed throughout the world. Today, only three species of elephants remain: the Asian elephant, and two species of African elephant. Sadly, these last remaining members of this truly remarkable family are threatened with extinction. And for the most part, it is humans who are to blame.

Elephants have a spectacular ability to capture our imagination. These magnificent creatures — enormous in stature and with their signature trunks and tusks — have long fascinated, terrified, and enchanted us. They are truly unique in the animal kingdom. Which makes the potential loss of this once great animal family all the more tragic.

Asian Elephant Intelligence

But the grandeur of elephants is not just in their impressive size, or in their strange and unique facial features. They are also remarkably social, intelligent, and emotional beings.

Giant Geniuses

When you think about it, that elephants might be one of the world’s most intelligent creatures isn’t exactly surprising. After all, they have some of the largest brains. Elephants have considerably larger brains relative to their body size than whales. In fact, they have about the same brain-to-body weight ratio as our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees.

Of course, brain size might not necessarily correlate to intelligence. But elephants also have about 257 billion neurons. By comparison, we humans have 86 billion.

A lot of that cerebral energy is devoted to communication. Elephants are famous for their ability to produce a wide range of vocal sounds, from soft murmurs and chattering to deafening trumpet blasts. And with their incredible ears, elephants are listening to a lot more than we could imagine. We can’t even hear some of their communicative sounds without equipment.

It isn’t surprising, then, that elephants have highly developed communication skills. Elephants can recognize the specific voices of other elephants from great distances. While we don’t understand their language, elephants have been seen to confer with each other and make group decisions and to cooperate socially. They communicate their emotions vocally, and respond to the emotions of others.

Wild Elephant

Elephants are one of the few animals we have observed that go out of their way to try to cheer up other members of their group . Elephants that had been in a fight or are upset have often been seen receiving comforting attention from other elephants. Elephants will stroke and chirp at a friend that has been frightened or is anxious, and stressed out elephants will signal their discomfort to other so that they might be consoled.

But maybe the aspect of elephant behavior that has most stunned us is their treatment of the dead. Elephants are one of the few non-human animals which we have observed to care for their deceased. Elephants are fascinated by the bones of other elephants, but not by the bones of other large mammals. They touch them, carry them, examine them. They recognize in the bones the elephant that once was. And when they experience the death of a family member, they grieve.

Elephants collectively mourn the deaths of their fallen friends. They will often stay by the side of a dying elder, even if they aren’t directly related. Mothers grieve lost infants, and elephants have even been seen covering the bodies of their deceased comrades in soil and leaves.

Yet despite the incredible insights into elephant intelligence which we have gained in recent decades, we continue to kill these beautiful creatures, and to destroy their homes.

Poaching & the Ivory Trade

Every year, tens of thousands of elephants are killed in Africa. The primary cause for this slaughter is the demand for ivory. Over the past centuries, the ivory trade has wiped out the elephant population in North and South Africa. By the 20th century, most elephants had been eliminated from West Africa as well. Many of these elephants were killed for the production of piano keys and billiard balls.

Ivory Trade Elephants 1880s

Many people believe the ivory trade is a thing of the past, but sadly this is not the case. After a precipitous decline in elephant populations in the 20th century, a ban was theoretically introduced on the international sale of ivory in 1990. But the trade and poaching continues both legally and illegally, with the profits sometimes funding corrupt governments and rebel groups in southern Africa.

It wasn’t until 2014 that the importing of ivory was banned in the U.S. Meanwhile, some southern African countries continue to promote the trade against the wishes of their African neighbors. Today, rising demand in China and Japan is reigniting the international ivory trade, and the past few years have seen a resurgence in poaching.

Habitat Loss and Climate Change

Sadly, poaching is not the only threat elephants face. Habitat loss due to deforestation, farming and climate change are putting added pressures on already diminished populations.

The loss of habitat and encroachment also means that elephants are running into more confrontations with people. Elephants are often seen as threats, either to human safety or to crops, and so they are killed. Of course, with the resurgence in the ivory trade, there is also a financial incentive to kill the elephants.

Both humans and elephants die in these confrontations. Hundreds of people are killed just in India. It is important both for the safety of humans and for elephants that these amazing animals be given the space they need to survive.

Elephants in Captivity

Sadly, these incredible and intelligent beings are still kept in captivity around the world for human amusement. They are kept in zoos, circuses, and amusement parks where they are used to entertain tourists and visitors.

The lifespan of elephants in captivity is about half that of wild elephants. The conditions are so bad for that captive populations are not self-sustaining. In order for zoos and circuses to keep up their elephant populations, they need to bring in elephants captured from the wild.

These intelligent, curious and far-traveling animals cannot adapt to life in captivity. Researchers have found that most captive elephants in North America are overweight or obese and suffer from various physical maladies. But most disturbingly, more than half of the elephants observed displayed behavior tics, such as rhythmical swaying. These tics are signs of psychological disorder. We simply cannot recreate the conditions these sophisticated creatures need in a zoo.

Protect Elephants

There are thousands of elephants being kept in captivity, for profit, around the world.  These are creatures that can use tools, and recognize themselves in mirrors. They comfort each other when they are sad, and they bury their dead. These are beings who clearly are deserving of our respect. And yet we still keep them in captivity for our amusement, and continue to kill them so that desk ornaments can be made from their bones.

It is our responsibility to protect the last descendants of the great elephant family. We need to continue pressuring governments to stop the ivory trade once and for all. We need to preserve their homes, and provide them with the protection they need to live in the wild, while providing viable economic alternatives for local communities. And we need to put an end to the captivity of these wonderful, emotional and intelligent beings.

Photo Credits

Two-Elephants” by Mohan Raj – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Big 5 – Elephant” by Caitlin. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Ivory 1880s” by unknown (maybe by the Zangaki Brothers, active in Egypt and Palastine, 1880s/1890s) – http://www.bassenge.com/. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Elephant sunset” by Jon Rawlinson. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0