Elephants have such sad expressive faces that it is hard to imagine how anyone could harm them. They have drawn lips and sagging shoulders; a long, drooping demeanour; sad, knowing eyes capable of laying on the guilt. Yet, it would appear that guilt is not enough to save them. Eighty years ago there were perhaps 6 to 9 million African and Asian elephants. Today there are roughly half a million left. Day by day, they are getting closer to extinction.
Perhaps we need some new ideas. Perhaps it is time for a different perspective on why elephants need saving. Rather than their bodies, maybe it is their shared memories and experience that we might one day come to value. This is the argument that I’d like to put forward in this piece.
Let’s start with their neural hardware. Elephant brains are enormous – far larger than might be expected for a creature of their size. This is partly because, like humans, their brains have been forged over many millions of years of periodic drought and starvation. The world has filled up with the individuals that are the most enduring. Those that are most adept at communicating, supporting, coordinating. Those with a good understanding of family bonds.
Enhanced memory is another attribute commonly found in drought-afflicted creatures: those that remember the location of waterholes will be the ones who thrive. Natural selection favours them. And so it is that elephant brains, like ours, possess over 100bn neurons.
I believe that it is this capacity for memory – or rather, information storage – that we should celebrate in elephants. The old adage that elephants never forget has more than a little truth to it.
Elephant memories and experiences run deeper than we once thought. They can be passed around. They are almost collective.
In 2007 Lucy Bates and colleagues at the University of St Andrews found that elephants in Amboseli national park in Kenya, could smell the difference between local ethnic groups and respond accordingly. They found that elephants reacted more fearfully to the smell of clothes worn by a Maasai man than to those from a Kamba man. Of the two groups, the Maasai are traditional elephant hunters and upon smelling the Maasai clothes, the elephants retreated into long grass.
Significantly, the research project showed young elephants with no direct experience of the Maasai reacted with similar caution when encountering their smell, or their characteristic red clothing. They knew there was something to fear, courtesy of information shared between members of the group. Elephant memories and experiences run deeper than we once thought. They can be passed around. They are almost collective.
Each year we are gaining a better understanding of this collective consciousness among elephants. In 2014 Karen McComb and team found that elephants responded to recordings of humans differently according to the voice. The elephants in the study were able to differentiate between ethnicity, age and gender. Again, male Maasai were most commonly avoided by these elephants. They responded with anxiety to the sound of their voices. They made a judgment call, based on their own experiences or the actions of those around them, to what do you see when you look at an elephant? The world’s biggest land mammal – or a giant data store, sharing information in a living, breathing network?
by Jules Howardun for cover. They plugged into a hidden network of experience.
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