Elephants and People

I just returned from Thailand to check into the Living Links elephant project, headed by graduate student Joshua Plotnik, who will be staying there for at least one year.

It’s amazing how silent elephants can be if they want to. They walk up to you without you ever noticing, walking on velvet cushions, with a very flexible gait, and in fact much faster than you’d think. We always imagine elephants as stamping, sending vibrations through the ground, but I felt I had to watch my back standing among them at the Elephant Nature Park, near Chiang Mai, and later the Thai Elephant Conservation Center, near Lampang. The big difference with most observers of African elephants is that one is NOT in a Jeep: one stands there next to these mighty beasts and one senses right away how tiny and vulnerable the human race is.

Elephants are magnificent. But the elephant story in Thailand is also a sad story of changing habits and increasing neglect and abuse. This is why the above centers exist: to collect elephants abandoned by their owners or elephants in poor physical shape (such as land-mine victims), so as to provide them with appropriate retirement at a facility with excellent food and care. All elephants have a mahout who keeps them under control, which is the only way of caring for elephants short of releasing them. The latter may seem preferable, but in a populated nation such as Thailand, and given the danger elephants pose to people, “liberating” the elephants means almost certain death hence is not really an option.

I was thoroughly impressed by the commitment of those who care for them, who devote their lives to making sure the elephants can either live with others either under semi-free conditions or in a situation where they conduct shows and trainings, including music performances and demonstrations of how elephants were used in the logging industry.

At the Thai Elephant Conservation Center, I found it fascinating to see the degree of cooperation elephants are capable of. Our own research is of course not on trained behavior, or musical performance, but rather on spontaneous social skills, including coordination between individuals. The fact that elephants can be trained, however, to walk in perfect synchrony side-by-side, carrying a log between them while the mahouts on their heads are chatting and laughing and looking around (hence, certainly not directing every move), must mean that these animals are natural cooperators. Training is obviously part of the picture, but one cannot train any animal to be so coordinated. One can train dolphins to jump in synchrony because they do so in the wild, and one can teaches horses to run together at the same pace because wild horses do the same. For the same reason, one can train two elephants to pick up a log together and carry it to another place, walking in perfect synchrony, and lowering the log slowly together to set it down at the very same second on a pile, because elephants must be extremely coordinated in the wild.

I will leave it to Josh to report on the social behavior observed in these animals, but I came away with a deep admiration for them as their intelligence and sociality seemed on a par with those of the primates.

At the Elephant Nature Park, the animals are semi-free. They are always accompanied by mahouts, but relatively free to explore the environment and interact with other elephants.

–Frans de Waal