I read the most amazing article recently, about elephants’ ability to recognize and react appropriately to human voice and language. In Kenya, elephants generally encounter people from one of two ethnic groups: Maasai or Kamba. The Kamba tend not to pose a danger to the elephants — while the Maasai often clash with the elephants over land and water rights.
Researchers had elephants listen to recorded voices of adult Maasai or Kamba males saying, in their own language, “Look, look over there, a group of elephants is coming!” They also recorded Maasai females and children saying the same thing. Then they played the recording for family group of 58 elephants. Here’s what happened:
When researchers played a Maasai male voice, elephants immediately started sniffing the air for danger and retreated into a bunched, defensive formation. By contrast, the elephants were unfazed by the Kamba male voice. Further, elephants didn’t seem to mind the voices of Maasai women and children.
Even when researchers re-synthesized the Maasai male voice so it resembled a female’s, the elephants still recognized it was male and acted defensively. The results indicate that elephants can pick up even the subtlest vocal cues to assess the level of a threat.
Many studies besides this one have shown that elephants are extremely intelligent: among other things, it seems they experience a subtle and broad variety of emotions, including joy, playfulness, sadness and grief. They can learn new facts and behaviors, mimic sounds, self-medicate, demonstrate a sense of humor, create art (that is, do activities that seem to have only an artistic or expressive purpose), use tools to complete tasks, and display compassion and self-awareness.
This particular study caught my attention, though, because it demonstrates elephants’ ability to distinguish between humans who are likely to be a threat to them and those who are not. In other words, that they have the capability of trusting (or not trusting) humans based on previous experiences they’ve had with humans of various sorts.
Once I got past feeling sad that some humans are a threat to these gentle, intelligent creatures, it made me think about how casually we assume our own superiority to all other intelligences on the planet. And how, as we spend more time getting curious about highly intelligent animals like chimpanzees, dolphins, elephants, and pigs, our assumptions about our superiority come into question.
Thank goodness that the scientific method, when properly applied, doesn’t allow us to remain in comfortable ignorance, our assumptions unchallenged. I look forward to the day when scientists discover facts that demonstrate beyond doubt that these creatures with whom we share this orb have gifts and capabilities surpassing our own.
Until then, while I may not have proof, I suspect the elephants often pity us, and the dolphins find us amusing.