(19) BeautifulPlanet: Lessons from the Elephants

Listen to the episode HERE.

Photo by Geran de Klerk on Unsplash


INTRO: Hello and welcome to Mind Full of Everything with me, Agrita, a podcast giving an insight to the minds of deep thinkers, where in each episode I’ll be discussing various thoughts and questions deep thinkers often find themselves mind full of, from topics such as climate change to self-development and everything else in between. So let the journey of mind unraveling begin now!

This is a second episode to the series Beautiful Planet. The first episode I talked about trees, and today I’m going to be talking about the species that I love a lot, elephants! So, elephants have been and will continue to be glorified in the animal kingdom. They are very, very powerful mammals and are actually called by many people as the largest creatures that do no harm. 

They have all right to be called majestic and beautiful creatures, but they are also one of the most endangered species in the world. WWF states that only 40- to 50,000 are left in the wild, and this is mainly because of poaching due to ivory although many countries that have actually banned ivory trade and mostly due to habitat loss through human development, especially settlements and agriculture as well. The problem of this is that elephants are transboundary species, they require migration in order to survive. And if their habitat is being destroyed, if it’s being reduced in number, if they can’t access resources on a wide scale, then of course they are going to be reducing in the number of species are in the wild.

So human development, settlements, agriculture, etc. has really impacted this species. I think all species, animals or organisms are amazing in their own sense, but why have we glorified elephants so much? First of all, elephants are very unique organisms in terms of how they are structured, their physical features. They are the largest land mammals currently; they can go up to 13 feet and weigh up to 6-7 tonnes as an adult. 

There are two specific types of elephants, there are the African elephants and the Asian elephants, and they are differentiated by around about 10 or more physical features. Asian elephants are much smaller, so they have smaller ears and they are smaller in size as well, mainly because of the differences in the habitats. African elephants are usually found in the savannah and Asian elephants are mostly found in forests. Only male Asian elephants can grow tusks, so the females don’t. But for African elephants, both female and male elephants grow tasks. 

The tusk is of course a very important feature of the elephant, it is kind of like their hands. They are actually left or right tusked which I find really cute, so they tend to use their left tusk or right tusk more just depending on how they are like. Whenever you see an elephant, you always see that one tusk is smaller than the other and it’s more chipped or worn down than the other because they’re using that much more than the other one.

Their tusks are basically extended teeth and they provide many benefits. For example, they can protect their trunk, they can help them lift heavy objects to access food or to remove any barriers when they’re migrating. They can even help each other out using these tusks. Recently I watched a documentary where a matriarch was helping a calf to come out of the mud because it was stuck, and she was really using her tusk as well as her trunk to help that baby come out.

Males of course use it for mating season to fight off other males. They use it to protect their territory and both female and male elephants use it for defense as well. What’s really sad, however, is that due to extensive poaching in many different areas, many elephants are now showing to select against the growth of tusks because they really want to protect themselves. They don’t want to be killed just for their tusk, which really is invaluable to them, but has no value to us. So, because of the extensive poaching back then and perhaps even now, so many elephants are now starting to not to grow tusks, and those tusks are so important for them. I think that is really, really sad, but it is definitely improving. We still need to sort it out, but is definitely improving. 

The next feature that elephants are really famously known for is their trunks. A single trunk has up to 40,000 muscles in a grown elephant, compared to a human which only has 600 muscles in their entire body. That is amazing. So you really don’t want to be messing with an elephant because that trunk can really sweep away people! Studies have shown the elephants have long trunks to get enough food for their big bodies. So, the soft, palatable, nutritious leaves that are in the canopies, they can easily access them with their trunks. They have no problem in doing that. 

However, their trunk is not just for accessing food that is on a high elevation. It is also really used for smell. Out of all the mammals that exist, elephants have the most amount of smell receptors, so much so that they can actually smell TNT and bombs and remember to stay away from that site. I don’t understand how that really happens because we know what bombs are. We know what explosives are, but elephants don’t, yet that smell of TNT, they can stay away from it because they associate that to danger. Maybe it’s because of the constant interaction that they’ve been having with humans and now they’ve evolved to remember that smell, but I think that is pretty strong. 

Many reports have also shown that African elephants tend to stay away from tribes that have poached them or hunted them in the past compared to tribes that perhaps give them food and let them go about their own way. Human and elephant conflicts have occurred throughout the past, especially when humans have started to increase the amount of settlements that they have. This is a real problem because of course, if we are creating more settlements, if we are creating our infrastructure around their habitats, then these elephants are going to eventually come into our settlements. And because of this, many people have killed them as they compete for resources. 

The reason why they stay away from tribes or people that they associate as danger and threat is because their memory is impeccable. They have an IQ that is very similar to that of a chimpanzee. So essentially us, their brain structure is also very similar to us as well. And because of this, they can associate particular things with smell or certain events that have happened. They remember to stay away from that particular area, from a particular tribe, particular people, etc. because their memory is so sharp. 

Coming back to food, elephants being able to smell out their favorite food may not be as amazing as you think it is. But the fact that they are in massive open areas that have different smells, and yet they are still able to pick out that smell of their favorite food is just amazing in itself. They are massive creatures, yet their smell is just so specific and because of their great memory, they’re able to locate their favorite food. 

In terms of how they tend to live, females and young elephants tend to stay in large groups that are of course full of females. It is always led by a matriarch who is really old, they can be as old as 70 years old. That matriarch really relies on her existing knowledge, the knowledge she has kind of built upon throughout the years, and she leads the group to the safest places for migration, the places that have food. She is a leader. And I think that is amazing to see. I don’t think you really see that in many animals, the matriarch leading the way. Once the males in the group grow up, they hit puberty, they leave the group, and then they joined bachelor groups, or they tend to live in isolation. Really depends on how they are. Female calves tend to stay with that female group for the rest of their life, or they can also leave and join another group. Again, this is all up to the elephant. Females can give birth every four to five years, and pregnancies last around about 22 months, which is the longest for any mammal. Calves can be around about 110 kg when the elephant gives birth to it. Again, they are strong. 

So overall, elephants are very, very beautiful creatures. It makes sense why they’ve been glorified so much, but it’s really not just their appearance or their features that makes them beautiful, because I know they’re very beautiful beings to look at. We actually have quite a lot to learn from these animals, which is why I’ve really created this episode to discuss the two main, the two lessons that we can learn from elephants and these lessons really encompass all the different other lessons that we can learn. But these are the two kind of umbrella lessons if you like. 

The first lesson is preservation and conservation of the environment. First off, elephants are keystone species. They are the largest frugivores that exist, so a large proportion of their diet contains raw fruits. African forest elephants are more frugivorous than African and Asian savannah elephants. As you can imagine, there’ll be more fruits, there’ll be more fleshy fruits in the forest compared to the savannah. So, these tree species that produce these fleshy, tasty fruits really rely on seed dispersal in order to establish their seedlings. You can imagine the large amounts of fruits that elephants eat, a single elephant would eat. So these trees really rely on species like elephants. They can disperse their seeds across distances and a lot of seeds can be dispersed at the same time compared to, let’s say, a fruit bat or any other small creature. What’s also great is that elephant dung is actually really nutrient rich, so it acts like a very rich natural fertilizer, and this is helpful for the trees, so they’re able to increase their spatial distribution as well as providing fertilizer for soil. They’re really known as like the forest gardeners, which is great!

Not only do they help in seed dispersal, they actually provide support for many invertebrate species like dung beetles, which in turn support many insectivorous birds. Really supporting food chains, food webs. Elephant dung disposal has shown to benefit amphibians and fish in water holes. If you come back to plants, dung can actually help algae and a fungi to grow. In my previous episode, the first episode of this series, I talked about how important fungal networks are to trees. If you haven’t already listened to that, please do (HERE). Not only is it important for trees and for the plant kingdom, fungi and algae are actually key food sources for amphibians. For example, star tortoise and the monitor lizard in the tropical region, so in the tropical forests. Without even realising it, elephants eat seeds and they excrete them over large distances, and they literally help so many other organisms along the way without having any clue. All they’re doing is eating and excreting (laughs) yet they’ve helped so many organisms along the way. So many habitats, ecosystems, microcosms really.

Secondly, elephants are ecosystem engineers. So, they really shape their environment and that affects many other species as well. Most of the sources I’ve found were actually based on African elephants being ecosystem engineers, but I’m pretty sure Asian elephants will do the same just because they have very similar structures, even though the size will vary. The way which elephants engineer the environment is destructive in our eyes, but is actually very, very beneficial for the environment that they are “damaging” for us, but really improving for everybody else. 

A study from Georgia Southern university in the U.S. found that areas that were heavily damaged by elephants actually resulted in higher biodiversity than those areas that were absent from elephants and did not have any or very little damage from elephants. Really emphasising the idea that damage and engineering done by elephants is very important for biodiversity. Elephants really just use their entire bodies to change their habitat. They will use their tusks and trunks to uproot trees, to put out grass from the ground, trample over grass. They are clearly doing this for accessing food and removing barriers during migration, but this actually has helped many species to establish habitats, so new habitats are established from this destruction. 

The study was carried out in Northeast Tanzania and the study lasted from 2007-2008 and contained a mix of savannah woodlands and open savannah. They were sampling for 18 herpetofaunal species, so amphibians and reptiles. Areas of high, medium, and low disturbance created by free ranging elephants were located. It’s important to note here that elephants in the study were not domesticated in any way. They weren’t controlled by humans in any way. This destruction would be a reflection of the destruction that would happen in the wild. These areas of disruption where compared to a control site that had no damage done by elephants and was fenced off by an electric fence, so this prevented elephants coming over. They found a greater species richness in areas with the highest amounts of damage compared to the control area that only had about eight hours of the 18 species that they were looking for compared to the highest damage area. The low damage area had around 11 species, so it was basically similar to that of the control area.

This difference in species richness is most likely due to the engineering done by elephants alone, which results in creation of many different habitats. The broken wooden vegetation due to uprooted trees really created a refuge for many insect species, and even smaller prey. The habitat was especially important for insects. As you can imagine, insects that rely on woody vegetation, on wood to survive, but most of all, it really supported the herpetofaunal species. Many because these species, amphibians and reptiles, they aren’t able to migrate as quickly as let’s say, birds, in a short amount of time. So they need to find these locations of insects so that they can of course survive and not depend on migration and like elephants do.

I think there’s two things to learn from this. First being that we humans see damage, destruction as negative, and because of this, again, this has really strengthened the human and elephant conflicts that have occurred because of course, elephants will be coming in and destroying anything in their path, but that is necessary for them. And unfortunately, they will end up damaging infrastructure, crops and because of this, so many elephants and so many humans as well are killed.  In India alone, every year a hundred people, and around about 40 to 50 elephants are killed because of these conflicts, because people see elephants coming into their settlements as destructive, as harmful.

Of course, they do pose a threat, but this study really emphasizes that their destructive nature is very important for the environment. It’s important to create these microcosms, these microhabitats for insects, and for reptiles and amphibians, and essentially just major food chains, food webs that we can’t see until we look at studies like this.

The second thing is that without realizing, without having any idea of the concept of conservation and preservation elephants are able to protect habitats, it’s not just for themselves, but for so many other species. They help so many organisms along the way, whether that’s through seed dispersal, whether that’s through destroying habitats. So why can’t we as humans, who get the concept of conservation and stewardship do the same. If elephants can do all of this without even having any idea that they’re having a positive impact on other organisms, then why can’t we as humans who have full control, full power to improve the world essentially? Why can’t we do the same? 

So that was preservation and conservation of the environment, of the habitat. The second major lesson that we can learn from elephants, the lesson that I really wanted to talk about today is the philosophy of life. Elephants can really teach us a lot about life and death, especially death.

They are the only non-humans that have shown to mourn the dead by performing burial rituals, even returning to graves of their loved ones. This is wild animals I’m talking about, not domesticated beings. This is wild elephants showing respect for their dead loved ones and mourning the dead. The scientist called Shifra Goldenberg from Colorado State University witnessed the mourning live and reported to the National Geographic about this. So, she saw that one of the oldest matriarchs called Victoria died in the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya. When she died, her entire family was with her and they were clearly mourning; her children, her grandchildren were trying to revive her, but she did die. When Goldenberg returned to the carcass weeks later, she found that elephants from separate families, so elephants that weren’t related to Victoria, weren’t directly related to Victoria, they were returning to her carcass and it really looked like they were paying respects to her, even though they didn’t know who she was. Just respecting the fact that she was a matriarch. She was a leader of one of the groups. Even calves were going up to the carcass, smelling it, using their trunks to kind of stroke over the carcass.

They may have just been curious about the carcass. They may have not been mourning, or they might not be remembering anything when they saw the carcass, but the fact that they were so interested by it and they knew that it was an elephant carcass, they knew that it was, perhaps knew that it was a matriarch, just shows the higher level of emotional intelligence that elephants have, just like humans. Most animals tend to not show interest in the dead. They might mourn over the dead, but as soon as that animal is dead, they’ll perhaps leave it somewhere and not come back to it and not inspect the remains or anything like that. But elephants show so much interest in the dead, in death really. Young elephants even portray the same level of interest. They would have no idea about death. They would have no idea about a matriarch that existed before they were born perhaps, or anything like that. Yet they’re showing so much interest in the dead. 

Unfortunately, science can’t really understand their interest in the dead, how they mourn, but I think that just really reflects how complex these majestic animals are. And even though that this interest might not be a way that they mourn, but relatives that are close to the elephant that has died clearly are showing an element of grief. Perhaps not weeks after or when they see the carcass, but definitely when that elephant is dying or when it has just died. There have been accounts of elephants dragging carcasses around because they just can’t let go of their loved one. They can’t accept the fact that their loved one has died. Some actually sway back and forth over the dead body, not leaving it until they realized, okay, it’s time to move on. And some try to revive their lost ones. Other elephants have seen, have been seen stroking grieving relatives or intertwining trunks to make sure that, you know, their relatives are okay. That they are coping with the loss of their loved one. Really mimicking how we console other people when their loved ones have died, how we show respects for those that have died that we were close to our friends and family that we’re close to. 

So, I think what we can really learn from this is that we should not be ashamed to grieve. Everyone has their own way of grieving. How long we grieve for is dependent on us, on our emotional state. And if elephants can show a wide array of ways to grieve, to mourn over the dead, then so can we, we should not be ashamed. We should not be embarrassed by how we grieve. And it’s not just about things, people dying. It’s also about the loss of anything in your life. Additionally, don’t be frightened by death. Elephants know that death is a key aspect of life. They know it and they mourn over the dead because of course, they’re remembering all those memories that they’ve created or those bonds that they’ve created with that elephant.

They know that death is inevitable, and that’s why they don’t perhaps mourn or grieve as much as we do. We of course know that death is a part of life. Nobody is immortal. But I think we do tend to forget that. And if we just see it as a mandatory part of life and learn from it and cherish the memories that we’ve created with people, instead of feeling sad that you no longer have that person in your life is definitely something to pick up from elephants.

This leads onto the next thing about philosophy, lessons from the elephants: the compassion within elephants. As soon as elephants are born, they enter this complex web of relationships. They are brought up by the entire group, not just the mother. So, their aunts, their grandmothers, the matriarch. Every single elephant contributes in raising the calf, which is beautiful. You don’t see that in humans anymore. We definitely used to do that when we were in our social groups, for example, the Stone Age or emerging Homo sapiens, but now everybody just focuses on their family. Everybody wants to just make their kid, or their family feel happy and not really think about anybody else. But elephants, they make sure that every single child is looked after, regardless of the fact that the child is yours or not.

Elephants just like us, use sounds to communicate. They use sounds that is within the human hearing range and also infrasound that is of a very low frequency that we can’t hear. That sound is able to travel miles. So, any elephants that perhaps have been cut off from them because of any geographical barrier or just distant relatives, they can really communicate with them and even synchronize their movements with them so that they can reconnect with them and meet up with them in the future! A technique that is amazing, that we humans don’t have, it’s like their sort of invisible telecommunications system. 

Elephants also communicate through physical contact. So of course, like I said before, mourning elephants stroke each other, come close to each other. Reassure each other that that yes, this person has died, this elephant has died, but I’m going to be with you throughout. Nothing can stop us from being together. When an elephant is distressed, um, not over death, but perhaps over something else. Maybe they’re injured, maybe they are hurts, etc, other elephants have shown to come up to them and you know, intertwine their trunks with them, to kind of pat them, reassuring them that, you know, I’m here. You’re not going to face any other problems. So really, it’s their form of hugging, really reassuring that elephant that everything is going to be okay. 

You might not be a hugger, you might not like to hug or have too much physical contact, but physical contact is definitely very important. A very major aspect to consoling others and to kind of reassure others. You don’t even have to hug! Just kind of patting someone on the back or sitting close to them, building that sort of strong bond. Physical contact is very necessary, even holding hands just to make them know that, you know, I am definitely here for you and I’m going to help you get through this. 

What’s also amazing about elephants is that their compassion is not just limited to elephants, to their species. There’ve been many cases of elephants helping species that are not elephant. They’ve even showed to keep guard of an injured human or to even create a bond with a human that has looked after them. There was a case where a boy, who was a child of an animal shelter owner, I think. He would feed an elephant, he would take care of it. And for some reason he had to leave that shelter or that region, and when he came back around about 23 years later, so he was a fully-grown man, of course, he would look different to what he did as a child, that elephant immediately recognized him. Of course, the guy remembered the elephant, but that elephant immediately recognized him. It’s amazing. Again, it’s because of their memory. But the fact that elephants can easily recognize other elephants, it makes sense. They can easily recognize humans that have grown up? That really doesn’t add up. But again, it just shows that level of compassion and their ability to create strong bonds and not to forget them. Again, teaching us that we need to respect the bonds that we have, respect the people that we have and cherish really our relationships, the true genuine relationships that we make. 

Kind of on the darker side, they’ve also shown to present revenge as well. Most elephant attacks on villages actually happen when mass killings, massacres have occurred, or their relative has been killed by a nearby village. Out of revenge, elephants have destroyed and killed many people straight after a conflict that has occurred between humans and elephants. So again, that shows that emotional intelligence, they’re able to feel anger, revenge, and it also shows that they keep track of where that poacher, where the hunter, the killer has gone so they know where to go and attack. Again showing that really, they show the same levels of emotions as us being wild animals. 

So, to wrap up, elephants are really harmless, beautiful creatures. They just go by their own way, they live their life how they want. Yet they teach everyone so much. Whether it’s about conservation of the environment in the simplest of ways, even through destruction, or caring for those that aren’t even part of their families or not even in their species, are not even elephants, because they understand what pain is.

They have felt pain before, and they understand that others shouldn’t feel pain as well. Yet, these amazing, beautiful animals have been brutally killed in the past and continue to be so for ivory that is only, only valuable for an elephant and has no benefits to us. No medicinal benefits, no aesthetic benefits, literally no benefits to us. 

Or they’ve been killed because they’ve destroyed a place that is necessary, yet it’s important for us. They’ve been killed because we identify us as the important beings on the planet and not them. They’re just “outsiders”. The more we see these animals and essentially any other species as extremely alike to the human race, the more we will realize that these organisms are not just small parts of a big ecosystem, but essentially major controllers of a world that we depend on, ecosystems that we depend on to thrive. And I think the more that we realize that elephants or any other organisms aren’t just biotic components of ecosystems, but are beings of great emotional intelligence, yet they have no idea of the concept of compassion, love, conservation, at least in our language, the more we are able, we will be able to live with these creatures in harmony. Understand their ways of living and how it is much more beneficial than humans.

OUTRO: Thank you for listening. I hope you’ve gained a little more insight to what it’s like to be mind-full of everything. If you haven’t already, hit the subscribe button on your favorite podcast app to be up to date with episode releases, and go over to my website mindfullofeverything.home.blog to get more information. This is Agrita with the Mind Full of Everything podcast, and I shall see you next time!