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Note: This article is from Conservation Magazine, the precursor to Anthropocene Magazine. The full 14-year Conservation Magazine archive is now available here.

Like Humans, Like Elephants

July 30, 2008

By Martin Meredith

An increasing number of scientists appear willing to cross into the forbidden territory of anthropomorphism in their quest to understand the animal world. In the case of elephants, a recent spate of brutal attacks has prompted some notable examples of how some animals are more like us than we might be willing to admit.

Gay Bradshaw, a psychologist at the environmental-sciences program at Oregon State University, is at the forefront of such thinking. She’s begun matching studies of elephant behavior with insights about trauma that are drawn from human neuroscience. Working with people such as Alan Schore, an expert on trauma and early human brain development, she is assessing the impact on Africa’s elephant herds of the modern hazards they face: armed poachers, human encroachment, habitat loss, and culling, and even conservation efforts such as translocations. Her conclusion is that elephants caught up in violence and mayhem experience something akin to post-traumatic stress disorder.

A dramatic example occurred in South Africa after a group of adolescent bull elephants whose family members had been gunned down during a culling operation in Kruger National Park were transported to another wildlife reserve. There they embarked on a killing spree lasting several years and leaving more than 100 dead, including 40 white rhinoceroses. The killing stopped only when older male elephants were shipped in from Kruger, establishing a new male hierarchy and keeping the adolescents in check.

Worried by an increasing number of examples of hyperaggression and other abnormal behavior, elephant researchers have raised the possibility that traumas affecting elephant life are causing what amounts to a breakdown in elephant society. Like the human world, elephant society is anchored to family life and discipline. Like humans, young elephants require a prolonged period of nurture within family units to prepare them for adult life. Without family support, they are in danger of becoming delinquents. Whatever damage is inflicted on family structures, therefore, has a profound and lasting effect.

And it seems that we’re not just talking about elephants in this regard. In an article in the January 2007 online edition of The Anatomical Record, two New York-based scientists, Patrick Hof and Estel Van Der Gucht, report that they have discovered that whale brains contain spindle cells, previously thought to exist only in humans and great apes. In humans, spindle cells regulate emotions such as love and suffering and encourage the development of social interaction.

Of course, nonscientists like me have long been content to accept that animals display humanlike characteristics. A wealth of folklore exists to prove it. But it’s nice to know that
scientists are at last catching up with the rest of us.

About the Author

Martin Meredith is the author of Elephant Destiny: Biography of an Endangered Species in Africa. His most recent book is The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence.

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