Conserve elephants. They hold a scientific mirror up to humans

So much to love in this Economist deep dive into saving elephants:

The question, then, is whether elephants and people can ever co-exist peacefully. And many of those who worry that the answer may be “no” fear the loss of more than just another species of charismatic megafauna. Elephants, about as unrelated to human beings as any mammal can be, seem nevertheless to have evolved intelligence, and possibly even consciousness. Though they may not be alone in this (similar claims are made for certain whales, social carnivores and a few birds), they are certainly part of a small and select group. Losing even one example of how intelligence comes about and makes its living in the wild would not only be a shame in its own right, it would also diminish the ability of biologists of the future to understand the process, and thus how it happened to human beings.


Dealing with so many peers, and remembering details of such large ranges, means elephants require enormous memories. Details of how their brains work are, beyond matters of basic anatomy, rather sketchy. But one thing which is known is that they have big hippocampuses. These structures, one in each cerebral hemisphere, are involved in the formation of long-term memories. Compared with the size of its brain, an elephant’s hippocampuses are about 40% larger than those of a human being, suggesting that the old proverb about an elephant never forgetting may have a grain of truth in it.


Bees are the only animals apart from humans that elephants seem truly afraid of. Anecdotally, this has been known for a long time. But the matter has now been studied scientifically by Lucy King, a researcher at Oxford University who is also part of STE. Dr King proved the anecdotes correct by playing the sound of a swarm of angry bees to wild elephants, and videoing the instant, panicked flight it provoked. The reason for this panic is that, although a bee’s sting cannot penetrate most parts of an elephant’s hide, swarms of bees tend to go for the eyes and the tip of the trunk, a pachyderm’s most vulnerable parts. Bees are enemies that no amount of collective defence can discourage.


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