An Asian elephant.

An Asian elephant. Shutterstock


Understanding How Elephants Think Is Key to Protecting Them

Conflicts between elephants and humans are on the rise. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, animal cognition expert Joshua Plotnik talks about his research into the thinking of Asian elephants and how what he is learning could help save the world’s largest land animal.

As human populations steadily increase, the habitat for wild animals is shrinking and violent conflicts between wildlife and people are becoming more frequent. This is certainly the case with elephants in many parts of Asia, where encroaching human populations have led to elephants raiding farmers’ crops and trampling fields to get to ancestral water holes.

Joshua Plotnik, an assistant professor of psychology at Hunter College in New York City, is an expert on elephant cognition and behavior and seeks to use those insights to help mitigate these conflicts in Thailand and other countries. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he stresses the importance in conservation of getting into the minds of elephants, which, in contrast to humans and other primates, rely heavily on smell and sound to understand the world. Plotnik also discusses how his work has shown elephants to be self-aware and empathetic creatures whose ability to think through problems rivals, and in certain respects exceeds, that of the great apes.

Joshua Plotnik

Joshua Plotnik

“If we don’t understand elephant behavior, we can’t come up with good solutions for protecting them in the wild,” says Plotnik. “One thing is certain — if we want elephants to continue to exist in the wild, we have to protect habitat. We have to make sure elephants have the resources they need to be elephants.”

Yale Environment 360: How have elephant populations been faring in Asia and beyond?

Joshua Plotnik: Not well. In Asia, some estimates say that there are 30,000 or 40,000 elephants remaining. In Africa, the numbers are likely between 500,000 and 700,000. In Africa, you have had populations decimated by poaching largely due to a demand for ivory products. In countries like Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Myanmar, the biggest problem is human-elephant conflict. So while there is sporadic poaching for ivory in Asia, as well, and now a very scary trade for other elephant body parts, most of the problems involve loss and fragmentation of habitat, which is making it difficult for elephant family groups to survive.

e360: You’ve worked in Thailand. What is the situation like there?

Plotnik: In Thailand, you have a government that cares very much about protecting elephants, but the problem is people there have limited access to land, and the best available land has been set aside for wildlife, so you have rising levels of conflict. As their wild range shrinks and more people are moving to the borders of national parks, elephants, while often looking for higher-quality food, find themselves inside farmers’ croplands.

This leads to conflict and sometimes to the death of elephants and of people. People sometimes die when they try to confront this large, dangerous, intelligent animal. It’s not surprising, when you have two species that were not meant to share a habitat suddenly sharing one.

“By putting up an electric fence, you’re not preventing the elephants from wanting to get what’s on the other side.”

e360: As I understand it, the main reason elephants raid crops is because they are hungry?

Plotnik: That is one reason. What is really interesting to me is that I’ve heard reports, some from India, of elephants destroying crops without eating them. So that might be because the intensity of that conflict is so high that the elephants are just angry, and they are intelligent enough animals that I would not be surprised if they were retaliating against people. We don’t have any hard, empirical evidence for this yet, but the variety of conflict across different landscapes makes this is a scary possibility. So when I hear stories like this I ask: Is it because the elephants are hungry? Is it because they are angry? Is it because their habitat is fragmented?

e360: First you have to find out what the problem is?

Plotnik: That’s right. It is possible that if the elephants had other resources or a larger area to live in they might not enter the cropland. So figuring out exactly how to tackle this is the difficult part, and that’s the part that comes later. The first part involves learning more about elephant behavior, specifically when the elephants are in the middle of these risky crop-raiding situations. My future work in Thailand will involve observing elephants from watchtowers that we are building to actually see how elephants are interacting with one another and with farmers in such situations. If we don’t understand elephant behavior, we can’t come up with good solutions for protecting them in the wild.

e360: The ways we’ve been trying to deal with conflict between humans and elephants in the past have not always worked.

Plotnik: One of the main strategies up until now has been setting up some sort of physical barrier or fence to keep elephants and humans apart. This may help in the short term. Because the situation is so bad, we may need these short-term fixes to stop the escalation of the conflict. But the problem is they don’t work in the long run, because they don’t address the issue of why the elephants are doing this in the first place. By putting up an electric fence, you’re not preventing the elephants from still wanting to get what’s on the other side of that fence. We want to target our mitigation strategies to actually prevent conflict, rather than just keeping elephants and humans apart.

“Elephants are acoustic and olfactory animals, and they use those senses much more than the sense of sight.”

e360: Is there something that we can offer elephants that will induce them to behave as we want them to and to stay out of harm’s way?

Plotnik: Well, we don’t have a great answer for that yet. But the idea is that you first have to identify what the elephants want and need— in some cases it might be access to larger areas of land, it might be access to particular types of food and water, access to mates or other individuals within their social group. What is encouraging them to engage in this risky behavior? If you find out that they don’t have the food they need, or their social group has been disrupted, then you can come up with management techniques that remedy those situations. Wildlife officials could potentially provide elephants with areas of land where high-quality food is made available, or perhaps focus on creating corridors where those elephants are kept away from farmlands.

One thing is certain — if we want elephants to continue to exist in the wild, we have to protect habitat. This is the only solution. We have to make sure elephants have the resources they need to be elephants.

e360: You study elephant cognition and intelligence. We know that they are smart. Do we know just how smart they are?

Plotnik: I’ve been interested in designing experiments that are elephant-specific. One big problem in the field of animal cognition is that experiments are designed largely for visual species, like humans, nonhuman primates like chimps or monkeys, and birds. These species are easier for scientists to access in labs. The design of a problem-solving box or a tool-use task for an experiment is often largely based on paradigms that come from the primate or the human development literature.

An Asian elephant uses its sense of smell to find food inside one of two boxes as part of a wildlife education program in Chiang Rai Province, Thailand.

An Asian elephant uses its sense of smell to find food inside one of two boxes as part of a wildlife education program in Chiang Rai Province, Thailand. Joshua Plotnik

The problem is if you give those tasks to animals that rely on non-visual senses, like dogs and elephants, and they don’t do well, it’s very unfair to say that they are not as smart as we are, or they don’t have the same cognitive capacities as we do. Maybe the test just isn’t right for them. It’s not easy for us to put ourselves in the “shoes” of these animals, because we don’t have the same sensory view of the world. Elephants don’t live in the same sensory world as we do. We are highly visual animals. Elephants are acoustic and olfactory animals, and we think they use their senses of smell and hearing much more than they use their sense of sight. One of the ways that elephants communicate, for example, is with infrasound, low-frequency sound that travels through the ground. There is exciting research that shows that they can actually detect this sound with their feet.

We also know that they often make decisions on where to find food with their sense of smell. They may use their trunks as a kind of periscope to locate food sources over great distances. If we can show how exactly elephants make decisions about where to go for food and how to find it, we may come to better understand why they raid crops, for example, and we may be able to come up with better solutions to the human-elephant conflict problem.

e360: What are some of the things that you personally have learned about elephants through your research?

Plotnik: The first study that I did with elephants demonstrated their ability to recognize themselves in a mirror, which we did in New York City at the Bronx Zoo. To date, only elephants, bottlenose dolphins, great apes, and one corvid [crow family] species, the magpie, have passed this test. Mirror self-recognition seems to be connected to the capacity for self-awareness, the ability to recognize oneself as separate from others, which may also relate to empathy, the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes emotionally. Elephants are known to act to help others when they are in need, so this all makes sense.

“The big take-home message is that you have to understand the animal that you are trying to protect.”

The big take-home message here is that you have to understand the animal that you are trying to protect, if you are going to be successful in conserving it. A lot of times these conservation strategies are not successful because they fail to recognize the wildlife’s perspective.

e360: You also work to educate young people about elephants.

Plotnik: Before I joined the Hunter College faculty, I founded a nonprofit called Think Elephants International. We run conservation education programs in the United States and Thailand, and hope to expand to other countries like China soon. We use the study of elephants as a hook to get kids more interested in and to think more critically about science, and to be more conscious about how their decisions will impact the environment.

e360: What has your experience been like with kids in Thailand?

Plotnik: Some of the students we taught come from villages where people have died due to human-elephant conflict. We were running a program in central Thailand, for instance, when a student came up to me and said, “Ajarn [teacher], I love my father very much, but my father is an ivory carver. Is he a bad man?” That was a powerful question. It made me think that we could have a real impact on young people. I told him that his father wasn’t a bad man; he was taking care of his family. I suggested that the young boy think about what he can do himself to help elephants.