You might have seen a cute elephant video before, but do elephants think humans are cute? While they are definitely gentle and friendly, their sense of humor isn’t very human.
Elephants are one of our closest living relatives. They also share 98% of our genes. Yet despite being so close to us genetically, we hardly know anything about them. There are over 60 million elephants in Asia alone, and according to studies, they are slowly dying out.
While these fascinating creatures are known for their intelligence, curiosity, and empathy, they don’t seem to enjoy the same attention. When watching animal videos, remember that they probably have little understanding of what we mean by ‘cute’.
Elephants find humans “cute” but here’s the truth!
It turns out that elephants aren’t just large mammals — they’re also highly intelligent creatures. Researchers believe that their brains are larger than those of primates or even dogs.
Scientists believe that these animals are able to recognize human faces.
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.
Perhaps elephants’ sense of smell is one of their primary senses, meaning that they prefer to use it when navigating their physical world.
Many of us just recently found out that elephants find humans cute, the way we find dogs and cats cute… But is it true?
Leith Meyer, director of the Center for Veterinary Wildlife Studies and associate professor in veterinary and pharmacology at the University of Pretoria told Africa Check that we can now safely dispel misconceptions… But, why?!
“When you look at the response of wild elephants to humans, they definitely do not see us as cute, rather they see us as a threat,” she said.
Wild elephants and tame elephants react to humans differently, Meyer explains that in the wild, elephants’ past experiences “have produced evolutionary hardwiring that causes them to treat us the way that they would other big predators, like lions.
The idea that elephants find humans “cute” likely comes from trained elephants who have become used to people and rely on them for their survival. Elephants in these situations may abnormally alter their behavior “to ensure that they survive.” There has been a lot of research on the parts of the human brain that light up in response to specific thoughts and emotions, using a technology called magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). But Meyer says this research isn’t possible in elephants, for some reasons:
The elephant would have to be awake for the MRI scan of its brain reactions to be effective, and it would be almost impossible to keep the animal still enough to take the scan. (There has been some success in taking functional MRI scans of dogs’ brains.)
Even if a functional MRI scan of an elephant’s brain were possible, there would be no way to know if the activated areas were used for the same functions or emotions, as human and elephant brains work differently.
Looks like we’ll never know what elephants “think” about humans, but they appear to value certain relationships they have with certain humans.
However, elephants can be extremely unpredictable in their behaviors towards people, so always be careful when you’re near one!
Do elephants think humans are cute and harmless?
This huge animal is so special that even many religious beliefs consider it a sacred animal. Take a look at how god Ganesha, god of knowledge, is depicted as having an elephant head. The white elephant is also considered a symbol of royalty in Thailand.
While Ganesha is considered the god of knowledge and the proverb said that elephants cannot forget, you might think that they should not have been fooled that easily. Well, to talk about this case, we might need to take a look at different points of view.
Would you believe that they actually put so much trust in humans that they actually love interacting with us?
As you can imagine, this kind of thinking creates some doubts about our intelligence. However, you might still wonder if there is any truth behind what the elephants think about us. Before getting into the answer to this question, let’s take a look at the following things first.
“Humans are cute”
Many people believe that elephants see us the same way as to how we see puppies. In other words, many think that elephants see us as cute and harmless creatures roaming on earth. That’s not actually true, according to research.
It was posted to Twitter by user Julia Hass, who wrote: I just learned that elephants think humans are cute the way humans think puppies are cute (the same part of the brain lights up when they see us) so pack it in, nothing else this pure and good is happening today.
Wild elephants see us more as a threat instead of harmless and cute puppies. Leith Meyer, director of the Centre for Veterinary Wildlife Studies and associate professor in veterinary pharmacology at the University of Pretoria, said that our cuteness is a misconception.
The misconception most likely came from tame elephants in circus and captivity where human presence is directly linked with the presence of foods nearby. In both circus and captivity, elephants are fed directly by humans, which means our presence ensures their survivability.
Lynette Hart, an author of a 2017 study looking at elephant-initiated interactions with humans at Knysna Elephant Park in South Africa’s Western Cape province, told Snopes in an earlier fact-check of the claim that tamed African elephants preferentially and favorably interacts (and initiate these interactions) with humans with whom they have a special relationship.
In addition to that, many tame elephants also develop special bonds to their favorite caretaker, an inter-species interaction similar to our interactions with puppies. Thus, this is where most likely the misconception started.
We are the guests
Elephants entering the village is once again not a choice by nature. It is more likely the last resort for them to find food because humans have destroyed their natural habitats. Thus, we are the ones trespassing their territory, not the other way around.
If we keep on doing this cruelty for the sake of our ego, we will most likely lose the animal and all of the benefits that it gives to nature in a few decades. Elephants have contributed so much to nature and are an important part of nature’s cycle of life.
“The loss of natural habitat, poaching for ivory, and human-elephant conflict are serious threats to the sustainability of elephants in the wild. Put simply, we will be without elephants, and many other species in the wild, in less than 50 years if the world does not act.”
Outside this cruel incident, many people are still intentionally killing elephants all around the world. Such action is never justified because dead elephants cannot give us any benefits compared to living ones. Elephants’ lives only matter when they are alive.
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 the interview, he stresses the importance of the 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.
“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 their habitat. We have to make sure elephants have the resources they need to be elephants.”
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 and 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, and now a very scary trade for other elephant body parts, most of the problems involve loss and fragmentation of habitat, making it difficult for elephant family groups to survive.
In Thailand, you have a government that cares very much about protecting elephants, but the problem is people there have limited access to land. 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.