|Our friend and elephant behavioral advisor, Dr. Joshua Plotnik -- Faculty of Department of Psychology of Hunter College, New York and President and Executive Director of Think Elephants International -- recently published the results of his studies to demonstrate that elephants have the ability to count. Incidentally, Josh, as an elephant psychologist and his wife, Sherry, represent the complete elephant wellness couple in that Sherry is an elephant veterinarian featured in an elephant inoculation in the film, POLO, For The Love of Elephants referenced below. Josh is shown here in one of his countless elephant encounters.
Dr. Plotnik has a particular interest in Asian elephants to identify the sensory modalities most relevant to an animal's physical and social decision-making processes. He has a strong interest in the applications of behavior and cognition research to conservation in practice. Josh works in Asia to use the study of elephant behavior as a tool for mitigating human/elephant conflict which is where we all connected many years ago.
CBC/Radio-Canada published a summary of Josh's most recent study findings in an article entitled The Elephant's Mathematical Trunk Can Smell Numbers. Elephants apparently have the ability to do something no other animal can do and that is to determine whether buckets containing different amounts of desirable foods contain more or less. Dr. Plotnik says "Elephants are capable of doing something that a lot of other species are able to do using their eyes. Therefore, one can appreciate the intelligence of elephants that they rely on a different primary sense than vision to perceive the world and make decisions."
This author's experience has been when reacquainting with an elephant from the past, the elephant checks you out with their sense of smell - maybe all humans just look alike. Several years ago, a number of us were greeting an elephant in Baan Ta Klang, Surin, Thailand that had a familiar name. It turns out two of us knew the elephant as a young calf but had not seen since it became an adult. We may have imagined it, but it seemed that the elephant evidenced a recognition of the two of us relative to the others following the sniff test. Josh would have a good laugh at the sparsity of any scientific support for our conclusion.
Josh conducted his scientific experiments with six Asian elephants in the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF) in Thailand. The CBC article did not specify the name of the reserve but one of the elephants was named Lanna whom we know. Moreover, we cannot imagine Josh would have conducted experiments anywhere else in Thailand as Sherry was their veterinarian and our good friend, John Roberts, is the Director of the GTAEF and our elephant spiritual leader. To test their ability to distinguish quantities, Josh and his colleagues put different numbers of sunflower seeds, one of their favorite snacks, in buckets. The buckets were capped with perforated lids so the elephants could not see the contents but could smell them.
Following numerous tests with different ratios of seeds, the results were the elephants were consistently accurate in picking the bucket with the greatest number. They were less consistent with differences on the order of 20 per cent but bulls are frequently able to tell the smaller quantity difference.
The elephant's sense of smell is crucial to their survival in helping them navigate their environment to locate better quality food. Interestingly, when riding an elephant through a jungle path, they will find a particular tree or plant they find appealing and will demolish it before moving on. Therefore, they determine migratory paths, food selections and potential predators based upon their sense of smell.
Recognizing the power of their olfactory sense may be the critical factor in minimizing or even eliminating elephant/human conflict situations such as fences and firecrackers as they are not the answer. High quality food could be provided where they live or unpleasant smells could possibly mask highly desirable crops. Understanding the perspective of the elephants provides the best answer to their conservation -- not only "Think Elephants" but maybe think like them.
The title to this note was facetious as elephants have no taste for Black Ivory Coffee despite the fact that it may be the best cup of coffee around. Therefore, they would have no interest in counting the inventory. However, they do like coffee cherries mixed with their favorite foods to be processed through their digestive tracts in order to extract the protein which causes coffee to be bitter. This enterprise is conducted in the village of Baan Ta Klang, Surin, Thailand which is home to the largest concentration of Asian elephants in the world and supported by The Elephant Story. The coffee cherries are processed through the elephants in the village providing a source of income to the elephant owners. Moreover, as shown below, village school girls attend to the secondary processing and drying of the coffee cherries which provides individual earnings to them.
After all of these years, it is amazing all of these strange people, including the author, have come together with a common cause of elephant conservation and a view to improving the lives of the elephant owners which strengthens their ability to care for their elephants. There is very little wild elephant habitat remaining for Asian elephants so the closest thing to a natural habitat for them in the future will be reserves like the GTAEF and villages such as Baan Ta Klang with support from outside interests.
|Interview with Khun Maw Sherry, Elephant Veterinarian