The Surprising Intelligence of Elephants: How It Influences the Nyerere Dam Project

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Elephants once considered dumb animals are disproving that postulate in many ways. Elephants have been noted doing things, such as communicating among themselves, learning skills like participating in circuses, drawing complex pictures with their trunks, attacking perceived enemies or working in groups to preserve the survival of their species.

Over time, elephants’ cognitive abilities have raised solemn questions that we may have underestimated their intellectual prowesses. This discourse reviews what we know and do not know about the big jumbo, in particular what their powerful cognitive capabilities can potentially change the life cycle at the Nyerere Water dam where sedentarism rather than migration is likely to be a natural way of habitation.

Can Elephants Outsmart Humans?

Elephants possess complex cognitive abilities that qualify them for common law personhood and the right to bodily liberty under most common laws. These abilities include autonomy, empathy, self-awareness, self-determination, and theory of mind (awareness that others have minds). They also have insight, working memory, and extensive long-term memory, enabling them to accumulate social knowledge. Elephants can act intentionally, detect animacy and goal-directedness in others, and understand the physical competence and emotional state of others.

Additionally, elephants can imitate, including vocal imitation, point and understand pointing, engage in true teaching, cooperate and build coalitions, and solve problems innovatively and flexibly. They understand causation and engage in intentional communication, using vocalizations and ostensive behavior to share knowledge and information. Elephants use a variety of gestures, signals, and postures, plan and discuss actions, adjust plans according to risk, and execute coordinated plans.

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Furthermore, elephants exhibit complex learning and categorization abilities and have an awareness of and response to death, including grieving behaviors. These cognitive abilities demonstrate that elephants possess the mental complexity and emotional depth that support their recognition of common law personhood and the right to bodily liberty.

What Makes Elephants Special?

African and Asian elephants share numerous complex cognitive abilities with humans, such as self-awareness, empathy, awareness of death, intentional communication, learning, memory, and categorization abilities. Many of these capacities have been erroneously considered uniquely human, but each is a component of autonomy.

Elephants possess the largest absolute brain of any land animal. Relative to their body sizes, elephant brains are also large, with an encephalization quotient (EQ) between 1.3 and 2.3, indicating a brain size larger than expected for their body size. These EQ values are similar to those of great apes, with whom elephants have not shared a common ancestor for almost 100 million years. A large brain allows for greater cognitive skill and behavioural flexibility.

Typically, mammals are born with brains weighing up to 90% of their adult weight. This figure drops to about 50% for chimpanzees. At birth, human brains weigh only about 27% of their adult brain weight and increase in size over a prolonged childhood period. This lengthy period of brain development, termed “developmental delay,” is a key feature of human brain evolution.

It provides a longer period for the brain to be shaped by experience and learning, playing a role in the emergence of complex cognitive abilities such as self-awareness, creativity, planning, decision-making, and social interaction. Elephant brains at birth weigh only about 35% of their adult weight, undergoing a similarly protracted period of growth, development, and learning, associated with the emergence of analogous cognitive abilities.

Elephants have deep and complex foldings of the cerebral cortex, large parietal and temporal lobes, and a large cerebellum. The temporal and parietal lobes of the cerebral cortex manage communication, perception, recognition, and comprehension of physical actions, while the cerebellum is involved in planning, empathy, and predicting and understanding the actions of others.

Elephant brains hold nearly as many cortical neurons as human brains and a much greater number than chimpanzees or bottlenose dolphins. Elephants’ pyramidal neurons — found in the cerebral cortex, particularly the prefrontal cortex, which controls “executive functions” — are larger than in humans and most other species.

The term “executive function” refers to controlling operations, such as paying attention, inhibiting inappropriate responses, and deciding how to use memory search. These abilities develop late in human infancy and are often impaired in dementia. The complexity of pyramidal neurons is linked to cognitive ability, with more complex connections being associated with increased cognitive capabilities. Elephant pyramidal neurons have a large number of connections with other neurons for receiving and sending signals, known as a dendritic tree.

Elephants have extensive and long-lasting memories. McComb et al. (2000), using experimental playback of long-distance contact calls in Amboseli National Park, Kenya, showed that African elephants remember and recognize the voices of at least 100 other elephants. Each adult female elephant tested was familiar with the contact-call vocalizations of individuals from an average of 14 families in the population.

When the calls came from the test elephants’ own family, they contact-called in response and approached the location of the loudspeaker; when they were from another non-related but familiar family, one that had a high association index with the test group, they listened but remained relaxed. However, when a test group heard unfamiliar contact calls from groups with a low association index, the elephants bunched together and retreated.

Further demonstration of elephants’ long-term memory emerges from their movement patterns. African elephants move over large distances in their search for food and water. Leggett (2006) used GPS collars to track the movements of elephants living in the Namib Desert, with one group travelling over 600 km in five months.

Viljoen (1989) showed that elephants in the same region visited water holes approximately every four days, though some were more than 60 km apart. Elephants in the deserts of Namibia and Mali may travel hundreds of kilometres to visit remote water sources shortly after rainfall, sometimes along routes not used for many years.

These feats suggest exceptional cognitive mapping skills relying on long-term memories of older individuals who may have travelled the same path decades earlier. Thus, family groups headed by older matriarchs are better able to survive droughts, leading their families over larger areas than those headed by younger matriarchs, drawing on their knowledge of permanent, drought-resistant sources of food and water to protect their families.

Studies reveal that long-term memories and the decision-making mechanisms relying on this knowledge are severely disrupted in elephants who have experienced trauma or extreme disruption due to “management” practices initiated by humans. South African elephants who experienced trauma decades earlier showed significantly reduced social knowledge.

As a result of archaic culling practices, these elephants had been forcibly separated from family members and taken to new locations. Two decades later, their social knowledge skills and decision-making abilities were impoverished compared to an undisturbed Kenyan population. Disrupting elephants’ natural way of life has substantial negative impacts on their knowledge and decision-making abilities.

Elephants display a sophisticated categorization of their environment on par with humans. Elephants can differentiate the smell of cloth and foreshadow danger. Maa warrior cloth signals danger because they hunt elephants per their traditions. Non-Maa who do not hunt elephants, such as the Kamba, do not cause alarm with the odour of their clothes.

Elephants typically move through dangerous habitats and nighttime hours at high speed in a goal-oriented manner known as “streaking,” documented through movements of elephants wearing satellite tracking collars. The many signals — calls, postures, gestures, and behaviours elephants use to contemplate and initiate movement (including “ear-flap,” “ear-flap-slide”) — are clearly understood by other elephants.

To understand the concept of dying and death, one must possess a sense of self. Elephants demonstrate an awareness of death by reacting to it. Having a mental representation of the self, which is a prerequisite for mirror-self recognition, likely confers an ability to comprehend death. Wild African elephants have been shown experimentally to be more interested in the bones of dead elephants than the bones of other animals.

They have frequently been observed using their tusks, trunks, or feet to attempt to lift sick, dying, or dead individuals. Although they do not give up trying to lift or elicit movement from a dead body immediately, elephants appear to realize that once dead, the carcass can no longer be helped; instead, they engage in more “mournful” or “grief-stricken” behaviour, such as standing guard over the body with a dejected demeanour and protecting it from predators.

Wild African elephants have been observed to cover the bodies of their dead with dirt and vegetation. Mothers who lose a calf may remain with the calf’s body for an extended period but do not behave towards the body as they would a live calf. The general demeanour of elephants attending to a dead elephant is one of grief and compassion, with slow movements and few vocalizations. These behaviours are akin to human responses to the death of a close relative or friend and demonstrate that elephants possess some understanding of life and the permanence of death.

Empathic behaviour begins early in elephants. In humans, rudimentary sympathy for others in distress has been recorded in infants as young as 10 months old; young elephants similarly exhibit sympathetic behaviour. For example, during fieldwork in the Maasai Mara in 2011, Poole filmed a mother elephant using her trunk to assist her one-year-old female calf up a steep bank.

Once the calf was safely up the bank, she turned around to face her five-year-old sister, who was also having difficulty getting up the bank. As the older calf struggled to clamber up, the younger calf approached her, first touched her mouth (a gesture of reassurance among family members), and then reached her trunk out to touch the leg that was having difficulty. Only when her sibling was safely up the bank did the calf turn to follow her mother.

Captive African elephants attribute intentions to others, as they follow and understand human pointing gestures. They understood that the human experimenter was pointing to communicate information about the location of a hidden object. Attributing intentions and understanding another’s reference point is central to both empathy and “theory of mind.”

How Elephant Cognitive Abilities Affect the Nyerere Hydroelectric Dam Project

The migration movements of elephants in the Nyerere National Park are linked to the search for and maintenance of biodiversity and the survival of their species. From genetic variations to accessing water and pastures, elephant migration enhances genetic diversity and species survival. Elephants, being highly intelligent, will adapt if circumstances change. All intelligent animals seek the comforts of life, and elephants are no exception.

Once elephants realize that the water body created by damming a river is permanent, the need to migrate will diminish. Adapting to a sedentary life will become a natural survival instinct, albeit at the expense of genetic diversity and long-term species survival. When pasture and water are readily available, elephants are likely to stay around the dam area, foregoing long migrations.

Over time, the crucial roles elephants play in sustaining wildlife diversity will diminish. Their activities, such as spreading pollen and seeds, opening up forests, and mating with elephants from different groups to promote genetic variation, will be disrupted. This natural contribution to wildlife survival will be severely impacted, to the detriment of nature.

Excessive dry seasons have led to the deaths of many animals, but natural selection is a part of the “survival of the fittest.” Human intervention disrupts the balance between natural culling and biodiversity. Over time, species will become weaker, not stronger, and mortality rates are likely to increase as species fail to cope with diseases.

As elephants adapt to zero grazing, attracted by the resources provided by the dam, overpopulation will likely strain the habitat, which is already under natural and artificial stresses. While we may not fully understand how elephant adaptations will shape the ecosystems within and outside Nyerere National Park, we can anticipate increased conflicts between humans and wildlife. This could lead to the artificial culling of elephants, undermining their positive roles in sustaining ecosystems.

The author is a Development Administration specialist in Tanzania with over 30 years of practical experience, and has been penning down a number of articles in local printing and digital newspapers for some time now.

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