7 Things That Make Elephants Seem Almost Human

Elephants' numerous similarities to humans are just some of the reasons why experts believe they should be protected, not hunted.

On November 15, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official confirmed to ABC News that the Trump administration planned to permit hunters to bring trophies of elephants they killed in Zimbabwe and Zambia back to the United States. The shift would have marked the reversal of a ban put in place by the Obama administration in 2014, but the announcement was met by uproar. President Trump tweeted that he would postpone the move on November 17.

Despite being listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a provision in the act allows the government to give permits to import such elephant trophies if there is evidence that the hunting benefits conservation for that species. This is reportedly what has paved the way for the ban's planned reversal.

For many hunters, elephant carcasses are revered tokens of a job well done, but research has shown that elephants are some of the most intelligent, social, and empathic animals in the world, leading many to believe they should be protected and not killed. In fact, though the powerful pachyderms don't resemble human beings, they engage in a variety of behaviors that are startlingly similar to our own.

Take a look at our below list of seven things that make elephants seem almost human, and consider taking action to protect these beautiful creatures.


1. Elephants are advanced thinkers.

Elephants have been lauded for their intelligence for many years, but in the last decade or so scientists have really come to understand just how clever they are. 

Cynthia Moss, director of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants and a preeminent elephant researcher, recalled to Scientific American how she once saw a young elephant inadvertently get kidnapped by another clan only to be rescued after her mother, Echo —who enlisted the help of her own family — to get her daughter back. "That took forethought, teamwork and problem-solving," Moss explained. "How did Echo convey that she needed them? It's a mystery to me, but it happened."

2. Elephants can distinguish key differences in humans.

Though elephants have notoriously bad eyesight, researchers at the University of Sussex in Brighton, U.K. discovered they can distinguish differences in gender, age, and ethnicity amongst humans based on the sound of an individual's voice.

The ability to differentiate amongst other creatures is yet another example of elephants' advanced intelligence.

3. Elephants mourn the dead.

Like humans, elephants mourn their dead. As seen in the video above from the Amboseli Trust for Elephants, when an elephant dies, other elephants in his or her family grieve and mark the loss by interacting with the bones of the deceased. In addition, the mourning elephants also remain very quiet and still, and appear to engage in a period of deep thought and reflection not unlike what might occur at a funeral service for a human.

Grieving elephants also comfort and reassure one another after a loss, showing empathy. 

4. Elephants have a sense of self.

Though elephants exist and thrive in packs, studies have shown the massive animals are also quite capable of recognizing themselves as individuals. 

Per Scientific American, a 2005 experiment conducted with three elephants living in captivity in the Bronx Zoo showed at least one of the elephants was able to recognize herself in a mirror after researches painted a white X on the side of her face. That elephant, Happy, repeatedly swiped at the painted part of her face with the tip of her trunk.

5. Elephant families have lifelong bonds.

Elephants are matriarchal, and according to Scientific American, scientists living among herds of wild elephants have seen firsthand the strong bond that exists between family members — especially between elephant mothers and daughters. The publication noted related elephant mothers and their children stay together throughout life in tight-knit clans, and found elephants care for one another's children by forming protective circles around calves when threatened by lions or poachers.

6. Elephants are empathetic.

Similarly, elephants have often expressed empathy for one another in a variety of ways. The New York Times reports elephants are capable of consoling each other should one elephant be frightened by a loud noise or another animal.

Researchers in Thailand found that when one elephant was in distress, the others made chirping noises and touched the stressed animal as a way to reassure him or her.

7. Elephants have superior memories.

It turns out there's a great deal of truth to the old adage, "an elephant never forgets." In addition to being able to remember the locations of key watering holes and other important landmarks, researchers have found elephants can recognize companions and relatives even after long periods of separation.

In the video above, courtesy of National Geographic, watch as an elephant was reunited with her daughter after approximately four years apart. Try not to shed a tear.

Cover image via  Lara Zanarini I Shutterstock

This story has been updated to reflect the president's November 17 tweet.


Subscribe to our newsletter and get the latest news and exclusive updates.