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Sense and Sensibility: Mind Like an Elephant

By: , Posted on: June 19, 2015

There Used to be Elephants in Africa

elephant sense and sensibilityThere used to be elephants in Africa. There were also many other animals of grace and beauty. It now seems unreal that such a Garden of Eden once existed.

Is this what we will tell our children in 2020 or 2030? Won’t they ask us how did this happen?  Will we be able to explain to them that people’s needs came before those of the animals?  Even to the extent that we needed all of their space, down to the trees and the grass! And worse, will we be able to admit that we stood by as human greed, corruption and cupidity destroyed an iconic species for the sake of their tusks.

Can these lost animals and lost spaces be replaced by a cyber world existing only in our imagination? As Orwellian as this may seem, it is a real possibility. Unless we make an enormous effort to change the ways in which we treat both our fellow and our companion species, we will neither save our world nor ourselves.

Elephants are Us

Elephants modify the environment to the benefit of other species. Elephants are a keystone species. Grasslands supporting large numbers of grazing animals such as zebra, wildebeest and many species of antelope are dependent upon elephants to keep the encroaching bush at bay. Elephants are also characterized as mega-gardeners distributing the seeds of trees more effectively and further than any other form of seed dispersal.

Quite apart from their intrinsic value, the ultimate capacity of elephants as sentient beings is unknown. While their memory and ability to navigate over trackless terrain and hundreds of kilometers is known, how they achieve these feats is poorly understood. Recent observations of the behavior of elephants suggest that they may be capable of displaying abstract thoughts in paintings and drawings. The ability to create these mental images in graphic form is considered to be a crucial step in the initial development of speech. Displaying mental images in graphic form is not only essential to the development of speech but must precede the evolution of a written language.

The understanding of the mental capacity of elephants is growing rapidly as scientists build upon an ever increasing foundation of knowledge. This knowledge, however, is largely sequestered in scientific papers in professional journals dealing with individual aspects of behavior. There are only a few attempts at assimilating the behavior of elephants in a single text.  Elephant Sense and Sensibility is one such text.

Central to elephant survivability is their capacity to remember. It is true that “elephants never forget”. Elephants, like ourselves, are what they remember. Our, and their very existence, depends upon memory. Chapter 5 on Memory is thus central to Elephant Sense and Sensibility and illustrates the capacity and role played by memory in elephant society.

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About the Author

garstang_headshot_web_sizeBorn and raised in remote KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, Michael Garstang savored the freedom of the wild with a Zulu companion, a faithful dog and a gun. Learning Zulu at an early age, he was exposed to natural history in the legends and folklore told by tribal leaders around an open fire.  To him the Drakensberg was known as “Inkonto Quathlaba”: “The Spears That Pierce (The Sky)”, a far more evocative name than the “Dragons Mountain”.  His father was known by the Zulu name of “Amehlo Inyoka”: “Eyes of a Snake” for his piercing eyes.  Michael was known more kindly as “Jabajaba”: “The One Who Speaks too Much!”  The Tokolosh, the medium of the Sangoma or Medicine Man, riding on the back of a big baboon was as real as the crying of the jackals.

The enduring fascination with the natural world steered Michael to a career in environmental sciences, leading to discoveries in sustainability of the Amazon rain forest through the transport of critical trace elements carried in African dust from the Sahara and Kalahari deserts; through the formation of gaps in the rain forest caused by thunderstorm downdrafts creating regenerating refugia, and, ultimately, the survival of elephants through the use of inaudible sounds.

Michael Garstang is a Distinguished Emeritus Research Professor in Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, VA, and is a recognized wildlife artist.

He has published well over one hundred scientific papers, other textbooks and book chapters and articles in the National Geographic Magazine and in national and international news media.

He has an earlier book titled “Ntombazana: A Story of an African Elephant Family” and continues to do research and publish on elephants.

He regularly displays his artwork at local venues in the Charlottesville, Virginia, area with semi-permanent displays at the University of Virginia Science and Technology Library and at the Anheuser-Busch Coastal Research Center in Oyster, Virginia.


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Plant & Animal Sciences

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