One hundred years ago there were 10 million elephants living in the world. Today, there are less than half a million. Poaching, hunting and habitat loss have utterly destroyed the population, and it is unlikely they will ever achieve a population anywhere near that large ever again.
While we have efforts in place today to protect elephants, around 20,000 are still poached for their ivory every year. There’s no practical reason for the poaching, it’s just used to feed an industry based on ignorance. Perhaps if people know more about elephants, they’d be disinclined to slaughter them, but we can only hope. In the meantime, there’s always something new the rest of us can learn.
10. Elephants Can Swim up to 30 Miles
A large male elephant can weigh as much as 15,000 pounds. That’s a hefty beast. Despite the ungainly size, elephants are actually adept swimmers. Though they are often pictured walking across shallow rivers, they can fully immerse themselves in water and swim for great distances.
An elephant’s body makes it remarkably buoyant so they take to water easily and can remain in the water for as long as 6 hours at a time. And though a human might consider an elephant fat and therefore not adept at physical exertion, elephants routinely walk for 80 miles every day in the search for food.
Elephants can swim for miles. Though they can’t get a lot of speed and have a rate of about 1.3 mph. They have been recorded traveling as far as 30 miles at a stretch, which you have to assume was helped by the current.
9. Elephants Rarely Get Cancer Thanks to a Tumor-Suppressing Gene
For all the threats faced by elephants it’s comforting to know that they don’t need to worry about cancer. Though it’s not impossible for an elephant to develop cancer, it’s exceedingly rare. Scientists believe this is thanks to the TP53 gene.
Research has shown that the TP53 gene activates when an organism develops abnormal cell growth that could cause a tumor. This gene sets to work on the abnormal cells and repairs the damage or kills the cell before it can start reproducing the damage. If the cell could keep reproducing in an abnormal state it would turn into what we know as a tumor.
Humans have two copies of the TP53 gene to help them fight cancer and cancer is obviously a big issue for humans so these genes can only do so much. However, elephants also have TP53 genes and they have 40 of them compared to our two. Researchers have speculated that this accounts for why elephants are so resistant to the disease.
8. Elephants Will Sometimes Bury Dead or Sleeping Humans
Elephants are powerful creatures and project an air of strength and majesty. As much as most of us are in awe of elephants or even find them cute, there’s fear there as well. They’re huge and when they get angry, there is very little that can stop them. Most of us have seen videos of angry elephants charging at humans and even cars.
There is also a gentle side to elephants that is not well understood. We know they mourn their dead and will even bury them sometimes. But it’s not just other elephants that receive this treatment. Sometimes elephants will even bury human corpses that they run across in the wild. And, slightly stranger, the humans they bury may not always be dead.
There are reports that, occasionally, if elephants find a sleeping human they will try to bury them. You have to assume that, in this case, the person would probably remain frozen even if they woke up out of fear of what the elephants might do. The end result is a person getting covered in underbrush.
7. Young Elephants Need a Father Figure or Else
For all the obvious differences between elephants and humans there are a few things that are the same. We’ve seen that elephants mourn their dead and elephants are not just intelligent but self-aware, which is part of why the poaching of the species is even more tragic. But our similarities don’t end there.
Just like in the human world, elephants can sometimes have problems with their young. Juvenile male elephants go through a period in their lives when they have the potential to become overly hormonal. If juvenile elephants are together in a herd without an older, dominant male, they will enter a period called musth. During musth, testosterone production ramps up considerably and elephants become highly aggressive.
Some years ago, young males who had survived a cull were introduced to a new herd that had no older male. These teen elephants all entered this hormonal phase. Their aggression spiked as their hormones raged and several rhinos died because the male elephants would attack unprovoked.
Normally it would be years before the males entered this phase, in their twenties. The presence of a bull elephant ensures this happens. As long as a mature male is present, the hormones of the younger males will not kick in and they have a chance to mature. In so many words, having a responsible father figure prevents young male elephants from acting like jerks.
6. Elephants Can Hear Clouds
Elephants have the largest ears in the world, so it shouldn’t be surprising that they have exceptional hearing. It’s just how good their hearing is that’s the surprising part. Sure, they can hear things far away, much further than a human, but so can lots of animals. Elephants, however, can even hear clouds thanks to their ability to hear low frequencies.
The acuity of an elephant’s ear extends beyond just hearing at a distance. They can hear well beyond the range a human can. When a storm is approaching the clouds produce infrasound, something far beyond the range of what a human can hear. Elephants hear these sounds and can tell a storm is approaching well before it’s obvious to most other animals.
Research has suggested elephants can know a rainstorm as far as 150 miles away.
5. Elephants Can Recognize Different Human Languages
Besides hearing distant storms, elephants have also developed an ear for human speech. On the one hand, this may not sound remarkable because many animals can somewhat understand humans, such as when your dog responds to commands and recognizes its name, but that’s not exactly how it works with elephants.
Elephants have showed an ability to differentiate between human languages and also whether a speaker is an adult or a child, male or female. Researchers played recordings of the same phrases for elephants, one in the Maasai language and one from the Kamba. Maasai sometimes kill elephants and Kamba generally don’t. By a two-to-one margin, the elephants reacted defensively to the Maasai version.
In addition, when played recordings of women and children speaking Maasai, the elephants didn’t react. They have learned that it’s the men who spoke that language who were most likely to show aggression, not women, children, or speakers of different languages.
4. A Group of Kenyan Elephants Actively Mine for Salt in a Cave
Elephants are industrious and humans have used them as pack animals and for doing things like knocking over and moving trees thanks to their incredible strength. You can see them in videos tearing down fences now and then as well. But even on their own they have shown some clever ingenuity.
If you head to western Kenya, you can find a long extinct volcano called Mount Elgon. It’s in this area that an unusual herd of elephants make their home. These are the only known elephants who go out of their way to mine salt out of a mountain cave. They head as deep as 150 meters, or close to 500 feet, into Kitum Cave and at least 17 others to scrape salt from the walls with their tusks.
Like deer and other animals, elephants crave salt. It’s difficult to get in their diet normally, so the sodium-rich rocks are appealing. Evidence shows that, for years, elephants have been mining the caves by gouging out stones full of salt and eating them. They may only stop in the caves once every couple of months so they load up on salt before heading out again.
Other animals also make use of the caves in search of salt, including buffalo, and predators will also hunt the salt-seekers. But it’s only the elephants who can actively mine it.
3. Elephants Can Hear Each Other Across Miles with Their Feet
We already discussed how good elephant hearing is once but it’s so remarkable it gets to rank a second time because they can hear in more than one way. They don’t just hear infrasounds, they also use them to communicate. The noise our human ears hear from an elephant doesn’t begin to cover the full scope of the sounds they produce.
An elephant can use its larynx the same as a human and, because it’s so large, the sound it produces is extremely low. It’s the same as a person speaking or singing, just lower than the register of what a human can perceive.
Things get shaken up a little more when it comes to how another elephant perceives those sounds. They don’t all travel through the air to an elephant’s ear. Instead, these deep notes travel through the ground for miles and other elephants feel them in their feet.
The sound has been likened to an explosion that starts at the vocalizing elephant. It spreads through the ground like a shockwave and the extremely sensitive feet of other elephants can feel it dozens of miles away.
Combining vibrations in their feet with sounds their ears pick up, the elephants can pinpoint the source.
2. Elephants Know How to Induce Labor
Humans have traditionally taken herbs for all kinds of reasons. Elephants have been observed doing the same thing when pregnant females were seen consuming an herb that Kenyan women traditionally used to induce labor. The connection between an elephant eating a certain plant and giving birth a few days later meant nothing to researchers at first until they learned of the plant’s purpose some time later.
An ecologist had been observing the female elephant in question for an entire year. During that time the elephant’s diet didn’t change at all until the day it ate the red seringa tree. The elephant ate almost the whole small tree.
The bark of the tree is turned into tea by local tribes and it causes uterine contractions. Since the elephant gave birth so soon after, it seemed likely that it had the same effect on the elephant, and the timing of the act by the elephant relative to its late stage in pregnancy seemed to show it did so with intention.
1. An Elephant Trampled a Woman Then Came to Her Funeral and Did It Again
One thing we know elephants for is their memory, and they have showed excellent long-term memory in many studies. While a good memory is valuable for remembering food sources and watering holes, it has other uses and, in this case, they’re not always adorable.
It was reported in 2022 that an elephant killed a woman in India. The stories say she went to collect some water at a river and for whatever reason an elephant became enraged and trampled her to death. It’s not unheard of for an elephant to do something like this, even if the exact reason for it was not known.
Later that same day, the people of the town were preparing a funeral for the woman. This is when things got weird and somewhat horrifying. The elephant reportedly returned for the woman’s funeral, took her corpse off the funeral pyre, tossed it, trampled it, then ran off.
Most people have assumed it was the same elephant but that can’t be confirmed. That said, it seems just as unlikely that one elephant would trample a woman and then a different elephant would show up to do the same thing to her clearly unaggressive corpse.
There’s no way to know what happened between the woman and that elephant but it certainly seems like the elephant remembered and was still very angry about it later in the day.