Researchers are learning how Asian elephants think – in order to save them
As the pachyderms increasingly clash with farmers and villagers over disappearing land, scientists study the way the animals’ minds work
On a recent winter morning at Smithsonian's National Zoo, I watched two Asian elephants take a test. The building was still closed to visitors, but about a dozen zoo staffers were lined up to watch. As the gate from the outdoor elephant yard lifted, a keeper admonished everyone to stand farther back, even though there were bars separating us from the animals. An elephant's trunk has close to 40,000 muscles, and as it’s reaching out to smell you, it can knock you down flat.
Spike, a 38-year-old bull, ambled in from the yard. He headed straight for a 150-pound PVC pipe in the middle of the dusty floor, wrapping his trunk around it and easily lifting it from the ground. Apples had been stuffed inside three different compartments, and the task was to get to them. As Spike held the strange object upright between his tusks, he groped with his trunk until he found a hole covered with paper in the pipe’s center. He punched through the paper, pulling out the treat. Then a keeper lured Spike outdoors and the gate clanked shut.