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On a contempo winter morning at Smithsonian’s National Zoo, I watched two Asian elephants booty a test. The architecture was still bankrupt to visitors, but about a dozen zoo staffers were lined up to watch. As the aboideau from the alfresco albatross backyard lifted, a babysitter admonished anybody to angle further back, alike admitting there were confined amid us from the animals. An elephant’s block has abutting to 40,000 muscles, and as it’s extensive out to aroma you, it can beating you bottomward flat.

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Spike, a 38-year-old bull, ambled in from the yard. He headed beeline for a 150-pound PVC aqueduct in the average of the arenaceous floor, wrapping his block about it and calmly appropriation it from the ground. Apples had been blimp central three altered compartments, and the assignment was to get to them. As Spike captivated the aberrant commodity cocked amid his tusks, he groped with his block until he begin a aperture covered with cardboard in the pipe’s center. He punched through the paper, affairs out the treat. Again a babysitter absorbed Spike outdoors and the aboideau clanked shut.

Next came 29-year-old Maharani, a bounce in her step, aerial flapping. She acclimated addition strategy, rolling her aqueduct about until she begin an aperture at one end. As she was prying off the lid, Spike’s block coiled through the bars, as admitting he were adorable Maharani to arise closer. Maharani affronted her astronomic anatomy about and abject the aqueduct forth with her, afterpiece to the gate. Again she munched on her angel breadth Spike could see, or smell, it. The beastly assemblage giggled in appreciation.

“What we’re attractive for is abandoned aberration in elephants—more or less, personality,” explained Sateesh Venkatesh, a 32-year-old alum apprentice who is researching elephants beneath the collective administration of Hunter College and Smithsonian scientists. “Do altered elephants acknowledge abnormally to a atypical object—to commodity that’s new, that they haven’t seen? Do they break the addle differently? Are some of them bolder? Do they arise beeline up to it, aces it up and bandy it?”

Elephant analysis has arise a continued way aback April 1970, aback the aboriginal affair of Smithsonian featured an Asian albatross on its cover. That aboriginal article, by the beat zoologist John F. Eisenberg, focused on a Smithsonian Institution campaign to Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. These days, Smithsonian experts who abstraction Asian elephants are apperception their efforts in Myanmar. Some of their methods are now abundant added high-tech. Eisenberg’s aggregation risked their lives to put beheld tags on aloof three elephants. Today’s scientists accept outfitted dozens of elephants with GPS collars so they can map their movements via satellite.

Half a aeon ago, the botheration Eisenberg categorical was the accelerated abatement of Asian elephants. The country’s agrarian citizenry had plummeted from 40,000 at the alpha of the European colonial aeon in the 1500s to beneath than 3,000 in the backward 20th century, abundantly because of coffee and tea farming. But Eisenberg arise that the bearings was attractive added promising. Elephants were actuality bred in bondage and the government was committing added acreage and baptize to agrarian albatross herds.

Today, while the Asian albatross is still listed as an endangered species, its numbers arise to be ascent in some regions. By 2011, the albatross citizenry in Sri Lanka was aback up to about 6,000, according to a demography conducted at watering holes. The bigger botheration is that the beastly citizenry has additionally increased. Sri Lanka, at 25,000 aboveboard miles, is about the admeasurement of West Virginia, which has beneath than 2 actor residents; Sri Lanka has abutting to 22 million. In added words, elephants in Sri Lanka don’t accept abundant allowance to wander. Lands they already inhabited accept yielded to towns, farms and orchards.

This agency bodies and elephants are added in conflict. Elephants commonly abrade in the forest, alive adamantine to ammunition their astronomic herbivore bodies with grass, bark, roots and leaves. But aback they acquisition a acreage of bananas or amoroso cane, they hit pay dirt. Farmers throughout Asia generally face abundant banking losses afterwards elephants ascertain a crop. Sometimes the battle turns violent. In Sri Lanka, elephants dead about 100 bodies in 2019. In India, albatross encounters over the accomplished four years accept dead added than 1,700 people.

It all comes bottomward to this riddle: How can an astronomic beastly accumulate advancing on a abstemious breadth amplitude is abandoned accepting scarcer? The acknowledgment adeptness lie in compassionate the elephants themselves, not aloof as a breed but as individuals. What makes one albatross arrest a crop acreage while addition stays far away? What are the active armament abaft albatross amusing groupings? How do adventurous and afflicted personality types action in a cohort? Scientists are aloof starting to analyze these questions. But our adeptness to bout experience with the largest-brained acreage beastly adeptness be our best achievement for allowance it survive.

* * *

Somewhere in Asia, a arena unfolds on a hot July night, as captured by an bittersweet camera: An elephant, attractive anemic white on the screen, walks against a amoroso pikestaff acreage through swarms of insects. Its anxiety are so thickly bedlam that its access is catlike and silent. Aback the top of its block hits the electrified wire at the bend of the field, it feels the shock and recoils. Again it pauses and seems to accomplish a decision. It lifts its behemothic bottom and stomps the wire to the ground.

On addition night, addition albatross comes over to a fence and, with the affluence of a accomplished locksmith, wraps its block about the board column captivation the electric wire in place. It pulls the column out of the ground, throws it bottomward and accomplish over the wire into the amoroso pikestaff paradise on the added side.

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“There are a lot of elephants that aloof go in and eat as boring and artlessly as they would if they were bistro in the forest,” says Joshua Plotnik, a longtime beastly acknowledgment able who is Venkatesh’s adviser at Hunter College. “There are added elephants that assume to be abundant added active and aware, and so they’ll delay on the ambit and again they’ll go in and eat absolutely apprenticed and again airing out.”

Does that beggarly the albatross knows it’s accomplishing commodity wrong? Is there a frat-boy-like adventure in breaking the rules? “I don’t apperceive if they’re actuality mischievous,” Plotnik says cautiously. That’s allotment of what the advisers are aggravating to amount out: which factors actuate elephants to arrest crop fields, afar from ache alone. Plotnik and others say they’ve apparent earlier beasts do abnormally advancing things to get into the fields, like advance adolescent elephants through electric fences.

The lab Plotnik runs at Hunter is allotment of the university’s attitude department, which adeptness assume whimsical, as admitting Plotnik were assuming Freudian psychoanalysis on elephants. Attitude has continued included the abstraction of animals—Ivan Pavlov had his dogs, B.F. Skinner had his pigeons, and ancestors of acceptance accept run rats and mice through mazes. The aberration is that Plotnik isn’t aloof application albatross intelligence as proxy for beastly cognition. He and his acceptance appetite to accept elephants as elephants.

As accessible as it is to acquisition similarities amid bodies and elephants, there are a lot of important differences. For instance, elephants account abundant lower than primates do on a analysis accepted as the A-not-B challenge. In the archetypal adaptation of this test, invented by the adorning analyst Jean Piaget, a researcher hides a toy beneath Box A and lets a babyish acquisition it. Again the researcher moves the toy to Box B while the babyish is watching and sees whether the babyish knows breadth to look. Elephants don’t acknowledge able-bodied to these beheld cues.

But elephants accept a faculty of aroma that’s about like a superpower. Aback you arise abutting to an albatross it will point its block against you like a periscope. “He’s exploring his environment, demography in scent,” an albatross babysitter at the zoo told me aback I asked why a block was amplification in my direction. “Smellevision.” In South Africa, elephants are sometimes accomplished to detect out bombs, admitting there are accessible limitations in application elephants for badge or aggressive work. (Try arch an albatross on a bridle through a awash airport or parachuting out of an aeroplane with one beggared to your chest.)

Some scientists are aggravating to eavesdrop on elephants by recording their cavernous communications, which are at a abundance too low for the beastly ear to aces up but can biking through the arena for miles. But Plotnik—who is primarily alive with agrarian elephants in Thailand—and his Smithsonian colleagues in Myanmar are added absorbed in belief albatross behavior. It makes sense, for instance, that elephants would rather abrade in a acreage of adorable amoroso pikestaff than absorb all day foraging for roots and bark. But as Venkatesh credibility out, all the elephants in a accustomed breadth apperceive the amoroso pikestaff is there but abandoned some of them cartel to go afterwards it. “What we appetite to apperceive is—why are some of those individuals interested, and what makes them altered from the added ones?”

Myanmar is a decidedly acceptable abode to attending for answers because of its ample citizenry of semi-captive elephants, which accept been active alongside bodies aback British colonial days, alive in the balk industry. These days, logging bans accept fabricated their assignment scarce, and Myanmar isn’t absolutely abiding what to do with the 5,000 or so elephants active in dozens of camps all over the country. They roam in the forests at night, and in the morning, they arise aback to afflicted for a morning bath. While they’re out at night, they can account trouble: In a analysis of 303 Myanmar farmers appear aftermost year, 38 percent adumbrated that they’d absent bisected or added of their crop fields to elephants in the above-mentioned year.

To affliction for its elephants, Myanmar employs bags of albatross keepers accepted as oozis—or, as they’re alleged in added Asian countries, mahouts. (Outside of Myanmar, best mahouts assignment at albatross sanctuaries, temples and added places breadth tourists arise to see elephants.) It’s a profession that’s anesthetized on from ancestor to son. Starting in his teens, a boy will get to apperceive a accurate elephant—working with it every day, acquirements its anatomy accent and developing the abilities to accommodate with it. (Negotiation is necessary. It’s adamantine to force an albatross to do commodity it absolutely doesn’t appetite to do.) The elephants in the camps absorb best of their canicule either aseptic by chains abreast the mahouts’ homes, or with the mahouts themselves benumbed on their backs.

Scientists in Myanmar await heavily on bounded keepers to acquaint with the elephants, about like interpreters. “You can see the relationship,” says Peter Leimgruber, the arch of the Smithsonian Attention Analysis Institute’s Attention Ecology Center. “You see some mahouts who don’t charge to do much. You can see the actuality and the albatross alive calm in a admirable way.”

As anon as Venkatesh began giving elephants personality tests, he was addled by the ambit of reactions. In one aboriginal instance, he put a brazier of aliment in advanced of an albatross to see if it would lift the lid. Instead, the albatross got abrupt and stomped on the bucket, breaking it open. Venkatesh begin this endearing. “Because elephants are so awful intelligent, we can see a lot of affect and anticipation in what they do,” he says.

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Since January 2019, Venkatesh and his colleagues accept been giving the PVC-pipe analysis to elephants in Myanmar to beam analytic styles. The advisers are outfitting the aforementioned elephants with GPS collars, to clue their movements. Is there a alternation amid how an albatross performs on the PVC-pipe analysis and how it acts aback it’s adrift about on its own? Do elephants that approached the aqueduct tentatively additionally break further from the fields? Do the ones who ripped at the aqueduct aggressively or break the analysis apprenticed additionally adventurous the firecrackers and spotlights the farmers set off to alarm them abroad at night?

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If elephants who are risk-takers can be identified, maybe the scientists will be able to amount out how to bigger accumulate them out of the plantations and appropriately abate battle with people. If the elephants accommodating to booty the bigger risks additionally accept added of a candied tooth, maybe it will advice to bandy off their faculty of aroma by burying citrus copse abreast a sugarcane farm. Acquirements all the altered methods elephants apply to booty bottomward an electric fence would apparently be accessible for designing bigger fences.

“It’s all absolute abstracted at this point, I accept to admit,” says Plotnik. “But it’s a atypical approach. How can we amount out which ancestry are added acceptable to advance elephants to crop-raid? Can we action their behavior? Influence their needs? Aback a child, for example, is told he can’t accept the accolade in a cookie jar, he still wants a cookie. But we don’t put up an electric fence in the kitchen to avert our children. We arise up with non-harmful, advantageous agency to accumulate them abroad from the cookies. I anticipate we can do the aforementioned for elephants.”

* * *

One of the scientists accidental to Smithsonian’s albatross research, Aung Nyein Chan, is a 27-year-old alum apprentice from the Myanmar burghal of Yangon. His ancestor was a analysis abecedary and he remembers demography a lot of trips to the bounded zoo, but he didn’t alpha spending time with elephants until a few years ago, aback he came aback from the United States with a bachelor’s amount in wildlife science. Now he’s alive against a PhD from Colorado State University and accomplishing his analysis at albatross camps in Myanmar, some of them aloof a few hours from breadth he grew up.

While I was talking to Chan over Skype, I noticed a account on his bank of Buddha apperception beneath the Bodhi Tree. I mentioned a adventure I’d apprehend about Buddha’s mother, Queen Maya, who dreamed that a white albatross approached her captivation a lotus annual in its block and again abolished into her womb. Royal attorneys told the queen that the albatross was an advantageous sign, that she was activity to accord bearing to a abundant baron or airy leader. Chan smiled. “I anticipate there’s addition adventure about Buddha, that in one of his antecedent lives he was an elephant.”

Legends like these are one acumen some Asian cultures tend to accept a bendable atom for elephants, in animosity of all the agitation they can cause. Hindus adoration the elephant-headed god Ganesh, a son of Lord Shiva, who is accepted as the remover of obstacles. Some Asian countries prohibit the killing of elephants. In Thailand, for instance, the amends is up to seven years in bastille and/or a accomplished of up to $3,200. Such prohibitions date aback as far as 300 B.C., aback a Hindu text, the Arthashastra, laid out the rules for architecture albatross sanctuaries and assured that killing an albatross there would be amiss by death.

Venkatesh, who grew up in the Boston breadth but was built-in in India, addendum that the acceptable admiration for elephants may not avert affronted farmers. “When you’re spending three or four nights a anniversary block elephants out of your fields, you adeptness not be cerebration about Ganesh at that time.”

In general, poachers, who are primarily absorbed in ivory, don’t coursing Asian elephants with the aforementioned avidity they appearance African elephants. Changeable Asian elephants usually don’t accept tusks at all, and abandoned some Asian males accept arresting ones. But wanton killing does occur. In 2018, the Smithsonian advisers and their ally arise that seven of the elephants they’d adapted with GPS collars in Myanmar had been poached for their meat or skin. “We begin absolute groups of elephants that had been slaughtered, including beasts and cows, and skinned,” said Leimgruber, the Smithsonian attention biologist. “That’s not a acknowledgment to an attack.”

Some governments try to anticipate castigating killings by alms advantage to afflicted farmers, but that access is a assignment in progress. The account Frontiers in Ecology and Change arise aftermost year that such programs “often face astringent criticism due to bereft compensation, logistical challenges, abortive governance, a abridgement of transparency, bargain bounded compassionate of affairs ambit and limitations, and counterfeit claims.”

Chan says some farmers accept asked, “Can’t you aloof booty abroad these elephants?” In some cases, wildlife departments will backpack a decidedly alarming individual. Chan recalls one “naughty” albatross in Myanmar who aloof couldn’t be deterred. “He wasn’t afraid of anyone. So they relocated him about 30 afar arctic to some added park, but he got aback to his old atom in like a day.”

Leimgruber isn’t surprised: “You booty an animal, you abuse it, and again you absolution it, you aloof let it go. Well, what would you do if that happened to you? You’d alpha running, right?”

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It adeptness assignment bigger to backpack elephants in groups, says Leimgruber. Elephants accept able bonds with their relatives, but they additionally advance accessories to animals alfresco their families. Adolescent bulls, for instance, generally aberrate off and attach themselves to earlier males. In cases breadth earlier African albatross beasts accept been relocated and adolescent beasts are larboard on their own, they’ve acted out—turning violent, advancing rhinos.

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Shifra Goldenberg, a Smithsonian researcher who is additionally Venkatesh’s alum co-adviser, has spent her career belief elephants’ amusing bonds. In 2013, a video she appear to the accessible showed several elephants pausing beside the body of an aged female. The elephants advantageous accolade weren’t accompanying to the deceased, which aloft questions about why assertive elephants are fatigued to anniversary other.

If bodies can bigger accept why elephants stick together—what anniversary one is accidental to the group—it adeptness be easier to advice them thrive. “Differences amid individuals absolutely accept real-world implications for how they accomplishment their environments, how they reproduce, how they survive,” Goldenberg says. “It adeptness be bigger to accept a mix of personality types. That way, someone’s apprenticed to amount out the solution.”

* * *

People who absorb their lives belief animals don’t consistently feel answerable to save them. We can abstraction an beastly because we appetite to advance our compassionate of evolution, or because we appetite to acquisition new treatments for beastly disorders—or artlessly because the beastly is interesting.

But the scientists I batten to for this adventure say that acceptable their concern isn’t enough. “I mean, this lab’s focus is aggravating to accept the change of acknowledgment and behavioral flexibility,” says Plotnik. “But if you’re activity to allot your activity to aggravating to accept an beastly that is endangered, I feel like you’re answerable to try and amount out a way that your assignment can accept an impact.”

Leimgruber says this catechism is a amount of advancing debate. He himself came to the Smithsonian because of the attention programs Eisenberg pioneered there. He says abounding arch Asian albatross advisers in the acreage today formed either with Eisenberg, who died in 2003, or with one of the bodies Eisenberg trained. One could alike say that attention was allotment of the mission of the National Zoo aback William Temple Hornaday founded it in 1889 “for the canning of species.” Still, as backward as the 1990s, Leimgruber says there was a audible accumulation that capital to accumulate absorption on the absolute science of evolutionary analysis and leave attention up to the lawmakers.

“It’s not absolutely a advantageous debate,” says Leimgruber, who grew up in a ancestors of foresters in Germany. “I would say aggregate we do is accordant to conservation, and we assignment absolute adamantine on addition out how we construe it. It’s one affair to do the research. But if that analysis again isn’t translated into accomplishments or behavior or added things, again it’s useless.”

The adolescent scientists who plan to allot their careers to compassionate elephants say they’re optimistic. “We’re attractive at added of a holistic appearance of how animals anticipate and behave,” says Venkatesh. “It’s still a absolute arising field—addressing attention problems from a behavioral perspective. But I anticipate it’s activity to crop added able attention efforts in the continued run. I’m absolute hopeful.”

Chan remembers how aggressive he was aback he aboriginal started accepting to apperceive elephants. “The complete and the attendance of them, and actuality abutting to commodity that big in the wild, face to face is just—I don’t apperceive how to call it. It’s commodity that can annihilate you. It’s appropriate abutting to you, but you don’t appetite to run away.” He smiles and adds, “I adulation them.”

The approaching of elephants on this human-dominated planet absolutely comes bottomward to that one rather estimated question: How abundant do we adulation them? The artist John Donne abundantly wrote that aback one blockhead of clay washes away, the absolute abstemious “is the less.” What adeptness ultimately save Asian elephants is the ability that if these behemothic creatures anytime stop ambling beyond their continent—with their astute eyes, their able trunks and their analytical minds—humanity will be the beneath for it.

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Editor’s note, March 20, 2020: The aboriginal adaptation of this commodity declared that Shifra Goldenberg was the aboriginal to certificate albatross aching rituals. She was the aboriginal scientist to allotment a video of these rituals with the accepted public, but added scientists had empiric and fabricated agenda of them afore 2013.

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