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How elephants see the world

Last Updated: Saturday, April 20, 2013 - 13:34

Washington: 12 to 14 year old students from East Side Middle School in New York City are attempting to put an end to the elephant crisis, which is at an all time high with more and more demand for ivory taking more and more lives.

Think Elephants International, a not-for-profit organization striving to promote elephant conservation through scientific research, education programming and international collaborations, today announced its latest study, "Visual Cues Given by Humans are Not Sufficient for Asian Elephants (Elephas Maximus) to Find Hidden Food."

Designed in collaboration with and co-authored by students from East Side Middle School, the study revealed that elephants are not able to recognize visual cues provided by humans, although they are more responsive to vocal commands.

These findings may directly impact protocols for future efforts to conserve elephants, which are in danger of extinction in this century due to increased poaching and human/elephant conflict.

The publication of this paper is the climax of a three-year endeavor to create a comprehensive middle school curriculum that educates and engages young people directly in elephant and other wildlife conservation.

The study was carried out at Think Elephants` field site in northern Thailand, and students participated via webcam conversation and direct web-links to the elephant camp.

According to Joshua Plotnik, PhD, founder and CEO of Think Elephants, "if elephants are not primarily using sight to navigate their natural environment, human-elephant conflict mitigation techniques must consider what elephants` main sensory modalities are and how elephants think so that they might be attracted or deterred effectively as a situation requires. The loss of natural habitat, poaching for ivory, and human-elephant conflict are serious threats to the sustainability of elephants in the wild. Put simply, we will be without elephants, and many other species in the wild, in less than 50 years if the world does not act."

The Think Elephants study tested whether captive elephants, wild animals in relatively close contact with humans, could follow visual, social cues (pointing and gazing) to find food hidden in one of two buckets.

The elephants failed at this task, but were able to follow vocal commands telling them which bucket contained the food.

These results suggest that elephants may navigate their physical world in ways that primates and dogs do not.

Based on the results of this study, Dr. Plotnik suggests further attention to research on elephant behavior and an increase in educational programming are needed, particularly in Asia where the market for ivory is so strong.

The study has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.


First Published: Saturday, April 20, 2013 - 13:34

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