Elephants have such sad expressive faces that it is hard to imagine how anyone could harm them. They have drawn lips and sagging shoulders; a long, drooping demeanour; sad, knowing eyes capable of laying on the guilt. Yet, it would appear that guilt is not enough to save them. Eighty years ago there were perhaps 6 to 9 million African and Asian elephants. Today there are roughly half a million left. Day by day, they are getting closer to extinction.
Perhaps we need some new ideas. Perhaps it is time for a different perspective on why elephants need saving. Rather than their bodies, maybe it is their shared memories and experience that we might one day come to value. This is the argument that I’d like to put forward in this piece.
Let’s start with their neural hardware. Elephant brains are enormous – far larger than might be expected for a creature of their size. This is partly because, like humans, their brains have been forged over many millions of years of periodic drought and starvation. The world has filled up with the individuals that are the most enduring. Those that are most adept at communicating, supporting, coordinating. Those with a good understanding of family bonds.
Enhanced memory is another attribute commonly found in drought-afflicted creatures: those that remember the location of waterholes will be the ones who thrive. Natural selection favours them. And so it is that elephant brains, like ours, possess over 100 billion neurons.
I believe that it is this capacity for memory – or rather, information storage – that we should celebrate in elephants. The old adage that elephants never forget has more than a little truth to it.
Elephant memories and experiences run deeper than we once thought. They can be passed around. They are almost collective.
In 2007 Lucy Bates and colleagues at the University of St Andrews found that elephants in Amboseli national park in Kenya, could smell the difference between local ethnic groups and respond accordingly. They found that elephants reacted more fearfully to the smell of clothes worn by a Maasai man than to those from a Kamba man. Of the two groups, the Maasai are traditional elephant hunters and upon smelling the Maasai clothes, the elephants retreated into long grass.
Significantly, the research project showed young elephants with no direct experience of the Maasai reacted with similar caution when encountering their smell, or their characteristic red clothing. They knew there was something to fear, courtesy of information shared between members of the group. Elephant memories and experiences run deeper than we once thought. They can be passed around. They are almost collective.
Each year we are gaining a better understanding of this collective consciousness among elephants. In 2014 Karen McComb and team found that elephants responded to recordings of humans differently according to the voice. The elephants in the study were able to differentiate between ethnicity, age and gender. Again, male Maasai were most commonly avoided by these elephants. They responded with anxiety to the sound of their voices. They made a judgement call, based on their own experiences or the actions of those around them, to run for cover. They plugged into a hidden network of experience.
It appears that older matriarchs are central to this information network – within their brains are memories of decades of life-saving experiences. During the 1993 drought in Tanzania’s Tarangire national park it was the baby elephants in the presence of older matriarchs that fared best. The matriarchs remembered, it seems, where the food was during harder times, and prospered when many others didn’t. In this way the matriarchs are invaluable. They are the data hubs, storing the solutions of generations; they are who younger individuals turn to in novel situations. From them, the memes of survival are incubated and accessible to others.
The idea of elephants as information networks should matter to conservationists, because in this view of the world every elephant killed by humans is a network user or editor lost. With the extinction of elephants, we would also see the extinction of a network of elephant experiences – where the waterholes are; who to befriend and who to avoid; where the grasses come late or early; where the mud holes are plentiful and where the crocodiles are not; why it’s a good idea to avoid men in red garments; when the moon lights the night each month; where dead friends and ancestors let out their last tortured gasps. This is network chatter. It is network traffic. It has value.
We rightly seek to save human languages from extinction – why not the experiences and group memories of elephants?
We are told that elephants matter because they are spectacularly intelligent and charismatic and because they are ecosystem engineers and umbrella species, protecting the wildlife of the region. But, what if they were also worth conserving for the information architecture that their societies utilise? After all, we seek to save human languages from extinction – why not the experiences and group memories of elephants? This isn’t as crazy as it sounds. There are even people working to save computer coding languages, so why should we pooh-pooh conserving the communal memory infrastructure of elephants?
In the future, we may come to realise that elephants represent more than just skin and tusks and bones. They are mobile repositories of information. If these treasures are unseeable and incomprehensible to humans, that doesn’t make them any less valuable or real. Many of our museums contain human knowledge and experiences, in the form of antiquities, that we struggle to read or understand. Why should this value system not apply to wild elephants (or dolphins or chimps, for that matter)?
This weird thought is something conservationists might do well to consider in their battle for support. Who knows: it may be that in the future, the death of a user-generated network might be considered more harrowing than the death of a living creature. This might be the start of a prosperous conservation campaign funded by big tech: “Elephants 2.0: conserving in the wild, a unique and unseeable internet of alternative experience.” I can see it now: Nobel prizes, TED talks …
Imagine it: elephants saved not by governments and wildlife conservationists but by a fleet of IT geeks with a love of flowcharts and network nodes. An elephant information network saved in the wild, with a single flex of the muscular biceps of the Silicon Valley glitterati. What a story for us to share; what an experience for the elephants to try to comprehend.
This is part of China Dialogue’s series on elephant conservation. The original version of this article appeared on the Guardian website and can be accessed here.