Bonding with Giants

I just learned that elephants think humans are cute the way humans think puppies are cute…so pack it in, nothing else this pure and good is happening today.”

This tweet set off the internet in December 2017, prompting an outpouring of love for human-elephant friendships on social media. While there is no evidence to back up this claim, and we have no way of knowing how elephants actually view humans, a collaboration between the African Elephant Research Unit and the University of California, Davis, has resulted in a publication investigating the unique interactions between elephants and humans, finding evidence of bonds, or friendships, between elephants and humans¹.

Humans and elephants share a long and complex history. For over a million years, elephants and their relatives have lived alongside humans². From hunting mammoths to using elephants as agricultural tools and war machines, humans have tried to harness the power of the elephant for hundreds of thousands of years. Yet, unlike many other beasts of burden, the elephant has instilled a sort of reverence in humans through the ages. Elephants are sacred in Hinduism, and widely regarded throughout history and literature as intelligent, empathetic beings. In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder extols elephants, likening them to humans:

“The elephant is the largest of them all, and in intelligence approaches the nearest to man. It understands the language of its country, it obeys commands, and it remembers all the duties which it has been taught. It is sensible alike of the pleasures of love and glory, and, to a degree that is rare among men even, possesses notions of honesty, prudence, and equity; it has a religious respect also for the stars, and a veneration for the sun and the moon.”

You don’t have to look very far to find anecdotes and videos of affectionate interactions between elephants and humans. If you ask anyone who has spent time researching or volunteering at the Knysna Elephant Park in South Africa’s Western Cape, they’ll surely tell you of friendships between the elephants and the handlers who work with them. In fact, they’ll describe specific elephants and handlers who seem inseparable, almost like family. They’ll probably even talk about an elephant who would follow her favorite handler around and give him spontaneous hugs with her trunk. But can the intricacies and depth of human elephant relationships be quantified? In other words, could someone design an experiment that could provide evidence for these friendships?

A team of animal behaviorists from UC Davis, working alongside the on-site African Elephant Research Unit in Knysna, South Africa, did just that. Following a herd of seven elephants, they designed a study to investigate the nature of elephant-human interactions, and specifically search for evidence of bonds between the elephants and their handlers.

The results were surprisingly, well, human. Elephants chose to interact more with people they knew well than they did with strangers. Individual elephants proved to be incredibly diverse in the amount of time they spent interacting with humans, and in the ways they chose to interact. Elephants who were higher-ranking in the herd interacted much less with humans than did elephants who were lower ranking. The researchers hypothesized that since elephants are such highly social creatures, the elephants who were getting less elephant-elephant contact might potentially turn to humans for social interactions.

More impressively, researchers were able to quantify bonds between three different elephant-handler pairs. And, you guessed it, these bonds matched perfectly with the elephant-handler friendships spoken of at the elephant park.

Learning about human-animal bonds isn’t just fun, it’s also important. The catastrophic decline in elephant populations, coupled with increasing numbers of elephants living in zoos and at reserves, makes it more important than ever to understand how elephants interact with humans in captive environments. Bonds between humans and animals can actually improve both the welfare and the safety of all individuals involved³. So these friendships aren’t just sweet, they’re also functional!

Elephants might not think we’re cute, but the relationships that they build and maintain with humans are certainly diverse and powerful. It’s safe to say that anyone on the human-end of one of these friendships should consider themselves lucky to have been chosen by a creature as beloved as the elephant.

Can’t get enough of human-elephant friendships? Here is a gallery of photos taken over the course of the project. You can also read the full publication, available for free, here.

  1. Rossman ZT, Padfield C, Young D, &Hart LA (2017). Elephant-initiated interactions with humans: individual differences and specific preferences in captive African elephants (Loxodonta africana) Front. Vet. Sci. 4:60. doi:10.3389/fvets.2017.00060.
  2. Agam, A & Barka, R (2018). Elephant and mammoth hunting during the Paleolithic: a review of the relevant archaeological, ethnographic and ethno-historical records. Quaternary 1:3. doi:10.3390/quat1010003.
  3. Hosey G & Melfi V (2012). Human-animal bonds between zoo professionals and the animals in their care. Zoo Biol 31:1. doi: 10.1002/zoo.20359.




California-based zoologist and photographer. Describing the world around me visually, quantitatively, and enthusiastically!

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Zoë Rossman

Zoë Rossman

California-based zoologist and photographer. Describing the world around me visually, quantitatively, and enthusiastically!

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