Elephants are unusually intelligent and perceptive; they exhibit the advanced traits of empathy, self-awareness and complex emotions, expressing an interest in their own lives and the lives of those to whom they are attached.
The cognitive capacities of elephants demand respect and special moral consideration in all of our interactions with them as individuals. We must incorporate the cognitive abilities of elephants into our management and care of wild and captive elephants.
- The brains of Asian and African elephants at between 4.5 and 6.5 kg are the largest in absolute mass among land mammals and rank among the highest of all animals for cortical expansion and complexity, features comparable only to those of some of the cetaceans, the great apes and humans.
- The encephalization quotient (the ratio between the observed and expected brain weight for a defined body weight) of the elephant’s brain, at between 1.7 and 2.0, is comparable with the larger primates.
- The temporal lobes of the elephant’s brain, which are thought to function in recognition, storage and retrieval of information related to sight, touch, smell and hearing, are especially large and complex.
- Exceptionally large and long-lived, elephants have remarkable memories, accumulating and retaining social and ecological knowledge, remembering the scents and voices of other individuals and migratory routes and places for decades.
- Elephants show strong individual personalities, which affects how they interact with other elephants and how well they are able to influence and integrate with members of their group.
- Elephants exhibit complex communication abilities. In addition, they are one of the very few terrestrial mammals other than human beings that are capable of imitating the sounds of other species, machines, and may even be capable of matching the sounds of a range of human words. This trait is a precursor of language and is thought to have evolved to facilitate the formation and maintenance of social bonds.
- Elephants are among the few species capable of modifying and using simple tools.
- Elephants have been found to display behavior suggesting that they recognize themselves in a mirror, a milestone indicative of self-awareness.
- Elephants are capable of showing compassion for individuals of their own kind and other species.
- The excellent memories of elephants means that elephants and humans can enter into a cycle of violence that can adversely affect human elephant relationships, in the wild and in captivity. The potentially antagonistic human-elephant dynamic must be given careful consideration by wildlife policy makers and managers.
- Elephants are renowned for their memory, intelligence, and sociality, and, as with humans, these traits make them particularly vulnerable to stress and to trauma and its longer-term psychological consequences.