FEATURE

A Sound of Trumpets

The global lust for ivory threatens to silence the African elephant forever. Can a hidden remnant of the Cold War help stem the slaughter?

by Paul Hond Published Summer 2014
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Elephants have been credited with a sense of humor, of compassion, of joy, of grief. Might they also possess a sense of self?

Diana Reiss, a Hunter College psychology professor who has taught at Columbia and is associated with E3B, is a leading authority on animal cognition. In 2001, Reiss and her colleagues published a mirror-test study on bottlenose dolphins, which showed that dolphins could recognize themselves, an ability previously ascribed only to humans and great apes.

“We’ve learned a great deal about the minds of other animals, and though we’re at the beginning, we’ve already uncovered information about other species that shows that in many ways they are strikingly similar to us,” says Reiss. “As a scientist, the more I learn about animals, the more empathy I feel for them. These animals have families and complex social relationships like we do. We’re not alone in these ways, and we need to appreciate others and protect them both as individuals and as populations.”

“We have to be cognizant that these are societies, with rules and roles,” says Reiss. “When you start picking off individuals, you’re affecting their whole society.”

In 2006, Reiss, having probed the consciousness of dolphins, led another team in turning the mirror on the elephant. It’s the same experiment many pet owners have tried with their dogs and cats.

“Dogs,” says Reiss, “will often look at you standing behind them in the mirror. You can wave, and their ears will go up, but they don’t understand that the dog in the mirror is them. No matter what you do, they don’t pay attention to themselves. Nor do cats. It doesn’t compute. They simply don’t figure it out. This may be one thing that separates certain animals from other animals in terms of cognitive capacity. Dolphins are highly acoustic, but they have good vision as well, and if you put a mirror in front of dolphins, they’re fascinated by it. They figure out pretty quickly that it’s them. And they use the mirror as a tool to view parts of their body that they normally can’t see, just as we do.

“For animals that have never been exposed to a mirror, it may take them a while. It’s not as if they look and go, ‘Aha, it’s me.’ What you see are three stages. The first stage we call exploratory: they touch the mirror, look behind it, trying to figure out what this thing is. Then they’ll quickly go into social behavior, as if they were looking at another of their own kind. It could be aggressive, playful, inquisitive. For the few species that seem to go on to figure it out, you see the second stage emerge, called contingency testing: highly repetitive behaviors at the mirror. They seem to be aware that something they’re doing — an elephant might lift and lower its foot — makes a one-to-one correspondence in the mirror. They see that there’s something connected to their behavior, they test it, and that’s when the light bulb goes on and they understand: it’s me. That’s sophisticated. They’re understanding that an external representation is them. Once that happens, they move to the third stage, which is self-directed behavior at the mirror: using the mirror to view themselves. Here we have elephants touching the insides of their mouths while looking inside of their mouths.

“It’s exciting because it suggests that elephants, too, have a sense of self. It’s pretty sophisticated to understand that that’s you, and to be interested in using the mirror as a tool to look at yourself. These animals want to look at themselves. I find that remarkable.”


Reiss speaks of a photograph that haunts her. In it, an elephant, dead, is sitting upright, and the front of its face is gone. Reiss thinks that such images ought to be published for all to see. She knows from her own work that seeing a thing is different than hearing about it. She recalls the BBC and CNN reporters who, though they’d known about her mirror-test experiments, expressed fresh astonishment at witnessing them firsthand.

Even so, the facts of the slaughter speak for themselves: hacked elephants; wandering, traumatized orphans; huddled survivors passing around the bones of their kin; poachers with automatic rifles; bloodstained tusks being quarried from a gray mountain of a head; those tusks growing smaller and smaller as the victims become younger and younger.

Numbers, too, tell a story. $1,500: the per-pound price of ivory on the black market. 214 pounds: the weight of the largest tusk on record, in 1897. 26.7 pounds: the average weight of a tusk in 1970. 6.10 pounds: the average weight of a tusk in 1990. 96 percent: the decrease in the size of the elephant population over the past hundred years.

But for Reiss, the focus on numbers — including the big question of how many elephants are needed to have a sustainable population — tends to obscure another important number: the number one.

“I’m concerned about the individual animals being killed,” she says. “Their perceptions, their suffering, the suffering of others around them, the effect of the absence of the elders on infants and on the history of the group. If matriarchs who have a memory of where to go in times of drought are killed, what happens? What happens when older males, who keep the young males reined in and teach them how to behave, are poached? The whole social structure changes. We have to be cognizant that these are societies, with rules and roles. When you start picking off individuals, you’re affecting their whole society.”

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