5 min read

Elephant Hugging Might Help Save Their Species

Some days we all need a hug.

Luckily, Suria the elephant stepped up for a young adult male captured while ransacking village orchards on the East Coast of Malaysia.

When at last after three exhausting days of tranquilizers and mud he stood swaying on the back of a truck destined for the national forest, Suria leaned in close, swung her trunk around and began lightly massaging his nose. He responded by twisting his trunk tightly around hers, clinging to her like a drowning victim.

It was a touching moment when the veterinarians, researchers and team stepped back, wiped the sweat and mud from their faces, and reminded themselves why their jobs are so important.

Suria is a trained elephant for the National Elephant Conservation Center, Department of Wildlife and National Parks, a government organization that relocates wild elephants causing problems in human inhabited areas. The goal is both to protect village crops and to dissuade villagers from poisoning or otherwise harming the pesky pachyderms, as happened in Indonesia last year.

The team relies on two to three elephants and their mahouts to create a soothing, tiny new herd for the captured elephant and guide him to a waiting truck to be moved to protected land.

According to her mahout, Suria was chosen for the position based on her mothering personality and frequent displays of what researchers now call "reassurance behavior" โ€“ like those heart-melting trunk hugs.

Last year, a study from Mahidol University in Thailand confirmed what the conservation group has known for decades; Elephants are capable of feeling and expressing complex empathy.

The research team led by Joshua Plotnik found empirical evidence that elephants are not only self-aware, they sense and take on the emotions of others, a phenomenon termed "emotional contagion."

If you've ever given a hug to an upset friend or cried while reading Where the Red Fern Grows, you've experienced emotional contagion (and if you didn't cry there's something wrong with you).

Plotnik hopes that his research into elephant emotional and social psychology will help conservation groups like the National Elephant Conservation Center develop more effective ways of protecting the remaining 1200-1680 Asian elephants in Peninsular Malaysia.

"In Asia, we are faced with large-scale human/elephant conflict issues, and real frustration with the lack of understanding of how and why elephants are attacking people and raiding crops," Plotnik told Wired.

As it is, the head of the unit Nasharuddin Bin Othman says relocating elephants is a band-aid solution to a greater problem.

Between 2000 and 2012 Malaysia saw the highest rate of deforestation in the world. As forested areas shrink there are fewer places to put elephants where they won't come in contact with human agricultural efforts.

"This is one of the last resorts for wild elephants," says Nasharuddin. "Maybe it's time to look for a different solution."