Elephant Language, Culture and the Non-Human Persons Movement

Elephant Language, Elephant Culture

Elephant language has been an important field of study in recent decades, but our desire to fully explore the evidence is likely tied to how we describe them as beings. 

Elephant Language and the Non-Human Persons Movement

We now land in the plains of Africa for an intimate exploration with our elephant brothers to better understand their current struggle and our inability to solve the issues they face.

Elephants have been scattered throughout sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia for thousands of years. On these lands, two species are recognized: the African elephant and the Asian elephant. Today, African elephants are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), while the Asian elephant is classified as endangered. [1] [2]

Today, the World Wildlife Foundation estimates the total population of African elephants between 470,000 – 690,000 individuals compared to the Asian elephant population of 32,000. In comparison, a World Wildlife Foundation study suggested 3 to 5 million African elephants inhabited the plains of Africa in the 1930s and 1940s. [3] [4] 

In 2012 The New York Times reported a substantial increase in ivory poaching, with about 70% of products sent to China. This increased demand has devastated the African elephants population. [5]

Despite the fact that elephants have displayed advanced culture, consciousness and intelligence to the world’s leading scientific minds, our legal systems still regard them as mere objects. They are legal “things” that can be sold for parts. Only humans are afforded basic rights with regards to bodily liberty and integrity and are considered legal “persons”. [6]

As such, we now turn our attention to a much-needed conceptual revolution as it regards the legal rights we attribute to elephants. Let’s take a look at the scientific knowledge that supports elevating elephants to the status of non-human persons.

Elephants have culture

Elephants have been known to exhibit a wide range of fascinating behaviors that would describe them as extremely cooperative, emotionally connected and self-aware non-human persons. For example, like humans, elephants must learn behavior as they grow up. They are not born with the instinct of survival.

Not only do parents teach their young how to feed, but also train them to use the tools available to them. The youngsters also learn from their parents their role in the highly complex elephant society. That period of learning will last for about ten years.

Research findings have demonstrated that elephants can recognize themselves in a mirror. This would suggest they possess self-awareness, joining only humans, apes and dolphins as animals with this ability. [7]

Elephants have large brains

With an average mass of just over 5 kg (11 lbs.), the brain of an elephant is larger than any other land animal and is very comparable to that of humans in structure and complexity. [8]

While the elephant’s cortex has as many neurons as that of a human brain, their cerebrum temporal lobes, which function as storage of memory, are much bigger than those of a human.

Broader communication skills – the hidden language of elephants

Elephants don’t just communicate by touch, sight, smell and sound. Elephants use infrasound and seismic communication over long distances.

In the same way that we will likely SpeakDolphin, a future in which we will have basic conversations with elephants could be near, should we not censor or limit the pursuit of evidence. [9]

Elephant language 

The biologist, Andrea Turkalo, has spent the majority of her time over a 20-year period recording the noises that the elephants make using a spectrogram. This device is able to detect lower frequencies that human ears are incapable of hearing and enabling her to record elephant calls previously undetectable. After extensive observations and review of bio-acoustic research, she has been able to recognize the elephants studied by their voices. [10]

Turkalo is currently working in association with Cornell’s research on African Forest Elephants. Extensive research in this field is ongoing and one day we will surely unlock the elephant language that exists. [11]

Highly social – altruistic

Elephants have one of the most closely knit cultures of any living species. Families stay together. They can only be separated when captured or in death. They demonstrate compassion for dying or dead individuals of their kind.

Furthermore, their empathy extends beyond their species as they have been observed to help other species in distress such as humans. [12]

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African elephant (Loxodonta africana) group drinking from waterhole – wide angle perspective. Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya.

International ban’s only increases the ivory’s market value

Solutions to the problem of poaching focused on trying to better monitor international ivory activities through CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). [13]

However, between 1980 and 1990, these legal controls had the very counterproductive effect of raising the product’s market value and driving business to black markets.

During this time the African elephant population was reduced from 1.3 million to around 600,000 and the ivory trade was mostly sent to Japan’s once booming economy. Throughout that decade, around 75,000 African elephants were killed each year due to the ivory trade, representing worth of around 1 billion dollars in market value.

In 1989, CITES effectively banned the international commercial trade in African elephant ivory by placing the species on Appendix I which is the dedicated list for species that are the most endangered. Once this ban went into effect in 1990, reports indicate the elephant populations in the wild stabilized somewhat. However, the decline in the ivory trade coincides extremely well and is likely mostly attributed with the economic decline of its largest customer, Japan, which at the time was responsible for 40% of global demand.

At the start of the 1990’s, Japan’s strong economic activity ended abruptly as asset prices collapsed and then hastily declined for 10 consecutive years: it is known as the “Lost Decade.” From 1986 to 1991, real estate and stock market prices were greatly inflated due to uncontrolled credit expansion and over confidence. The Japanese economy is still struggling to recover from this period. [14] [15]

Today, the rise of China’s middle class has again fuelled the market demand for global ivory trade. And, the 1989 international trade ban established by CITES has now further enhanced the market conditions for illegal trade. Some estimate that roughly 90 percent of ivory trade in China is illegal and much of it is now used as medium for money laundering activities. Consequently, the international ban from CITES and other controls have had many adverse effects which includes strengthening the core of exactly that which we wanted to rid ourselves of.

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2014 U.S. government ban on ivory imports 

Needless to say, a 2014 U.S. government ban on ivory imports from Zimbabwe is not the broad and long-term solution to the problem. [16] 

The reality is that in order to better protect elephants, we require a conceptual revolution that recognizes our involvement in the genocide of non-human persons. Although legislation is required to raise the elephant’s status, this discussion is not about that.

This is about inadequate scientific conclusions that have messed up our moral compass. Today, our global knowledge of these animals is far more advanced than it has ever been. With the advent of the Internet and video sharing technologies, the elephant non-human persons behaviors can be easily explored and described. The global scientific community now needs to take a more courageous stance on these observations to clear the path towards the required conceptual revolution to protect these beings.


At the start of 2014, Kenya announced that it was going to launch a new program to address the issue of ivory poachers in its national parks and reserves. Small-fry spy drones were expected to be used in 52 of its national parks and reserves to locate ivory poachers. As reported in the Guardian, this $103 million initiative was to roll out at the end of the same year and came on the heels of a successful pilot program. According to the Kenya government, the surveillance drones reduced illegal ivory poaching by 96 percent by proactively monitoring the movements of both roving poacher gangs and elephants. [17]

While this is an interesting and potentially impactful idea – it does not address the root cause of this problem, which will remain as a culture of scientific ignorance.

Furthermore, as one poachers market is reduced, eventually another market gains. This is how global markets operate.

We would encourage you to support the non-human rights project. at

If you love the content in this blog, we invite you to check out our extremely well-reviewed book, Conceptual Revolutions in Science by Adam B. Dorfman.






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    By: DorfmanAdam

    Curiosity is something that drives us to find answers along our unique life paths. For me, Adam B. Dorfman, that path began with an MBA at the University of Toronto and with several years in the capital markets before he began to explore emerging sciences. Adam then founded the website Concept Evolution to explore these new scientific concepts, with a healthy skepticism, and has since added an exceptional team of writers, with strong scientific backgrounds, to help him. The team at Concept Evolution is extremely passionate to follow these emerging studies, while exploring the philosophy of science, as these immature sciences, become mature scientific fields.

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  • Priya Shiva

    Great post about elephants. Thank you for sharing!

  • Francene Stanley

    I find it so sad that humans can butcher this majestic animal simply to harvest its tusks. Your facts about the great beast are fascinating.

  • Susan Campisi

    I think of elephants as the soul of Earth. Thank you for writing about how incredible they are. But it seems like a huge disconnect to recognize elephants’ inherent value and then to slip into a discussion of ivory market value. Plus, I’m quite sure you have some facts wrong. Here’s a blurb from NatGeo: “A worldwide ban on ivory sales in 1989 led to a rebound in the population, to about a million. But in 1999 and 2008, due to pressure from countries in Asia and southern Africa, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) allowed two sanctioned sales of ivory.”

    Those “one-off” sales caused demand to soar, leading to the unprecedented slaughter we see today.

    The ivory trade is driving elephants to extinction. We need a global ban on the trade. Elephant tusks should not be thought of as a commodity. We don’t discuss human trafficking in terms of how global markets operate. Thinking of ivory in that way belongs in the same category, one that should be relegated to history. There is no place today or anytime in the future for an ivory market.

    Thank you for writing about the value of elephants. I hope you will reconsider your stance on trade. And please sign and share the petition to ban the US trade. Thank you. #signforelephants

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