An Interview with Dr Joshua Plotnik

Elephant Family sits down with elephant behaviour researcher, Dr. Joshua Plotnik of Think Elephants International to discuss elephants’ unique traits and how understanding their behaviour can help shape conservation. 

What do you think makes elephants so special?

Elephants are incredible and unique in so many ways. They are this huge, incredible looking animal that has adapted very well to the environment in which it lives. They live in complex social groups where there is empathy, complex cooperation, perspective taking and problem solving. In so many ways they are like us but in many other ways, they have unique capacities that we lack. The complex ways in which they “see” their world through their senses of smell and hearing (including their communication with other elephants) is remarkable. The fact that they can sense seismic information in their feet is fascinating. This ability to “see” the world in a much more complex way than us makes them incredibly special.


In your opinion, what is the most interesting elephant fact that some people might not be aware of?

I think it is how dynamic their communication abilities are. They are able to communicate with other elephants using infra sound, frequencies of sound below our own hearing range. They have a wide range of vocalisations for different contexts and with different meanings. They can also collect seismic information in their foot pads. It tells you a lot of what their experience must have been like when they were walking in the streets of Bangkok, for example. The loud noises such as the honking of horns, people yelling and the intense smell must have been a sensory overload for these animals.  I can’t imagine what that would be like for an elephant.

What people really don’t realise is that their sensory experience is so much richer than ours. We hear decently, we see decently, we smell badly but elephants’ sense of smell and hearing is so much more advanced than ours. I would love to be an elephant for a day to see, hear and smell the world the way they do.

One other fascinating fact is that the elephant’s trunk which has no bones has something like 20,000-40,000 muscles, imagine that! This means that the trunk is a really dynamic appendage that supports a lot of what an elephant does, including eating, touching, smelling and manipulating their environment. People may think that it’s funny that elephants have these very long noses but it is so much more than that. It does everything! It smells, it collects food, it’s a tool and it even acts as a snorkel.


Why do you think understanding elephant behaviour is so important to protecting this species?

You cannot effectively or completely help a species if you cannot put yourself in the animal’s shoes. It seems very difficult for people to try and take an animal’s perspective without being anthropomorphic, but actually, research on elephant behaviour and cognition allows us to better “see” the world through an elephant’s eyes, ears and trunk and thus helps us to come up with better, comprehensive protocols for helping mitigate human/wildlife conflict. How can we try to stop elephants from raiding farmers’ crops, for instance, if we don’t understand why they are raiding these crops in the first place? What are their food preferences, and how or why do they make risky decisions that may bring them into conflict with humans? The answers to these questions will be found through future research on elephant behaviour and cognition!


In some parts of Africa and Asia, farmers have used beehive and chilli fences to deter wild elephants from trampling over their crops. Do you think this is effective in mitigating human-elephant conflict?

The beehive and chilli fences work well in certain locations in Africa and Asia but every place is different so there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

I don’t think we should focus on designing approaches to combatting crop-raiding that are only based on scaring the animals away. The fear-based approaches don’t always work for the elephants as it forces elephants into situations they either don’t want to be in or find a way to work around. They might run off and go somewhere else or just come back later on and try again. I think elephant cognition research will give us an opportunity to use our understanding of elephant behaviour and the elephant decision-making process to prevent human/elephant conflict before it starts. Stay tuned for details, we’re working them out now!

Do you think educating children is crucial if we want to save the elephant?

I think education is the most important thing when it comes to conserving endangered species, hands down. I don’t think anything comes close to being as important as educating young people. Current on-the-ground efforts aimed at combatting poaching, supporting national parks and park rangers, and mitigating crop-raiding and other human/elephant conflict are crucial. But the primary long-term focus of conservation efforts must be, in my opinion, on educating young people about the importance of sustainability, endangered species protection and human/wildlife co-existence so that the next generation of consumers, politicians, scientists and educators are well-prepared to work together to protect our planet.

Related articles

See more
March 01, 2024

Five Innovative Ways Tech is Boosting Conservation

The theme for World Wildlife Day 2024 was “Connecting People and Planet: Exploring Digital Innovation in Wildlife Conservation.”  

April 16, 2023

Save the Elephant Day 2023

Save the Elephant Day is observed across the world on 16 April every year. It provides a fantastic opportunity to talk about these incredible animals and to highlight the importance of elephant conservation and human-elephant coexistence.

March 15, 2023

Protecting the lives and livelihoods of people and elephants in Myanmar

By Belinda Stewart-Cox, British Asian Trust and Elephant Family Conservation Advisor and Myanmar project leader