There is something startling about an elephant's eyes.
Their fiery amber color seems to blaze against the surrounding skin's burlap creases. An ancient face, lined with history, but it is the eyes that convey the generational knowledge of the species. They offer a glimpse into what researchers now say is a surprising level of consciousness. It is one of many reasons why the place elephants hold in our imaginations is both epic, and wondrous.
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"There are things about elephants that seem so similar to us. Their family life, their emotional life, the fact that they grieve. They stand out from other animals," said Gay Bradshaw, director of a research institute called The Kerulos Center.
Field scientists have studied the special bonds of elephant herds for decades. Family members mourn their dead, even gently caressing the jawbones of their ancestors during grieving rituals.
Filmmakers have also documented moments of pachyderm heroism, as when a herd of adult females rescued a baby elephant that had fallen into a mud hole, remarkably forming their own team of first responders.
And in a poignant demonstration of similarity to humans, an elephant named Happy at New York's Bronx Zoo recently joined the ranks of self-aware species that includes humans, apes and dolphins. Happy showed scientists something profound when she passed the test for self-recognition: An understanding that the elephant in the mirror … was her.
"I think the real shock right now, in terms of the mirror self-recognition tests and their intelligence and their emotions is, they're like us. It's not that they're way up there. It's that they're on level footing with us," said Bradshaw.
But even as science holds a mirror to our similarities, in recent years researchers have observed a violent change in elephant-human relations after decades of peaceful coexistence.
"Humans are regarded as the enemy. You must never, ever be cruel to an elephant because they have an amazing memory. They will remember that for life. And they bear grudges," said Daphne Sheldrick, a renowned wild elephant expert and director of The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.
Creatures who seem to share the best of what makes us human are now revealing they are also capable of the worst.
One of the most terrifying cases took place in a circus tent in 1994, when Tyke, an African elephant, mauled her groomer and trainer.
It was a modern-day version of King Kong eerily come to life, when Tyke escaped into the streets of downtown Honolulu, seeking refuge from the gathering armies of law enforcement, until she was eventually gunned down. It took 87 bullets.
"The Tyke footage is particularly disturbing when you look through the eyes of the science, because you understand the behavior that Tyke displays is someone who is incredibly stressed, someone who is so traumatized and so upset. It's very un-elephant like behavior," said Bradshaw.
Elephants have ample reason to fear humans. In the last century their population has been decimated, from an estimated 10 million in the early 1900s to half a million now.