The Elephant With Empathy?

Wild elephants, typically, don’t really care about humans. If we leave them alone, they’re not going to bother with our puny selves. However, wild elephants are just that — wild. If you threaten one, it will fight back, and there’s a good chance you’ll lose. Similarly, if it gets hungry enough, an elephant isn’t going to let good manners and the rule of law stop it from finding a meal. The residents of Purulia, a city in West Bengal, India, know this first hand — over the years, the villagers have more stories of elephant attacks than they’d likely care to relive.

One such attack in the spring of 2014 was no exception, either. If the Mahato family got to redo that day, they’d almost certainly choose one which didn’t involve an elephant at all. But it could have been worse — had the elephant not shown what we’ll call empathy.

On March 12th of that year, the Mahato family had an uninvited guest. As the couple sat down for dinner, “they suddenly heard a “cracking sound” and then a huge crash from the bedroom,” reported the Times of India (TOI). They rushed toward the noise to find an elephant had plowed through the wall.  The particular elephant in question had a reputation in the region, and it wasn’t one of mutual respect and understanding. The unnamed animal, described as a loner (which is to say, it was not part of an elephant herd), had already destroyed more than a dozen houses and claimed three lives. But that wasn’t the Mahato’s immediate concern.

While Mr. and Mrs. Mahato were dining, their ten-month-old child was in the bedroom — the one that was just ransacked by a charging elephant. The terrifying screams of their young child must have left them in anguish, but it was also a sign that the baby was still alive. And it was a sign that the elephant picked up on as well.

But the elephant didn’t continue its attack. Instead, it turned into an unlikely hero. Dipak Mahato, the baby’s father, explained what happened to TOI: “We ran over and were shocked to see the wall in pieces and a tusker standing over our baby. She was crying and there were huge chunks of the wall lying all around and on the cot. The tusker started moving away but when our child started crying again, it returned and used its trunk to remove the debris.” By the time the elephant left, it had cleared enough of the destruction so that the Mahatos could retrieve their daughter relatively easily. 

The Mahato’s brought their daughter to the hospital to find that she only suffered external injuries, with no apparent lasting damage. The elephant, despite being responsible for the harm in the first place, had probably saved her life.

Bonus fact: Elephants are big animals and, unsurprisingly, make big poops. As Kenyan entrepreneur John Matano told the BBC, “an average elephant eats 250kg of food each day. Out of that amount, about 50kg of dung is produced.” But why would the BBC want to speak to an entrepreneur about elephant dung? Matano’s company turns the doo-doo into paper, saving trees and making a profit at the same time. As the BBC explains, the animal’s feces is “full of grass and other plant fiber that has been broken down by the elephant’s digestive system,” making it a decent replacement for wood pulp (once washed, of course). Matano’s company can create about 125 pages of paper per elephant, per day this way.

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