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'Smoking' elephant in India baffles experts

  • Published at 06:39 pm March 27th, 2018
'Smoking' elephant in India baffles experts

In one of the latest insights into the behaviour of wild elephants, a rare video of one smoking in the Rajiv Gandhi National Park, a wildlife reserve in the south Indian state of Karnataka, has been captured by a scientist from Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). It appears to be ingesting charcoal and blowing ashes in a burnt forest floor during the summer month of April, 2016. This unusual behaviour has baffled experts and scientists worldwide as this is the first such photographic or video documentation of a pachyderm smoking.

Vinay Kumar, a scientist with the WCS's India program, captured the puffing pachyderm while visiting camera traps in the national park.

The 48-second video shows the elephant picking up something with its trunk and putting it in its mouth, then blowing out a gust of smoke.

Biologists from the WCS said the footage, recently posted online, was “the first known video documentation of a wild elephant exhibiting such behaviour, and has scientists and experts puzzled.”


Elephant biologist Varun R Goswami, who has examined the video, believes that "most probably, the elephant was trying to ingest wood charcoal, as she appeared to be picking up something from the burnt forest floor, blowing away the ash that came along with it in her trunk, and consuming the rest."

"Charcoal has well recognised toxin-binding properties, and although it may not not have much nutritional content, wild animals may be attracted to it for this medicinal value," he said.

"Charcoal can also serve as a laxative, thereby doubling its utility for animals that consume it after forest fires, lighting strikes, or controlled burns."

Though elephants have not previously been observed blowing ash, animal self-medication – zoopharmacognosy – is relatively common, according to website.

It cites studies that observed red colobus monkeys in Zanzibar eating charcoal to counteract toxic substances in their food. Another survey found bonobos swallow leaves with rough surfaces to scour parasites from their systems.

Red and green macaws have been known to eat clay to kill bacteria in their systems, and pregnant elephants in Kenya are believed to eat leaves that may speed up the delivery process.

India is home to more than 27,000 Asian elephants that make up about 60% of the global population, according to a 2017 census.

The number was 10% down on the 2012 census, but the government has attributed the drop to more accurate counting methods.