How high is an elephant's intelligence?

A funny photo of an elephant water skiing.

“I don’t believe that ‘an elephant never forgets,’”
Wrote one authority, Jim Williams, in his book Elephant Bill.

Nevertheless, Jim deeply respected the intelligence of these beasts that were used by a teak company in Burma where he was employed.

He found out that an elephant can be taught to respond to 24 different verbal commands as well as numerous silent commands given by movements of the rider’s body.

The following incident concerns an elephant named Bandoola and a Burmese rider named Po Toke:

“Po Toke was only too glad to show off Bandoola’s prowess . . . He laid down ten articles in front of him—an axe, a saw, three different sizes of chains, a hammer, etc.

“‘Give me the saw,’ he said in Burmese.

“Bandoola looked along the row of implements and immediately passed up the saw, with his trunk, to Po Toke.

“‘All right, put it down,’ he said. ‘Now pass me the hammer.’

This too was picked out without a moment’s hesitation; and then the rest of the articles were passed up in turn without a mistake.

“‘You’re a fine big gentleman,’ said Po Toke, and Bandoola seemed to take it as the compliment it was meant to be.

“Po Toke then climbed down from the elephant’s head, took up one end of a chain in his hands and told Bandoola to tie it in a knot.

This he did with great vigour, twisting it with his trunk into a knot that no human hand would have had the strength to untie.

However, when Bandoola was told to loosen it, he did so as if it were a piece of string.

“‘Oh, he can do more than that,’ said Po Toke with pride. ‘You come and watch what he can do with a tree.’

He rode him a few paces to where some young trees were growing.

This time all the orders were carried out without a word of command—there was no saddle, no whip—just the pressure of the inner thigh against the animal’s neck and a touch of the [oozie’s] big toe behind his ear.

Each time, Po Toke indicated what he was going to ask Bandoola to do, then silently conveyed his wishes to the animal, whose powers of differentiation were quite remarkable.

The elephant responded to a series of unspoken instructions.

"Turn left—turn right—put his head back—put his head down—pull a branch down—push a tree down—pull up a sapling, or simply protect a sapling.”—From The Footprints of Elephant Bill, by Susan Williams.

What qualities are needed in training an elephant to respond like that?

Cruelty or kindness?


“As the elephant’s obedience is largely the result of affection,” explains the above authoress, “his training has to be done with great gentleness and kindness.”

The training must also start while the animal is young.

Bandoola’s training began in his sixth year.

At first he was used as a pack animal, and only at the age of 20 was he considered mature enough for the heavier work of moving logs. Is such patient training worth it?

Apparently so. An adult elephant can drag heavy logs for about 35 years.

How many modern transport vehicles last that long?