My colleagues and I discuss our work.

Asking More Questions

After documenting the plants, I wondered: Where did this knowledge of medicine come from? In ancient India, whole books were written about caring for elephants. But, many of the plants that we learned about were not in those books. Was the knowledge of how to use these plants coming from human medicine?

We learned that many of these plants are used for people in the same way that they are used for the elephants. The plants used to treat elephant eye infections, for example, were the same remedies used for eye infections in people. In fact, 55 percent of the elephant medicines had the same use for people!

There was another knowledge source, too. The elephants themselves! Several of the elephant medicine plants didn’t have any uses in human medicine. And many healing plants were sought out by elephants.

Eighty‑four percent of these plants were eaten by elephants when they were free to choose in the forest. So, the elephants were independently eating many of these medicines. Did they know that these plants were medicinal?

We identify and label each specimen, such as this plant used to treat elephants' broken bones.

an elephant eating plants in the wild

Going Further

To prove scientifically that elephants eat medicinal plants on purpose would be challenging. But, the Karen mahouts weren’t interested in having their knowledge scientifically proven. After all, generations have observed elephants in the jungle. Many believed that the elephants did eat specific plants to treat specific problems.

Karen mahouts reported 19 plant species that were used by the elephants themselves to treat specific conditions. Quite a few of these plants were the same ones used by the mahouts to prepare medicine for the elephants!

Many of the medicines used to treat elephants had come first from human medicine. Some plants used by the elephants first, only later were used by people. Other medicines were used by both, so it was hard to tell their origins.

Learning From Others

In our human-centered world, it can be hard to remember that other species have their own knowledge, which sometimes can be even greater than our own. We learned how to build dams from beavers. We copy the shapes of airplanes from birds. “Biomimicry” is a kind of design that uses the forms and processes of nature to design new human technologies.

Similarly, the Karen have borrowed from elephant knowledge, especially their knowledge of plants.

The next time you see your dog or cat chew up strange plants in the yard, watch closely. They may be snacking on a remedy. There’s much we don’t know about our animal companions!

I'm excited about the work we've done so far and look forward to the work ahead.