My colleagues and I discuss our work.

Asking More Questions

I wondered: Where did this knowledge of medicine come from? In ancient India, books were written about caring for elephants. But, many of the plants we learned about were not in those books.

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 are the same used for eye infections in people. In fact, 55 percent of elephant medicines had the same use for people!

In addition to people, the elephants were another source of knowledge. Several of their medicine plants didn’t have any uses for people. And many healing plants were sought out by the elephants in the forest.

Eighty-four percent of these plants were chosen by elephants to eat as they roamed the forests. Did they know that these plants were medicine?

This plant is used to treat elephants' broken bones.

an elephant eating plants in the wild

Going Further

To prove that elephants eat these plants on purpose would be difficult. But the Karen mahouts weren’t interested in having their knowledge 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 that 19 plant species they used to treat elephants were also chosen by the elephants themselves!

Many of the medicines used to treat elephants came first from humans. Some plants used by the elephants first, only later were used by people. For some, it was hard to tell the origins.

Learning From Others

People often forget that other species have their own knowledge. Sometimes it can be even greater than our own. We learned how to build dams from beavers. We copy the shapes of airplanes from birds.

In the same way, 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 medicine!

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