Filmed in Nagarhole National Park in the Indian state of Karnataka, India’s ‘smoking elephant’ has fast become an internet sensation, but this is no dubious circus trick. The wild pachyderm was filmed by members of India’s Wildlife Conservation Society deliberately sucking up the remains of fires, before blowing out huge clouds of ash.
Initial theories ranged from the unlikely – elephants scavenging fire-pits for scraps of human food – to the bizarre – pachyderms getting high on wood smoke fumes. But scientists have an even more fascinating explanation. According to elephant expert Dr Varun R Goswami, jumbos may be seeking out charcoal as a form of natural medicine, just as some pregnant women feel cravings for coal to correct nutrient deficiencies in their diet.
Charcoal has long-recognised toxin-binding properties, hence its use in Victorian charcoal biscuits and the stomach pumps used to treat alcohol poisoning, and elephants may be self-medicating to inactivate plant-based poisons in their food, a behaviour known as zoopharmacognosy.
Similar charcoal-eating behaviour has been observed in Colobus monkeys in Zanzibar, while chimpanzees and bonobos are known to seek out plants with anti-microbial properties to combat parasitic diseases such as schistosomiasis. Even domestic dogs and cats display a basic form of zoopharmacognosy, ingesting grass to induce vomiting, correct dietary deficiencies, or treat intestinal worms, depending on which theory you choose to believe.
Charcoal can also act as a natural laxative, so it may be that elephants have just found a natural way to relieve a blockage. What is likely is that the behaviour predates human-elephant interaction. Although human beings have made the problem worse, wildfires are part of the natural life cycle of forests in the dry Indian subcontinent, and elephants may have been exhibiting this behaviour long before the first humans rubbed two sticks together to make fire.