An Elephant Never Forgets, and Now He Can Talk About It

Saturday, November 03, 2012
Talking elephant (photo: Ahn Young-joon, Associated Press)

Koshik, a 22-year-old Asian elephant in South Korea, has astonished biologists with his ability to mimic human speech.


Researchers from the University of Vienna reported in the journal Current Biology that Koshik can say a variety of Korean words, including “hello,” “sit down,” “no,” “lie down” and “good.”


Kim Jong Gap, the elephant’s trainer at the Everland Zoo near Seoul, first noticed Koshik’s unique ability several years ago.


Cognitive biologists Angela Stoeger and Tecumseh Fitch, who published the paper, say Koshik may have picked up on human speech when he was the only elephant at Everland during an important developmental period in his youth.


“We suggest that Koshik started to adapt his vocalizations to his human companions to strengthen his social affiliation with them, something that is also seen in other vocal-learning species and in very special cases, even across species,” Stoeger told The Guardian.


Koshik uses his trunk when speaking by placing it in his mouth, which “modulates the oral chamber,” according to Stoeger.


This is the first documented case of a talking elephant. A previous report of an elephant speaking in Russian was never verified. Beyond that, there have only been tales of elephants imitating the sound of a truck engine.

–Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

The Asian Elephant that Speaks Korean (Reuters)

'Choa!': Asian Elephant Talks (by Paula Hancocks, CNN)

Elephant Mimics Korean with Help of His Trunk (by Rebecca Morelle, BBC News)


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