Initially, it sounds like something you might see in a terrible Asian circus, but you’ll be relieved to hear that the video that has emerged of a smoke-breathing elephant was actually filmed in the wild, and might well be natural behavior for the pachyderm.
The clip of the "smoking" Asian elephant was filmed in Nagarahole National Park, southwestern India, by a guy called Vinay Kumar who works for the environmental organization, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). On a trip through the park – which teems with tigers, bears, and wild dogs – to check camera traps that have been set up to record this wealth of wildlife, Kumar and his team recorded the unusual scene.
The video shows an Asian elephant picking through the leaf litter and eating a bit of detritus, before heavily breathing out great plumes of smoke. The truly bizarre footage has stumped many of the scientists over at the WCS, although one may have a theory as to what is going on.
“I believe the elephant may have been trying to ingest wood charcoal,” explained Dr Varun Goswami, who is an elephant biologist with WCS India. “She appeared to be picking up pieces from the forest floor, blowing away the ash that came along with it, and consuming the rest.”
The idea of an elephant eating charcoal might sound a bit weird, but in the animal kingdom, it is not unheard of. On the island of Zanzibar, it was found that some groups of the red colobus monkeys that live there frequently chow down on charcoal, consuming up to 5 grams of the stuff every single day. They would search for it in burned trees in the fields, abandoned kilns, and even raid villagers’ hearths to get their fix.
As young monkeys were learning the act from their mothers, and no other primates (apart from humans) had been seen eating charcoal before, it could simply have been a cultural behavior spreading among red colobus groups on parts of the island. But the fact that the groups that ate the charcoal were producing more offspring than those that didn’t hinted at something else.
And indeed, studies showed that the charcoal eating might actually be a form of self-medication, neutralizing the large amounts of toxins that the monkeys ingest due to their leaf-heavy diet. This is similar to what is seen in humans, with some cultures regularly eating charcoal themselves, as it is known to soak up the harmful chemicals found naturally in some foodstuff.
So perhaps rather than some ominous effect of the forest fires, the elephant might actually be self-medicating and it could be a far more common behavior than is currently thought.