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Koshik the elephant Koshik can imitate human speech by sticking his trunk down his throat. (AFP Photo / Kim Jae-Hwankim Jae-Hwan / Getty Images / Newscom)

An Elephant That Talks?

One clever elephant at a South Korean zoo has learned the local language

By Sean Price | December 4 , 2012
<p>Koshik lives at the Everland Zoo in Yongin, South Korea. (Jim McMahon)</p>

Koshik lives at the Everland Zoo in Yongin, South Korea. (Jim McMahon)

Koshik generally gets the last word. That’s because he’s an Asian elephant, and people are usually left speechless when they hear him talk.

This clever elephant lives at a zoo in South Korea, and he can say at least five things in Korean. Koshik can clearly say the Korean words for hello, good, no, sit down, and lie down.

But the really amazing part is how he does it. Like all elephants, Koshik cannot use his lips to talk the way people do. An elephant’s upper lip is fused with its trunk. So Koshik sticks his trunk down his throat. Scientists are still not sure precisely how this works, but they know this is what allows him to imitate human speech.

“We do not really know what Koshik is doing, exactly,” says researcher Angela Stoeger-Horwath from the University of Vienna in Austria.

LEARNING TO TALK

Koshik’s mimicry first came to light in 2004, when he was 14. But scientists believe he developed the ability years before.

Elephants are famously intelligent and social animals. They travel in herds, and younger elephants learn tricks from their elders at an early age. Many elephants in the wild stay with their families their entire lives and develop complex forms of communication.

Koshik was the only elephant at his zoo from 1995 to 2002. That means humans were his only real companions during that time. So scientists think Koshik tried to communicate with the humans he knew by starting to speak.

There have been cases in the past of elephants imitating the sounds of truck engines or whistling. But this is the first time on record that an elephant has put its trunk into its mouth to imitate language.

“Koshik’s drive to share [speech] with his human companions was so strong,” Stoeger-Horwath says, “that he invented a whole new way of making sounds to achieve it.”

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