This video shows Koshik, a 22-year-old male Asian elephant, imitating Korean words by putting his trunk in his mouth to modulate his sound. A study of Koshik’s vocalizations (he can imitate five words) appears in the latest issue of Current Biology. The researchers hypothesize that spending seven of his formative years as the only elephant at Everland, a South Korean theme park, led Koshik to mimic the speech of the animals he did spend time with: humans.
There’s just one other well-known case of a “talking” elephant, Batyr, who lived in a Kazakhstan zoo, also isolated from others of his species. The researchers think that an attempt at social bonding may also be the reason that other animals, ranging from parrots to mammals like Hoover, the talking seal, and beluga whales, mimic the sounds of human speech. Koshik probably doesn’t mean the words he says: His vocabulary consists of commands frequently given to him by trainers, but while he has learned to obey them, he doesn’t seem perturbed if the humans around him don’t comply with his orders, one researcher told told Wired Science.