Why is this Indian Elephant Thought to be Smoking?

2 mins
smoking elephant

A video which appears to show an elephant with a smoking habit has been circulating across social media. 

Scientists believe the female elephant – spotted by conservationists in India hoisting chunks of ashen wood with its trunk and then placing them into its mouth and blowing out puffs of smoke – may be eating the ash-covered charcoal  to flush out toxins

Varun Goswami, an elephant biologist, and his team came across what they are calling the ‘smoke-breathing’ female in Nagarahole National Park while checking their hidden cameras as part of a study of tigers.

‘I believe the elephant may have been trying to ingest wood charcoal,’ Goswami, Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) India programme scientist said.

‘She appeared to be picking up pieces from the forest floor, blowing away the ash that came along with it, and consuming the rest.’

During their forest trek, the team saw the elephant standing in a burnt patch of the woods.

‘In India, the Forest Department burns fire lines to create fire breaks that can help control forest fires,’ Vinay Kumar, assistant director of WCS-India, told Live Science.

‘And this effort leaves behind wood charcoal on the forest floor.’

Eating charcoal — which is made mostly of carbon and formed from the heating of wood in low-oxygen conditions — is not unheard of in the natural world.

Colobus monkeys consume such char, possibly to counteract toxins in some of the foods they eat. Scientists reported in 1997 in the International Journal of Primatology they’d found that the Zanzibar red colobus monkey may be the only wildlife primate that intentionally chomps down on charcoal.

The charcoal-eating allows the monkeys to consume Indian almond and mango trees, which are chockful of phenols, a group of chemical compounds that apparently can be toxic.

‘Charcoal has toxin-binding properties that may provide medicinal value,’ Goswami said, adding that it can also act as a laxative.

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