An elephant in a South Korean zoo is using his trunk to pick up not only food but also human vocabulary.
An international team of scientists confirmed Friday what the Everland Zoo has been saying for years: Its 5.5-ton tusker Koshik has an unusual and possibly unprecedented talent.
The 22-year-old Asian elephant can reproduce five Korean words by tucking his trunk inside his mouth to modulate sound, the scientists said in a joint paper published online in Current Biology. They said he may have started imitating human speech because he was lonely and sought to bond with his trainers. He was separated from two other elephants at age 5.
Koshik can reproduce "annyeong" (hello), "anja" (sit down), "aniya" (no), "nuwo" (lie down) and "joa" (good), the paper says.
One of the researchers said there is no conclusive evidence that Koshik understands the sounds he makes.
Everland Zoo officials in the city of Yongin said Koshik also can imitate "ajik" (not yet), but the researchers haven't confirmed that.
Shin Nam Sik, a veterinary professor at Seoul National University who has seen Koshik, agreed with researchers' finding that the elephant was able to mimic human speech.
"In Koshik's case, the level of intimacy between him and his trainer was the key factor that made the elephant want to sound like a human," Shin said.
Kim Jong Gab, Koshik's chief trainer, said the elephant was timid for a male when he came to Everland Zoo, so trainers often slept in the same area with him. Kim thinks that contact helped Koshik feel closer to humans.
Kim said he has another phrase he wants to teach Koshik: "Saranghae," or "I love you."