On Friday, an international team of scientists confirmed what the Everland Zoo has been saying for years: Their 5.5-ton tusker Koshik has an unusual and possibly unprecedented talent.
The 22-year-old elephant can reproduce five Korean words by tucking his trunk inside his mouth to modulate the sound, the scientists said in a joint paper published online in Current Biology.
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, although the elephant does respond to words like "anja."
Vocal imitation of other species has been found in mockingbirds, parrots and mynahs. But the paper says Koshik's case represents "a wholly novel method of vocal production" because he uses his trunk to reproduce human speech.
Experts say he may have started imitating human speech because he was lonely.
Koshik's chief trainer Kim Jong-gab said the elephant was shy for a male when he first came to the zoo. So, trainers slept in the same area with him. Kim says this close human contact helped the elephant. He said he has another phrase he wants to teach Koshik: "Saranghae," which means, "I love you."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.