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Elephant in S. Korea said to imitate speech

YONGIN, South Korea -- An elephant at a zoo in South Korea has learned to imitate human speech and has a vocabulary of several words, researchers said Friday.

Koshik, a 22-year-old male Asian elephant at Everland Zoo in Yongin, a city south of Seoul, greeted visiting journalists by “saying” choah (good) and nuo (lie down).

He can also make the sounds annyong (hi), anja (sit down) and aniya (no), according to a team of scientists from South Korea and Europe who studied his vocalizations.

Elephants cannot use their lips to make sounds like humans do, as their upper lips are fused with their noses to form their trunks.

But Koshik formulates the words by rolling up his trunk and putting it into his mouth. He then either places the tip of his trunk on his tongue or on the ceiling of his mouth to create different sounds.

The researchers said they were not completely sure how the elephant picked up the skill, but they believe Koshik learned the words from his trainer of 19 years, Kim Jong-gap.

“The only social bonds Koshik had made was with his trainer and we think he learned and imitated the words to form ties and trust with Kim,” Oh Suk-hun, a veterinarian at Everland and co-author of the research, told reporters.

Although the elephant can clearly hear and imitate the words, whether he understands them is still being studied, he said.

Everland conducted its research along with scientists from the University of Vienna in Austria and Germany's University of Jena.

Koshik was born in 1990 in a state-run zoo in Seoul and transferred 49 kilometers south to Everland, part of South Korea's largest theme park, three years later.

“Koshik is like my baby because I've trained him since he came here,” trainer Kim told AFP.

“I slept in a sleeping bag near Koshik for a month when I first started training him and I think that's why we became so close to the point where he started imitating my voice,” he said.

“I've never thought an animal, especially an elephant, could mimic human sounds, so I was surprised and thrilled to see Koshik 'speak,'” he added.

Elephants are highly social mammals which in the wild live in groups and use low-frequency vocalizations to keep in contact over great distances.

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Trainer Kim Jong-gap, left, speaks to Koshik, a 22-year-old male Asian elephant at the Everland Zoo in Yongin, 49 km (29 miles) south of Seoul, Friday, Nov. 2. (AFP)

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