As documented by researchers Cynthia Moss, Joyce Poole, and Iain Douglas-Hamilton, African elephants appear to recognize death, most plainly among their own kind. Often, just after an individual has died, other elephants will touch its carcass gently with their hind feet, then cover the body with dirt and sticks, and stand guard. (Morell, p. 148). Elephants show a consistent interest in the carcasses and bones of their fellows, even if the bones have been long bleached by the sun. When elephants encounter their dead, Moss says, they “stop and become quiet and tense in a different way from anything I have seen in other situations. First they reach their trunks toward the body to smell it, and then they…begin to touch the bones, sometimes lifting them and turning them with their feet and trunks. They seem particularly interested in the head and tusks. They run their trunk tips along the tusks and lower jaw and feel in all the crevices and hollows in the skull. I would guess they are trying to recognize the individual.” (Morell, p. 149) Sometimes elephants will pick up the bones, carrying them for a distance before dropping them. “It is a haunting and touching sight,” Moss says, “and I have no idea why they do it.” (Morell, p. 149)
One case in point is that of a particular individual’s reaction to the jawbone of an adult female that Moss had collected in order to determine its age. A few weeks after this elephant’s death, her family came through the camp. Each member stopped to examine the jawbone and teeth but, after the others had moved on, the elephant’s seven-year-old son stayed behind, stroking the jaw, turning it over and smelling it repeatedly. “I felt sure that he recognized it as his mother’s,” Moss writes. (Morell, p. 149) Might he have been remembering her face, her voice, her scent, her touch? Might he have been feeling something akin to what a human child would feel upon remembering his or her recently deceased parent? A feeling of melancholy nostalgia, sorrow, or perhaps a different shade of feeling than what we humans can identify? (Masson and McCarthy, p. 96)
Intriguingly, elephants sometimes act similarly around the bodies of people they either find dead or have killed. In these cases, the elephants have no family connection or emotional tie to the others. In at least one instance, though, an elephant is known to have mourned the death of an individual of an entirely different species – yet one it had a close bond with. This young orphaned elephant, who lived in a sanctuary in South Africa, shrieked and moaned when it discovered the buried remains of its companion, a rhinoceros, that poachers had killed for its horn. (Morell, p. 148)
Elephants can appear similarly agitated at the imminent death of one of their own, and behave in a way that indicates grief. One well-documented case is that of a matriarch named Eleanor. Weakened by age, Eleanor kept collapsing, and a fellow matriarch, Grace, repeatedly attempted to lift Eleanor onto her feet. Grace appeared distraught, her facial glands streaming with emotion. Grace stayed with Eleanor as night fell – and overnight, Eleanor died. Over the next several days, Eleanor’s family members and others – including her closest friend, Maya –spent time with her body, nudging it, and feeling and smelling it with their trunks. (Morell, p. 149)
Even more remarkable stories crop up concerning these creatures’ apparent awareness of trauma and death. In Zimbabwe, officials decided to reduce the elephant population by “culling” hundreds of them, i.e., using helicopters to herd them together and having marksmen on the ground shoot entire families. On the day the cull started, some 80 elephants living in a sanctuary 90 miles away disappeared – to be found days later bunched together in the corner of the sanctuary farthest from the carnage. (Safina, p. 92) Just as strange, after the “elephant whisperer” Lawrence Anthony passed away, nearly two dozen elephants that he had rescued and given asylum to converged on his home and lingered for two days. They had reportedly not been there for a year. How they might have gathered that their benefactor died begs explanation. (Safina, p. 92) The word “telepathy” is used by Dame Daphne Sheldrick, who leads the renowned Wildlife Trust named for her late husband – here, not in connection with death but with life. Sheldrick says that the grown-up elephants her Trust has rescued seem to know when a new group of orphans is headed there by the way they come up from the bush, ready to greet the arrivals. (Safina, p. 93)
Morell, Virginia. Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures. New York: Crown, 2013.
Masson, Jeffrey Moussaieff and Susan McCarthy. When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals. New York: Delacorte Press, 1995.
Safina, Carl. Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2015.