A female elephant carries a baby elephant in her trunk, a limp bundle, dangling lifelessly. She comes out of the forest to cross a road and at the edge of the road, drops her precious burden. Other elephants come out behind her. They mill about touching and smelling the baby. Then the female elephant carries the baby again and they pass into the other side of the forest. The video captured by an Indian forest officer, Parveen Kaswan, has gone viral around the world in the last four days with an outpouring of love for the elephants he filmed.
Scientists will warn against anthropomorphisation of animals, attributing to them emotions that are thought of as only human. But are grief and love only human emotions?
The forest officer has described his video as a “funeral procession”. He says, “The family just did not want to leave the baby.”
Elephants are known to have very strong family bonds, not only within herds that they are found in, but across herds. I have been at several elephant gatherings and watched them rush to other elephants in loud greetings. It is not uncommon to see great displays of love, not just between a mother and a calf, but between the calf and almost every member of the herd. Often when a calf loses its mother, the herd, unless in times of great stress , will adopt the calf.
This sort of “ritual” with dead herd members has been observed often amongst wild elephants both in India and Africa. They will often stop and contemplate dead elephant bones or corpses in their path. They have also been observed covering the dead with sand, leaves and twigs. As they are long-lived animals (age span of about 75 years), they form deep bonds, and as they have certain set elephant paths or routes, they often revisit areas where their dead have fallen. Every time, instead of just walking by they will stop, smell, touch and mill about, rumbling, as in the video below.
When one of their herd is in distress, elephants don’t just walk away leaving the member behind. They will try their level best to help. Often when babies or their young fall in ditches or get trapped in fast-flowing waters, several herd members will jump in to rescue, cry loudly and not leave until all hope is lost. It is not uncommon for them to risk their own lives to save family or herd members. A mother elephant can hold a mean grudge if her baby is under threat and often, elephant attacks on humans occur when she thinks or sees that her baby is in distress.
The reverse is also true. They have been known to come and thank people who have helped rescue their calves from danger. Rescued elephants who have been rewilded have been recorded bringing their young to introduce them to the people who had rescued them years ago. When Lawrence Anthony, a man who rescued and rewilded a group of African elephants who had been marked for death in the Thula Thula game reserve, and bonded them into a herd-passed way, the elephants came on the day of his funeral and surrounded the house that he lived in. They stayed there for two days. The first big surprise was that they came walking miles in the bush. The second? How did they know he had passed away the day before? Anthony, who was famously known as “The Elephant Whisperer”, once famously said. “Our inability to think beyond our own species, or to be able to co-habit with other life forms in what is patently a massive collaborative quest for survival, is surely a malady that pervades the human soul.”
In fact, in Africa, when elephant culling is done, experts try and cull a whole herd so as to not leave any deeply traumatised members alive. They also try not to cull a herd anywhere close to another herd as elephants communicate over large distances with infra sounds which travel through the ground and can be picked up by their feet. If another herd is too close to the herd being culled, there can be extensive anger and trauma.
When senior male elephants leave the herd and wander on their own, they often take two or three young males with them. These young males stay around the senior male and look after him until he dies and in turn, the senior male teaches them all about being an adult male elephant. In South Africa’s Pilanesberg reserve, several years ago when they decided to rewild it, they brought in two senior female elephants and a couple of young males left behind after a cull. The young males came into heat to soon as there were no senior males around and as they were rejected by the females, took their anger and testosterone out on the rhinos in the reserve, killing several of them; they then started to attack tourist jeeps. The authorities brought in a senior male elephant and within weeks, the youngsters had been disciplined and settled down. That proved intergenerational bonds and care and the importance of herd bonds.
It’s not just elephants, animals across species have shown a response to their dead. Last year in BBC Blue Planet 2, a whale mother was seen swimming with her dead calf in her mouth for several days. Just two days ago, a baby humpback whale just off the coast of my house got trapped in a fishing line and would have drowned. The national sea rescue service luckily came in time and cut her loose. Her mother waited by her side the entire time and then swam away with her. I have seen baboons hold their dead babies for hours and members of the troop also hold and touch the dead members. I have watched birds hover over their dead young, staying and touching them until finally flying away. Years ago, there was a famous video (watch below) of a mother leopard harassing a python until the snake coughed out her baby leopard that it had swallowed. Then the mother carried this baby around for a while.
Perhaps what this recent video can teach us is to stop only seeing ourselves and our issues as the centre of the world and understand that everyone of us shares a space with every other non human animal on this the living planet.
“Until we allow not only elephants, but all living creatures their place in the sun, we can never be whole ourselves.” – Lawrence
(Swati Thiyagarajan is an Environment Editor with NDTV and author of ‘Born Wild’, a book about her experiences with conservation and wildlife both in India and Africa)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.