Humans are not the only species to have death rituals. In fact, they happen all across the animal kingdom.
Elephants, especially African and Asian elephants, are known to express indications of mourning and grief when a member of their group passes away. This is a scientifically established fact. These social and highly intellectual creatures have complicated emotional lives, and there is enough evidence that they are able to create significant social relationships.
When a member of an elephant group, known as a herd or family, dies, other elephants often display behaviors that are indicative of grief. These behaviors can include:
Staying close to the departed: When an elephant in their herd dies, they usually stay near the body of the deceased member. Elephant herds are known to have strong emotional bonds with their members, and in the event of an elephant death, the remaining elephants will frequently spend considerable time in close contact with the departed. Their behaviors are a clear expression of their inner pain and worry.
Elephants may touch, nudge, or use their trunks to interact with the body of the deceased elephant. as though attempting to make sense of the circumstances. They could also use sounds that differ from how they often communicate, using a hushed, grave tone. The specific behavior might change across elephants in the same group or species as well as between individual elephants.
This behavior has been observed not only in the wild but also in captive settings, where it can be easier for researchers and caregivers to document and study. This brings a significant understanding of elephants’ emotional life and close social ties. Elephants that are grieving can exhibit these behaviors for several hours or even days, demonstrating the profound emotional bond they have with other members of their herd.
Physical interactions: Elephants may regularly interact physically with a deceased herd member’s body, touching, nudging, or even attempting to raise it with their trunks. Elephants react emotionally and become distressed when a member of their group dies.
Elephants have highly skilled trunks that are essential for many daily activities, like eating and communicating, but they are also used to express their emotions and deal with the death of a herd member. When a member of their group dies, elephants may use their trunks to gently stroke, push, or even try to lift it off the ground. Elephants may be using this behavior to grieve and say goodbye to their departed friend, as well as to demonstrate their worry and attempt to make sense of the circumstances.
Protectiveness: A female or matriarchal elephant in a herd may pass away, and other elephants in the group—especially older females—may adopt a protective and mother role towards the dead elephant’s young calves. Elephant families have incredibly close and supportive social relationships, as seen by this behavior.
As the group’s leader and protector, the matriarch—often the oldest and most experienced female—plays a vital role. There may be an empty space in the social system after her death. It’s possible for other more experienced female elephants to step in on behalf of the younger elephants, especially the calves, to offer protection, care, and instruction. They could provide the young elephants with a sense of security and support during a challenging period, assisting with ensuring their safety and wellbeing.
In addition to showing the sensitive character of elephants, this protective and maternal behavior also emphasizes the significance of matriarchs and experienced females in the social relationships of elephant herds. The activities of elder females in these situations help maintain the unity and proper functioning of the herd. The loss of a matriarch can have an important effect on the group.
Mourning rituals: When an elephant in their group passes away, observations have shown that they participate in rituals that may be considered grieving. The deceased elephant’s body may be covered in leaves, grass, or dust as part of these rites. These observations are representative of the depth of feeling and social connections among elephants, even if they are not universal and may not be observed in all situations of elephant grief.
Elephants are known for their extensive social behaviors and high intelligence levels. When faced with a herd member’s death, they could act in ways that go beyond basic survival instincts. Elephants may use these kinds of rituals to convey their grief and respect for the deceased as well as to communicate their emotions.
Various elephant groups and species may have various ritual characteristics. While some elephants may use grass or leaves, others might be much more likely to cover the deceased person’s body with dust. These customs not only provide insight into the emotional lives of elephants but also develop our knowledge of the behavioral and cultural differences among various elephant groups.
These behaviors indicate that elephants not only know about the demise of a group member but also go through an emotional attachment and pain that is similar to grief. these phenomena, which have been observed both in the wild and in captivity highlight the complex emotional lives of these remarkable animals.
Understanding and acknowledging the emotional depth and social bonds of elephants is essential for their conservation and welfare. It will help us in our efforts to save and care for elephants both in the wild and in captivity.