Scientists have observed extraordinary displays of emotion from elephants. One female, Cathy, was seen crying from both eyes, tears streaming down her face. Dr Kate Evans, of the Elephants For Africa research foundation, has told me that on several occasions she has watched grieving elephants exhibit almost a sense of puzzlement.
Dr Evans has observed mourning among wild elephants that she knew well. On one occasion, a young bull came across three skulls. He ignored the first two, but paid particular attention to the third skull, from an elephant he had been friendly with.
Not so different: Elephants feel like we do, says wildlife film-maker James Honeyborne. Another time, a matriarch collapsed and died in the bush. Over the next three weeks, several lone males visited her body and spent time by her side. Back in the Forties, George Adamson the naturalist who, with his wife Joy, was the inspiration for the film Born Free recalled how he once had to shoot a bull elephant from a herd that kept breaking into the government gardens of northern Kenya.
That night, other elephants found the body, took the shoulderblade and leg bone, and returned the bones to the exact spot where the elephant was killed. They recognise each other and, of course, they have marvellous memories. When one animal dies, they will each need to assess how their social group has changed and how to re-evaluate themselves within this new hierarchy.
The whole dynamic changes, and they need to know where they fit in within the crowd. Those are not the only emotions they display. If you look at an elephant calf, chasing cattle egrets through the long grass, it is playing — it exhibits joy. Elephants in zoos have reportedly shown symptoms of depression.
The first African elephant to be taken to London Zoo, in the s, was called Jumbo, and he posed problems for his keepers, who tried to keep him happy and amused. For humans, the most complex and important emotion is love, and we describe it in a multitude of ways. The powerful bond between a mother elephant and her calf is an easy one for us to understand. Their society is a very female-based hierarchy, and the loyalty that a herd shows to a matriarch is intensely strong.
They will follow her wherever she goes: perhaps that is a manifestation of love of a different sort.
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Emotion requires communication, and the vocalisations of elephants are incredibly sophisticated. Much of their long-distance communication occurs through vibrations that are inaudible to us. The normal human range of hearing is between 20Hz and 20,Hz. Never forgotten: Evidence indicate that elephants can recognise a dead family member or friend if they come upon their remains after their passing.
They can talk to other elephants 50 miles away through the ground, communicating in ways that we are only just beginning to understand. I have been with populations that were utterly relaxed around humans; they just looked at us as being another kind of primate. These were elephants very much in their natural state; they had never been hunted, and they were simply curious.
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In turn, three mothers brought their babies to show us to them. The babies approached us to within about five or six metres, wiggling their trunks and looking in all directions, and then they would suddenly lock on to us. We could hear these rumblings between mother and calf, as if they were discussing us.
This happened three times within about ten minutes, before the matriarch led the herd away. That really was a magical experience. The only pathways are those made by elephants, so there is always a chance of an encounter.
If one is coming head on, our only option is to get off the path: we have to rely on our guides because they know much more about the habits of those particular elephants than we do. And they will probably hear them coming a lot sooner. Give them a few small bushes and they can vanish completely. They are incredibly stealthy for their size.
Sadly, the impact of poaching is changing their behaviour. Some populations are becoming more aggressive because of it. All the others in the herd seemed relaxed, but this one was grumpy. Why was that? Who can say how an individual elephant will respond to the loss of a close family member to poachers?
Apart from the poaching crisis, elephants are coming into increasing conflict with farmers and expanding human populations. One thing is certain: there will be many more dead elephants to mourn in the coming months. Elephants really do grieve like us: They shed tears and even try to 'bury' their dead - a leading wildlife film-maker reveals how the animals are like us By James Honeyborne Published: BST, 31 January Updated: BST, 31 January e-mail 7 View comments.
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