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
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The pictures of a baby elephant in Borneo, nudging and nuzzling thebody of its dead mother in obvious distress and bewilderment, cannot fail to move us.
Allegations that up to ten pygmy elephants were poisoned, perhaps by local farmers, are upsetting — perhaps because elephant emotions seem so like our own, so heartbreakingly close to human sorrow and grief.
Any scientist knows how dangerous it is to project human feelings on to an animal, to force them into human moulds or ‘anthropomorphise’ them, but it’s equally dangerous to ignore a wealth of scientific data based on decades of observation in the wild.
Heart-rendering: An African elephant mother mourns her calf, a victim of the three consecutive years of drought in East Africa
We may never know exactly what goes on inside the mind of an elephant, but it would be arrogant of us to assume we are the only species capable of feeling loss and grief.
I have been filming animals in the wild for more than 20 years, and that has often meant being around elephants: they live across a huge range of habitats. But mass poaching has put them into terrible decline — around 40,000 elephants a year are killed by poachers and, according to some estimates, since the Sixties the population has been culled from 3.5 million to just 250,000.
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I am certain that the behaviour I have witnessed so often stems from real emotion. Understanding it is the biggest challenge for a wildlife cameraman. We have to get inside the heads of the animals, see how they are reacting and predict what they will do next, or we won’t get the shots we need.
Perhaps the most dramatic and emotional sequence happened in our current BBC1 series, Africa, narrated by David Attenborough. We filmed an elephant mother’s desperate attempts to keep her calf alive during the worst drought in 50 years in Kenya.
These animals were not dying of thirst: they were starving. Some volcanic springs were still flowing, so the animals could get water; what they couldn’t get were nutrients.
A three-month-old Borneo pygmy elephant calf tries to awake its dead mother at the Gunung Rara Forest Reserve in Sabah, Malaysia
By that time, the drought was well into its second year and mother and baby were trying to survive on dry twigs.
There was no hay in Kenya, there was a sense of utter helplessness, and we felt the most important thing was to document what was happening.
Cameraman Mark Deeble had been following the family for days. He saw that the mother stayed with her baby and felt she was distressed, trying to lift up the dead body and move it with her feet, before standing over the prone calf for about an hour, seeming to come to terms with the situation.
Whether you were actually there or watching events unfold on the screen, it was impossible to keep your emotions separate from what you were seeing. The mother’s bereavement transmitted itself so strongly.
In a more benign environment, an elephant might mourn for longer. I have heard of animals staying beside the bodies of dead friends for three days and nights, refusing to move.
This mother didn’t do that, possibly because she had been exposed to a lot of death around her.
Fifteen thousand head of game died in that reserve during the drought. More than 400 elephants perished, including 60 per cent of all the matriarchs — a herd’s female leader.
It was a terrible time for that population, and I think death had become familiar to them. You could draw a parallel with humans in wartime. The mother had to move on for her own survival.
Grieving: A wildlife department official tries to make the bereaved baby elephant in Gunung Rara drink water as if refuses to leave its dead mother's body
We couldn’t save her baby, but we felt it was essential to put its death in context: Africa is infamous for its droughts and famines, and yet we very rarely see how seriously that affects its wildlife.
Scientists have observed extraordinary displays of emotion from elephants. When one tame animal called Abu died at a safari outfit in Botswana, his keepers brought the other elephants to say ‘goodbye’.
One female, Cathy, was seen crying from both eyes, tears streaming down her face.
That doesn’t mean elephants know what death is. They can’t anticipate death in the way we can or imagine it as an abstract concept. Their grief is different: it’s simply about loss.
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.
They pick up, hold and examine bones, balancing a jawbone on their tusks or putting it in their mouths, as if they are saying to their dead friend: ‘Is that you?’
Perhaps the discredited myth of the elephant’s graveyard, a secret place where the animals supposedly went to die, had its origins in the fact that elephants interact with their dead.
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. In Kate’s words, he seemed to know who the skull belonged to.
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.
Adamson gave the elephant’s meat to the local Turkana tribesmen and then dragged the rest of the carcass half a mile away. 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.
According to Charlie Mayhew, of the Tusk Trust, elephants will ‘bury’ their dead, covering carcasses with branches and even taking the tusks to be placed at a different spot.
We cannot guess the precise meaning of that, but it’s clear that elephants are large-brained and social animals that live in complex groups. 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.
In another episode of the Africa series, we showed a young bull elephant in ‘must’ or on heat — he was throwing his weight around, clearly in a heightened emotional state. We called it a ‘sexual fury’.
Elephants in zoos have reportedly shown symptoms of depression. The first African elephant to be taken to London Zoo, in the 1860s, 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. But unlike humans, elephants don’t seem to have any notion of romantic love.
You don’t get courting elephants — when they mate, it can be a pretty brief encounter.
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.
Emotion requires communication, and the vocalisations of elephants are incredibly sophisticated.
They operate on some sound frequencies we can hear — trumpeting and grumbling — and others that we can’t. Much of their long-distance communication occurs through vibrations that are inaudible to us.
Low-frequency (or infrasonic) sounds are transmitted constantly, a deep rumble somewhere between 15-30 Hertz. The normal human range of hearing is between 20Hz and 20,000Hz.
Never forgotten: Evidence indicate that elephants can recognise a dead family member or friend if they come upon their remains after their passing
These low frequencies can be sensed through the elephants’ trunks and even their feet, like vibrations on the skin of a drum.
They can talk to other elephants 50 miles away through the ground, communicating in ways that we are only just beginning to understand. It is possible that each elephant can recognise up to 100 other individuals by their infrasonic ‘voice’.
When we’re working with elephants, we can never let down our guard.
I have been with populations that were utterly relaxed around humans; they just looked at us as being another kind of primate. Once, in the Okavango Delta in Botswana, on foot, I was part of a three-man camera team when wewere surrounded by a herd ofelephants.
That felt pretty scary — we were miles from our camp and could do nothing but crouch low beside a termite mound and keep murmuring, making small movements to show the animals that we were stillalive.
These were elephants very much in their natural state; they had never been hunted, and they were simply curious. In turn, three mothers brought their babies to show us to them. It appeared to be for their education — as if the mums were saying: ‘Come here, kids, and look at this!’
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.
When we’re on foot, especially in the forests of western Africa, we often have to use their trails. 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.
You might imagine you could see an elephant coming a mile off, but it’s amazing how easy it is for an elephant to disappear. 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.
Though I can’t prove it, I would readily accept that the elephant who wanted to shake our cameraman out of a tree was an animal who might have been hunted. 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?
All this feels particularly poignant as we examine in the next and last episode of Africa the future of the continent’s wildlife, and ask what the next few years hold for elephants.
Apart from the poaching crisis, elephants are coming into increasing conflict with farmers and expanding human populations. The incident in Borneo highlights that it’s not just an African problem.
One thing is certain: there will be many more dead elephants to mourn in the coming months.