The Elephant Funeral

Elephants are well known for their majestic structure and most of all for their enduring memory. According to some biologists, the matriarch of a herd can remember routes and places which have plentiful water and is a rich source of food which is passed down generation after generation.

A herd of elephants consists of only females and once the male calf reaches adolescence he is slowly pushed away from the herd. This bull then goes and joins a group of bulls or forages alone if a group is absent. The herd is headed by the matriarch which is usually the oldest and most experienced member of the herd. She is like the commander of the fleet and decides what's good and what's bad for the herd. However, there are examples of herds having a much younger matriarch.

Elephants are highly social animals and communicate with different families who are miles apart. Wonder how they do so? With their footpads. They can emit vibrations also called rumbles with a frequency which is inaudible to human ears and can travel miles away. These frequencies are picked up by the footpads of the elephants of another herd. Apart from that, they also communicate via three different types of calls, namely, trumpets, roars and chirps. The very fact that these are extremely social animals makes biologists wonder about their intriguing behaviour of so-called mourning and participating in the funeral of their deceased family member. This phenomenon of attributing human behaviour to wild animals is considered as a bad practice and must be avoided by everyone studying wildlife. This is also known as anthropomorphization.

However, this phenomenon of elephant funeral and mourning is a very subjective and debatable topic. This kind of mourning behaviour is also observed in Chimpanzees (where the mother was seen cleaning the teeth of the dead chimpanzee using tools. Also in another case the group of chimpanzees avoided going to the area where earlier one of the members of the group had died), Orcas (where a mother orca had been spotted carrying her dead infant through the icy water of the Salish Sea) and Magpies (a magpie had been observed covering another dead magpie underneath a heap of twigs and leaves. This is also known as Magpie funeral).

Many cases have been documented where elephants come back and mourn the loss of their family member by touching and smelling the corpse or the remains of the deceased elephant. There have also been instances where the mother stayed with the dead calf for days on end to protect it from the predators around. According to Cynthia Moss, one of the elephants called the Big Tuskless had died of natural causes and after the decay of the elephant she had happened to bring the jaw bone of Big Tuskless to her camp. One fine day when the family of the Big Tuskless was passing by it had travelled through the camp. Several jawbones were lying around in the camp but the members of the herd touched and felt only Big Tuskless’ jaw bone. After the herd left, one member stayed back for a long time and turned around the jaw bone repeatedly. That elephant happened to be Butch, the seven-year-old calf of Big Tuskless. So is this grief? How do you explain this?

In another case once a researcher played the call of a dead elephant from a microphone hid behind a thicket. The family became frantic and started calling and moving about in search of the dead elephant. The dead elephant's daughter went on calling for days after the recording had been played. In a video taken by researcher Shifra Goldenberg, many elephants were seen surrounding the remains of a dead elephant. The intriguing thing about it was that along with the relatives of the herd, other members did not belong to the family of the deceased. Very much like a human funeral ceremony.

The tusks of elephants are nowadays cut off as soon as they are dead. But according to David Sheldrick elephants have “a strange habit of removing tusks from their dead comrades.” These tusks are then carried for hundreds of kilometres. Once when Ian Douglas-Hamilton had shot an elephant that chased one of his workers, he removed the tusk and kept it a few miles away from the camp. One day a relative of this elephant came and brought back with it that tusk which was removed. This individual kept the tusk in the same place where the elephant had died. Elephants have also been recorded covering up the dead with mud and twigs. Quite similar to a human burial.

But do they mourn the dead? In the Samburu reserve in Kenya, a matriarch named Eleanor had collapsed and was ailing in pain. Another matriarch named Grace approached and with much effort lifted her and made her stand but Eleanor collapsed again. Grace stayed with her the whole night. Eleanor passed away that night. The next day an elephant named Maui started rocking Eleanor's body with her leg attempting to wake her up. On the third day, Eleanor’s family came and attended her body. Along with them came Eleanor’s closest friend Maya. Grace was also there. On the fifth day, Maya was present with her body for an hour and a half. A week later Eleanor’s family came and spent half an hour with the body. What do you call this? Grief? Instances have also been recorded when elephants carry their dead calves on their tusk for days and protect it from predators. Do elephants usually carry their calves? No.

You might be thinking elephants do this only for their kind. If so, how do you explain the case where a herd of earlier rogue elephants stayed in the backyard of the Elephant Whisperer, Lawrence Anthony, for 48 hours straight right after he died? Lawrence had earlier saved this herd in Zululand from being shot down.


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