Elephants evoke a sense of fascination in human beings and have done so for centuries. Research and observation has yielded many intriguing facts about these animals. Perhaps the most enticing quality of the elephant is its undeniable similarity to us, manifested by the close bonds they form with family members, their communication, life span, the care of their young and their emotions. Elephants experience many of the same emotions as people do, ones that are usually restricted to being that of humans, seldom seen in animals. Elephants are capable of sadness, joy, love, jealousy, fury, grief, compassion and distress.
The elephant's capacity for sadness and grief is truly unique amongst members of the animal world, as it is particularly complex in terms of emotions. While most animals do not hesitate to leave the weak and young behind to die, elephants are distressed by the situation, and continue to show signs of this grieving for extended periods of time.
Because elephants live in such close-knit herds and live for about as long as humans do (approximately 70 years), they form strong bonds with those around them. When these ones die, the rest of the herd mourns that death.
Mothers and aunts are also prone to mourning a still-born calf. The mother of a dead calf (whether at birth or later on in its life) shows her grief through her physical disposition. Her eyes are sunken and her ears drooping, her mood is visibly miserable.
The herd will take great care in the burial of the dead. Cows walk to and fro in search of leaves and twigs. They use this to cover the body of the deceased in an act of dignity for the dead. When a herd encounters the skeleton of a dead elephant, they have shown an undeniable fascination with the bones. The cows will mull over the bones, fondling them in thoughtful contemplation. Cows take bones from the skeleton and scatter them, hiding them under bushes in the surrounding area. This behaviour is thought to be as a protection for the rest of the herd, as it throws stalking predators off the trail of the cows and their calves. Even years later, elephant have been observed revisiting the site where one of their herd or family had died. They will remain here for days at a time, mourning the loss of that one.
It is when we consider this level of grief and love for one another that we can truly admire the role of the matriarch. When a weak or aged elephant is jeopardising the safety of the herd, the wise old leader has to make the very difficult decision to leave that one behind to protect the rest of her family. In obedience and out of respect for her authority, the other females will follow her guidance, submitting willingly. Their grief must be overwhelming, but their loyalty to the matriarch is even stronger.