Gentle giants of joy, anger, grief and love

Mum will be back soon: Female elephants babysit each other’s calves. © Alamy

Are elephants as emotional as humans? Six died trying to save a young calf from a waterfall in Thailand. Research on elephants is full of examples of the animals behaving empathetically.

Deep in Thailand’s Khao Yai National Park, there is a treacherous waterfall called Haew Narok, or “Hell’s Fall”.

On 6 October, a family of eight elephants was walking nearby. When a three-year-old elephant calf got into difficulty on a slope, five adult elephants put themselves in mortal danger as they fought to save the baby, and then one another. But by the time park rangers arrived, all six elephants had drowned.

Humans often have a Darwinian view of the animal kingdom, where beasts compete with each other ruled, above all, by a survival instinct. But this tragedy of self-sacrifice shows how little we understand the depth of animal emotion.

Two of the herd survived, but experts from the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand fear that they may struggle to live for long. Aside from a herd’s physical reliance on each other, the loss could also take a psychological toll.

“It’s like losing half your family,” said wildlife worker Edwin Wiek.

Elephants are known to display grief, growing distressed when a deceased family member will not get up. One group was even filmed lingering over the carcass of an elephant they were not related to (as if to “pay their respects”, said wildlife expert Shifra Goldenberg).

Elephants have the largest brain of any land mammal, with three times as many neurons as the human brain.

They are one of very few animals — alongside dolphins and chimpanzees — that can recognise their own reflections. Human toddlers only develop this ability between 18 and 24 months of age.

But beyond pure intelligence, elephants have repeatedly displayed one of the most complex emotional skills available to us: empathy.

Mothers have been seen to push boisterous playmates away from their young, even if the calf hasn’t shown signs of distress. This suggests that the older elephant, rather than just reacting to behavioural signs, is drawing from their past emotional experiences to predict that the calf might become upset.

We are just beginning to understand the complexity of elephant social networks. Studies show that female Asian elephants have up to 50 friends. Even if they do not see an individual for many years, they will still recognise each other when they are reunited.

Are elephants as emotional as humans?

Trunk call

Surely not, say some. We love to imbue animals with human characteristics. A dog can wag its tail, but that does not mean it is feeling profound joy. The same goes for elephants — they are simply displaying instinctive behaviours that we are interpreting as “human”. The depth of human feeling is tied to our intellect and rationality, which is simply not available to other animals.

But the evidence can no longer be denied. Time and again, scientists have witnessed what they call “emotional contagion” in elephants who comfort each other. It’s what we do when we watch a scary film and identify with a character. “We may tremble and, for reassurance, we reach for our friend’s hand,” writes Virginia Morrell. It is only out of anthropocentric arrogance and guilt that we turn a blind eye to the complex and powerful emotions of elephants, which can extend to making the ultimate sacrifice for their loved ones.

You Decide

  1. Should elephants have certain rights as humans do?
  2. How can we measure intelligence in animals?


  1. Research another five interesting or surprising facts about elephants. There are lots out there!
  2. Write a short story from the perspective of an elephant calf. They could be living in Thailand, or somewhere else all together. What do they feel? Who do they interact with?

Some People Say...

“Nature’s great masterpiece, an elephant: the only harmless, great thing.”

John Donne (1572-1631), English poet

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Elephants are the national animal of Thailand, but very few wild elephants remain in the country. Khao Yai National Park, home to around 300 wild elephants, is one of the few places where they roam free. Overall, around 7,000 elephants live in Asia, over half of which are in captivity. The African elephant is far more populous, with around 450,000 to 700,000 remaining.
What do we not know?
Whether there is any truth behind the fabled “elephant graveyards”. According to myth, elephants who are close to death have an urge to travel to a specific location to lie among the bones of their ancestors. Most scientists think that it is more likely that large groups of elephant bones simply come from their very specific migration patterns, or because of elderly, immobile elephants moving closer to water.

Word Watch

Dangerous; unsafe. A group of eight elephants died at the same site in 1992.
Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection states that evolution occurs because animals compete with each to survive and pass their genes down to their offspring, with only the fittest surviving.
For protection and finding food.
To do with the mind and emotions.
Cells that form a network, which transmits information across the brain.
Researchers placed coloured markers on the elephant’s body in front of a mirror. Instead of reaching for the mirror, like an animal that did not recognise itself might do, the elephants touched the markers on their own bodies.
The ability to understand and share in someone else’s feelings.
To fill something with an idea or feeling.
A perspective that sees humans as the most important thing in the world, standing apart from other animals.


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