The Daily Telegraph.
14 August 2006.
Elephants show compassion in face of death
By Roger Highfield
These astonishing pictures reveal the depth of compassion the
creatures feel for each other in their moments of need.
Film footage shot by scientists at the Samburu National
Reserve in Kenya caught Eleanor as she fell to the ground
after being bitten.
Her helper, Grace, was seen calling out in distress and
making desperate attempts to get the stricken elephant on to
her feet. But the 40-year-old matriarch was too ill to
respond and her efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. Her
great weight compressed her internal organs and by the
following morning she was dead. That day her body was visited
by other elephants who rocked back and forth or stood
It was a dramatic demonstration that elephants, like humans,
show compassion after a death of one of their own species,
care about other elephants in distress and have a strong
interest in the dead - and not only for their immediate kin.
Grace is the matriarch of a separate family, christened the
Virtues by scientists, to that of Eleanor, who headed the
First Ladies. But Grace still came to the dying elephant's
The research team from Oxford University's Department of
Zoology, the charity Save the Elephants, and the University
of California report the rare observations in a forthcoming
study to be published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour
Science. Movements of 50 animals are constantly tracked,
allowing the team to measure and record visits to the dead
From radio tracking and direct or recorded observations, the
study showed that five families visited the dead Eleanor,
showing a distinct interest in her body. One of these
families was her own, but the researchers noted that Eleanor
also received visits from unrelated elephants who were not
normally associated with her.
The study concludes that elephants are interested in sick,
dying or dead elephants, irrespective of a genetic
relationship. The authors conclude: "It is an example of how
elephants and humans may share emotions, such as compassion,
and have an awareness and interest about death."
Most animals, unlike humans, appear to show little interest
in the dead of their own species, although some - such as
chimpanzees, dolphins and elephants - have been described as
being concerned about ailing or dead members of their
species. Lead author Dr Iain Douglas-Hamilton, from the
Oxford Zoology Department and founder of Save the Elephants,
said: "This behaviour in an animal species can be compared to
human behaviour and indicates that such feelings as
compassion may not be restricted to our species alone."
But the study showed that there are limits to elephant
compassion. Eleanor's six-month-old female calf nuzzled her
mother's carcass then walked around appearing confused,
trying to suckle from other young calves before returning to
The young calf did not survive long because none of the
breeding females who normally associated with Eleanor would
adopt and suckle her. Prof Fritz Vollrath, from Oxford's
Department of Zoology, said: "These fortuitous and
fascinating insights into elephant life were possible only
because of the detailed, long-term monitoring of this
important Northern Kenyan elephant population."