To Grieve Is To Have Loved : Elephant Mourning

Species: Loxodonta africana of the Elephantidae family. Colloquially known as the African Bush Elephant.

Video: Elephants Grieving

People are most stunned when animals display behaviour or emotions that are typically thought to exist only in the human domain. Aristotle was among the first to suggest that animals may have souls and a consciousness of the passage of life and death.


Elephants have been observed mourning the bones of both relatives and strangers, as well as performing elaborate death rituals when a member of the herd dies. When a herd encounters elephant bones, they become quiet and tense, sometimes forming a defensive circle around the remains before fondling and smelling the bones. They almost always begin with the skull, as if attempting to recognise the individual. This behaviour is not observed when elephants encounter the bones of other animals.

In the wild, elephants will grieve for the demise of a member of the herd, and attempt to bury the carcass by flinging branches and leaves over it. In the case of the death of calves or the matriarch, the elephants sometimes linger in the area for up to two days, venturing no further than a mile (Moss, 2000). This takes place in captivity as well. Staff at the Hellabrunn Zoo managed to capture footage of its elephants standing in a semi-circle around a dead calf, taking turns to gently caress it, as if saying goodbye.


While we usually assume that animals only behave in certain ways that confer benefits on themselves, this display of mourning may in fact be detrimental to the social group’s survival because it limits their movement and ability to find food and water. Therefore, elephant mourning behaviour contradicts the typical cost-benefit analysis we assume all animals make.


These displays of emotion and grief suggest that elephant cognition is a very real phenomenon. Elephants appear to have a conscious understanding of the concept of death, as evidenced by their deference for remains. (Goodall, 2008) describes emotion in animals as the ‘social glue’ that bonds them with one another, and also regulates their social encounters. Elephants are highly social animals, and a herd maintains a level of cohesion and solidarity, making grieving a not entirely unexpected behaviour outcome.


Terry Shen Yilin





Bekoff, M., & Goodall, J. (2008). The emotional lives of animals: A leading scientist explores animal joy, sorrow, and empathy–and why they matter. New world library.


Birkhead, M. (Producer) (2007). Grief [Television series episode]. In Birkhead, M. (Executive Producer), Unforgettable elephants. Carrollton: Public Broadcasting Service. Retrieved from and


Byrne, R. W., Bates, L., & Moss, C. J. (2009). Elephant cognition in primate perspective. Comparative Cognition & Behavior Review.


Moss, C. (2000). Elephant memories: thirteen years in the life of an elephant family. University of Chicago Press.


“Touching footage of elephants saying goodbye” by Barcroft Media. Youtube. Jan 24, 2012. URL: accessed on 2 April 2013.


“Elephants mourning” by National Geographic Youtube Channel, Youtube. Oct 19, 2007. URL: accessed on 2 April 2013.