Seeing a deceased elephant is enough to bring a tear to the eye of many animal lovers. However, there’s a related spectacle even more powerful than that: the reaction of its herd. That’s what onlookers witnessed at this gathering, as the animals joined together to pay their final respects.
The fallen elephant in question was the leader a herd just outside the Kalawewa National Park in Sri Lanka. The area, which is close to the city of Anuradhapura and bordered by forests, received National Park status in 2015, and for good reason.
The Kalawewa National Park is a stomping ground for herds of Asian elephants. Unlike their African counterparts, few female Sri Lankan elephants have tusks. Even a large portion of the male elephant population don’t have them, but the Kalawewa herds are different.
That’s because there are a large number of tusked elephants found on the reserve. The demand for ivory on the black market is huge, so it’s no surprise Kalawewa is protected. Furthermore Asian elephants are classified as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN’s) Red List.
Of course, Kalawewa is home to an array of other animals too. For example, openbill storks descend upon the reserve in flocks of thousands at certain times of the year. But to many, the elephants are its main appeal.
To the casual observer, African and Asian elephants appear similar, but they are genetically quite different. Moreover there are some key physical characteristics that set the species apart from each other. To begin with, Asian elephants are often smaller than their African relatives.
An Asian elephant’s skin is also more likely to be depigmented on its trunk and neck. Despite these departures from other species, though, all elephants share an incredible level of intelligence. Their brains also share something in common with that of a human being.
Just like apes, some dolphins and humans, elephants have a developed neocortex, which results in more advanced thinking. Elephants show evidence of complex emotions, including language, self-awareness, compassion and memory. So it seems there’s a nugget of truth to the old saying “elephants never forget.”
Alongside their memory skills, elephants are renowned for their capacity for grief. They are among a small number of animals that display such a fundamental understanding of death. Nothing demonstrates this more than the ways in which they mourn for their lost ones.
Although we are yet to fully comprehend the depths of grief elephants experience, it has certainly sparked our imagination. For instance, many are familiar with the fable of the elephant’s graveyard, a mysterious site that old elephants visit to die. The story is now considered a myth, but it illustrates our fascination with these majestic creatures.
On the other hand, the truth of how elephants mourn is equally fascinating. Herds appear to have death rituals when they encounter the remains of other dead elephants. People have observed them gently touching the bones, almost as if they’re pondering the nature of life.
Observers also note how female elephants will conceal bones in undergrowth to hide them. Experts think this is likely an attempt to throw predators off their scent. But perhaps there’s a deeper reason too, since elephants often cover their dead with foliage.
Elephants have an incredible ability to remember lost loved ones, even years after their passing. They sometimes return to the site of a herd member’s death, as if to pay their respects, and can spend a number of days there.
One of the reasons we interpret an elephant’s behavior as mourning is because of their body language. They display an array of reactions during moments of sadness: such as rocking back and forth, staying abjectly still for long periods and drooping their ears.
It is elephant’s apparent acknowledgement of mortality that makes the death of one of these majestic giants so tragic. It also explains why the passing of the elephant in the Kalawewa National Park is so difficult to watch.
The video, released by Sri Lankan network News First in September 2018, begins with two members of the herd approaching the body. But they’re soon joined by more, until ten grieving elephants are standing alongside one another.
What follows resembles the elephant equivalent of a funeral, with babies and adults alike mourning their loss. The heart-breaking footage reveals the gathered elephants using their trunks to gently stroke their matriarch’s body.
In fact, reports suggest that up to 300 elephants gathered to witness the sorrowful vigil. Locals were there to witness the incredible event, and revealed the source of the tragedy. The matriarch died during a clash with another elephant.
The deceased elephant had crossed paths with a rival known to roam the surrounding area, and the encounter turned violent. The battle ended during the night following the herd leader’s death. Galkiriyagama Wildlife Zone official D. Ramasinghe confirmed the sad news to News First.
After conducting a post-mortem of the 35-year-old matriarch, Ramasinghe outlined his findings to News First in September 2018. He said, “The investigations reveal that the elephant had received over 20 stabbings from a tusk. We can confirm that the death was caused due to these wounds.” She’s now buried on the reserve, where her herd can forever pay their respects.