It was just after six o’clock in the evening on an autumn day in Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve. A researcher watched a female elephant known as Eleanor collapse. She was a matriarch, an elder within female-dominated elephant society. Her swollen trunk dragged on the ground. One of her tusks was broken, evidence of another recent fall. Another matriarch, Grace, ran toward her and tried to stabilize the ailing pachyderm with her tusks. But Eleanor’s back legs were too weak to support her massive body, and she fell again. The rest of her herd had continued their journey, but Grace stayed with Eleanor as day turned into night.
By eleven o’clock the next morning, Eleanor was dead. Over the next few days, no fewer than five other elephant groups visited Eleanor’s carcass. Several of these, like Grace, were completely unrelated to her. They poked at her lifeless body, sniffed it, and felt it with their feet and with their trunks. Did they know that they were touching death? Do elephants grieve?
This story is well known among animal cognition researchers, and it is one that Virginia Morell beautifully—almost poetically—recounts in her book Animal Wise. “Her six-month-old calf never left its mother’s side, even after park rangers cut out her tusks to make sure they did not fall into the hands of poachers,” she writes. By the calf’s ninth month, researchers had lost track of it and assumed it was “probably killed by a predator.” Like us, elephants are lost without their mothers.
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