In 2019, Indian Forest Service ranger Parveen Kaswan posted a video on Twitter of elephants exhibiting some unique behavior. A mother elephant led the herd across a street, carrying a dead calf in her trunk. She put it down to eat as the rest of the herd followed. They sniffed and touched the calf, seemingly mourning it. As the elephants moved on, the mother took the baby with them, as if they were continuing the funeral procession. 
A Funeral for a Dead Calf
This video is one of many that a group of researchers used to understand the mourning behaviors of Asian elephants. Sanjeeta Sharma Pokharel, Nachiketha Sharma, and Raman Sukumar, all from the Indian Institute of Science, turned to YouTube for their study. They found 39 videos documenting 24 cases of Asian elephants reacting to the death between 2010 and 2021. In five of the 12 videos featuring a dead calf, an adult female assumed to be the mother carried it for days or weeks. The authors stated that understanding elephant grief can create a bond with people who can relate to that core emotion. This connection may help lay the groundwork for elephant conservation. 
A similar story happened again this year at Jalpaiguri in north Bengal. For two days, an adult elephant carried the body of her dead calf in her trunk. Forest officials and locals witnessed her take the calf across seven kilometers to a tea garden. Keep in mind, elephants are intelligent and social creatures. They tend to live together in close family groups headed by a matriarch. And this mother seemed unwilling to let her baby go.
William Stegmann, a spokesperson for the Twyfelfontein Country Lodge, explained that the calf was born on October 27, 2022, to the family unit they nicknamed “Rosy’s Group” after the matriarch, Rosy. “From the first day, the baby was not very strong and struggled to keep up with the herd as they trek long distances to reach drinking water,” Stegmann said. “On the 28th, the guides still saw the baby, but we speculate that she must have passed away during the evening. The heart-wrenching photo was taken on the morning of the 29th.” 
The Twyfelfontein Country Lodge reported that the mother held the calf the entire time. She only put it down to eat occasionally. After two days, the matriarch of the family group chased the mother away from the dead calf. Then, the herd moved on, with the mother among them.
Read: Excited Orphaned elephants always lined up to hug woman who saved their lives
Elephants in Mourning
“Elephants (as well as other mammals) share the same basic neural structures with humans,” said Bob Jacobs. He is a professor of neuroanatomy and non-human animal communication at Colorado College. “Although there is clear specialization in the nervous system for different species, brains are highly conserved through evolution and appear to follow the same basic neurofunctional principles. They have the same cortico-limbic structures in their brain that are involved in emotions as humans do.“
Although it’s impossible to know exactly what an elephant is thinking or feeling, it’s reasonable to believe they share similar emotions to people in similar situations. Plus, there are many incidents of a mourning elephant carrying her dead calf. “These behaviors, like similar behaviors in primates, seem to upend the popular belief that only humans have an awareness of death. However, the underlying mechanism or motivation for carrying dead calves is not fully understood,” said John Poulsen, an ecologist and elephant conservationist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
However, there are some theories behind this carrying. Poulson explained that elephants have long gestation periods, which makes them invested in the wellbeing of their offspring, leading to these mourning behaviors. Keep in mind, the gestation period lasts about two years and elephants only become fully mature around 18 years of age. They stay with their mothers until they are capable of surviving on their own. So it’s reasonable to think the mother elephant is mourning by carrying around her calf. Plus, their natural intelligence may allow them a certain understanding of death.
Grief or Instinct?
However, the behavior might come from a different form of maternal instinct. Meaning, the mother may not have realized that the calf had died. “Ironically, the calf-carrying behavior could indicate either lack of understanding of death cues and hence perceiving it as an unresponsive calf, or perhaps might imply a ‘grief-like’ response,” said Poulson. “Given other behaviors like repeatedly returning to conspecific carcasses and carrying bones of dead elephants, my money is on the latter.”
Meanwhile, the image of an elephant carrying her dead baby strikes a chord with people. But that image may be only a projection, since there’s no definitive answer if the mother is truly mourning or acting on instinct, although many experts lean toward truly mourning.
“In this case, she may not be able to understand her calf is dead, or this drive may be overwhelming that recognition,” Jason N. Bruck, a biology professor at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. “It is this behavior that is often interpreted by some as whale grief. In truth, it is impossible to know exactly what they are thinking as their minds are separated from ours by 95 million years of evolution, but the urge to anthropomorphize in humans is strong.”
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- “Asian elephant mom carries dead calf for weeks, new eye-opening videos reveal.” Live Science. Stephanie Pappas. May 21, 2022.
- “Scientists Are Using YouTube to Understand How Elephants Mourn Their Dead.” Smithsonian Magazine. Sarah Kuto. June 1, 2022.
- “Heart-Wrenching Photos Show Elephant Mom Carries Body of Dead Calf for Days.” Newsweek. Jess Thomson. November 3, 2022.