Science | Elephants express empathy like humans

Empathy has finally been experimentally expressed in elephants.

The creatures have been documented exhibiting behavioral examples of empathy towards each other, acknowledging the pain or distress of another elephant. Notably, they are even reported to elicit efforts to heroically help one another.

Elephant populations are declining, their ivory deemed more precious than their existence; early this year, it was reported that Gabon in West Africa, has lost more than half of its elephants in the last 10 years, estimated to be around 11,000 in number. Scientists are citing the species as “ecologically extinct” in consequence to the extensive rate at which humans are shooting, poisoning and spearing the animals, leaving less than 500,000 wild African elephants and only 32,000 Asian elephants.

Meanwhile, in this study, scientists, in order to show elephants sharing feelings of emotion, watched captive Asian elephants in a park in Thailand. They noted behavioral patterns and found that, in response to a stressful event, elephants would flare their ears, erect their tail, and express low rumbles, sightings that were repeated in the wild.

With the distress of one elephant, the other elephants had identical reactions, presenting something known as ‘emotional contagion.’ The elephants would stand by their friend; soothe them using their trunks, making soft chirping noises.

Once the stressful and non-stressful events were compared, the scientists could establish that ‘emotional contagion’ is only apparent when an elephant witnesses another’s anguish. Such behaviors did not occur if none of the surrounding elephants were suffering.

Historically, elephants have been noted for their awareness. Kenyan researchers have reported adult elephants assisting baby elephants in climbing up muddy banks and escaping holes, in navigating across safe paths into swamps and breaking through electric fences.

In South Africa scientists have sighted elephants assisting injured elephants, plucking out tranquilizing darts to spraying dust onto wounds, when wildlife officials ordered the culling of entire elephant families in fenced parks, for fear excess populations would consume all vegetation.

Other elephants, following a culling, would inspect the ground, smelling the earth, causing them to leave and never return. Even once cleaned and carcasses removed, the elephants completely avoided the area, when it was a seemingly suitable habitat.

So where does this leave the remaining elephant populations? Establishing the emotive nature of elephants, Cynthia Moss, an ethologist and director of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project in Kenya, emphasizes that “good science that supports the idea that elephants are sentient beings capable of empathy is important” to conservation efforts. With the threat of extinction, empathy is no consolation for the species hierarchy. Even if the elephants feel the danger, it goes to show that the consequences are out of their control; it is left to the species that poach, to do something.


Sofia Popov

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