Elephants Are Empathetic Beings Just Like Us

As National Elephant Appreciation Day approaches, it’s high time to give these magnificent and emotional creatures the respect they deserve

We’ll be celebrating National Elephant Appreciation Day on September 22. It’s an opportunity for us to appreciate these beautiful creatures, the largest land mammals on Earth. Unfortunately, human beings are increasingly putting the elephant’s lives at risk. Populations of elephants—especially in southern and eastern Africa—that once showed promising signs of recovery could be at risk due to the recent surge in poaching for the illegal ivory trade.

Whether you’re a lifelong elephant lover or not, elephants are an incredible part of the animal kingdom that play an important role in the circle of life. And, just like human beings, they are extremely empathetic creatures which show an incredible capacity for emotional intelligence. Here’s why.

Witnessing elephant empathy

Research on elephants is full of examples of them behaving in an empathetic manner, especially by recognizing and responding to other elephants’ pain or problems. For example, in Kenya, researchers have spotted other elephants and other adult females act heroically by rescuing baby elephants. Video footage shows the females helping them climb up muddy banks and out of holes, find a safe path into a swamp to drink water, and break electrified fences.

Scientists also discovered elephants assisting their injured fellows by spraying dust on their wounds and plucking out tranquillizing darts. What’s even more incredible is during one instance, researchers watched an elephant struggle to help a dying friend, lifting her with her trunk and husks, calling out in distress.

That’s not all. To show that elephants experience the same emotions that the other is feeling, scientists watched captive Asian elephants in a park in Thailand. They recorded that when one elephant was upset by something, such as a snake in the grass, the other nearby elephant would start responding to the stressful event by flaring out her ears, erecting her tail and sometimes making a low rumbling sound. All these examples and more show that elephants have an incredible capacity for empathy and emotional intelligence.

Elephants might know that we are destroying them 

The fact that elephants display signs of concern on the other elephant’s behalf suggests they are at least highly aware and emotional beings and care about each other’s welfare. Does this mean they know when the other is being poached or killed? We cannot know for certain if African elephants know they are under attack and being wiped out across the continent.

According to the WWF, an estimated 100,000 elephants were killed each year and up to 80% of herds were lost in some regions during the 1980s. In recent years, growing demand for ivory, particularly from Asia, has led to a surge in poaching.

Since then, we have some idea that elephants know when they are in danger. In South Africa during the late 20th century, wildlife officials organized the culling of entire elephant families in some fenced parks because they were concerned about the animals consuming all the vegetation. 

The elephants in the park somehow knew this was happening. This could have been from the low rumbles elephants emit when they are in danger, or the cries of terror as the elephant families were shot. Immediately after the killing spree, even after the rangers removed all the elephant’s corpses, other elephant families would inspect the scene, smelling the earth. They left, never to return to the area.

We hope to put our own empathy to use by celebrating and protecting these amazing creatures. Make sure you spend National Elephant Day finding ways to spread awareness or donate to causes that safeguard elephant survival.