A young bull elephant was killed in a showdown with a rival in Sri Lanka earlier this week.
Conservationists on the scene by a lake near Anuradhapura — in north-central Sri Lanka, close to the Kalawewa reserve — quickly determined that the deceased elephant was gored "about 20 times."
"Tussles between elephants are frequent," notes Ravi Corea, founder and president of the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (a Moving Giants "Elephant Champion"), in an email to Moving Giants, "but fights with such violent endings are not that common but do happen."
More noteworthy than the fight and its unfortunate result, however, is the post-battle behavior of other elephants that knew the deceased bull and, well, paid their respects to him. Much of that was caught on video in a remarkable display of affection and, very possibly, grief.
"Do elephants mourn and respect loved ones like humans?," wrote Chandima Fernando, a staff ecologist for SLWCS, in a Facebook post. "It is very interesting to see the family groups – cows and juveniles visited the dead male. It is very clear to me that the visiting elephants have a kinship with the deceased male. Do they mourn or grieve? We do not know, and it is very hard to interpret. We need to collect more information on that."
Fernando added that "Here I think elephants — family groups, paid their 'respects' to the dead male, you can see, they showed some very classic attentive behaviours such as sniffing, looking and touching with their trunks.... Also, they showed some 'apprehensive' and some 'affiliative' behaviours."
The video went viral, picked up by media around the world.
The India Times noted "that elephants, like humans, mourn for the dead by frequently visiting their graves and hugging their bodies with their trunks."
The Daily Mail cited a 2006 Oxford University study, which found that, while "humans usually reserve their grief for friends and family, elephants mourn over the death of the loosest acquaintance. The creatures also show compassion towards the sick and dying, trying to nurse them back to health, the study found."
The Pickle — an Australian online magazine devoted to animal news and viral videos, reported that "And, based on the observation of locals, it seems that even the aggressors respond to death with emotion. As reported by a Sri Lankan wildlife official, the rival tusker went back to the body after the rest of the herd had left."
Fernando closed his post by noting that, "Apart from visiting the dead body of an elephant, elephants are known to visit bones and carcasses of dead elephants," and citing the book “Among the Elephants” by Ian Douglas. Douglas wrote that African elephants can "do serious olfactory examinations" of their dead relatives "and sometimes they picked up tusks and pass it from elephant to elephant." Fernando also wrote that he hopes to continue to study this type of elephant behavior.