A young elephant in Mikumi National Park, Tanzania

Understanding the emotional lives of elephants


Helen Proctor, our Sentience Manager, talks about observing elephants in the wild as the best way to fully experience these incredible animals.

They are at their most awe-inspiring in the wild, as you can see just how emotionally complex and intelligent they are.

Highly empathetic animals

Elephants are considered to be one of the world’s most empathic species. In my last blog, I wrote about how African elephants grieve and mourn their dead, proving that they’re truly empathetic, social animals.

Scientists have observed many cases of maternal and non-maternal elephants defending calves from dangerous situations such as chasing predators away, stopping aggressive play fights or pushing other individuals away. Such situations do not always elicit distress or pain signals in the calf, and so the protector elephants are predicting their potential distress, rather than just responding to cues.

Byrne and colleagues (2008) suggest that to do this the elephants draw upon their past experiences and use this to consider the calf’s emotional state, they then act to prevent the situation escalating and causing the calf distress. This behavior is very complex, and few species are known to be able to attribute and consider another’s feelings in this way (Byrne et al., 2008).

They share strong social bonds

African elephants have huge complicated social groups ranging from tens to hundreds, whereas Asian elephants are often thought to be the loner elephants. Recent research however has shown this is not actually the case. Their social lives are so complex it has taken years of research to understand them, and we are still continuing to learn.

Female Asian elephants will have anywhere from 10-50 friends, but they may not see them for long periods of time (de Silva et al., 2011), instead they will communicate with them both chemically and acoustically (Soltis et al., 2005).

Elephant mother and calf in the wild

And recognize themselves in the mirror

It is not surprising to hear that as well as being incredibly emotional and social, elephants are considered to be one of the world’s most intelligent species (Plotnik et al., 2011). Asian elephants have been found to pass the mirror test (Plotnik et al., 2006). Marks are placed on the animal to see whether they use the mirror to inspect themselves.

When they successfully inspect themselves, this is considered to be evidence of a high level of intelligence. Only some species are known to be capable of it: dolphins (Reiss & Marino, 2001) and chimpanzees (Menzel et al., 1985). And the ability doesn’t emerge in human children until 18-24 months of age (Plotnik et al., 2009).

Making the most of their environment

Both Asian and African elephants have been seen to use tools for various things from swatting flies with branches, to burying the dead with vegetation (Chevalier-Skolnikoff & Liska, 1993; Hart et al., 2001).

There are also many incredible anecdotes of elephant tool use. Rangers once saw African elephants break off nearby branches and dump them on to a new road, rendering it closed, repeating this four times when the branches were removed. Poignantly the road was built for the elephant cull (Chevalier-Skolnikoff & Liska, 1993).

There is still so much to learn about these fascinating animals, and scientists have only really scratched the surface when it comes to understanding how intelligent and expressive elephants are.

But not all elephants enjoy this freedom

Sadly, elephants used for tourist rides do not have the chance to truly express these behaviors. Their lives in these facilities are so far removed from what they should be; they are almost entirely different animals.

We want to see elephants living in the natural environments they’re entitled to and we're working with responsible travel companies to make this happen.

More than 82 companies have stopped selling elephant rides and shows to tourists. Sign our petition asking Thomas Cook to join them

References and further reading

Byrne, R., Lee, P. C., Njiraini, N., Poole, J. H., Sayialel, K., Sayialel, S., Bates, L. A. & Moss, C. J. (2008). Do elephants show empathy?. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 15(10-11), 204-225.

Chevalier-Skolnikoff, S., & Liska, J. O. (1993). Tool use by wild and captive elephants. Animal Behaviour, 46(2), 209-219.

de Silva, S., Ranjeewa, A. D., & Kryazhimskiy, S. (2011). The dynamics of social networks among female Asian elephants. BMC ecology, 11(1), 17.

Hart, B. L., & Hart, L. A. (1994). Fly switching by Asian elephants: tool use to control parasites. Animal Behaviour, 48(1), 35-45.

Menzel, E. W., Savage-Rumbaugh, E. S., & Lawson, J. (1985). Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) spatial problem solving with the use of mirrors and televised equivalents of mirrors. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 99(2), 211.

Plotnik, J. M., De Waal, F. B., & Reiss, D. (2006). Self-recognition in an Asian elephant. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103(45), 17053-17057.

Plotnik, J. M., de Waal, F., Moore, D., & Reiss, D. (2010). Self‐recognition in the Asian elephant and future directions for cognitive research with elephants in zoological settings. Zoo biology, 29(2), 179-191.

Reiss, D., & Marino, L. (2001). Mirror self-recognition in the bottlenose dolphin: A case of cognitive convergence. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 98(10), 5937-5942.

Soltis, J., Leong, K., & Savage, A. (2005). African elephant vocal communication II: rumble variation reflects the individual identity and emotional state of callers. Animal Behaviour, 70(3), 589-599.


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