Echo: An Elephant to Remember
Elephant Emotions

Elephants, the largest land animals on the planet, are among the most exuberantly expressive of creatures. Joy, anger, grief, compassion, love; the finest emotions reside within these hulking masses. Through years of research, scientists have found that elephants are capable of complex thought and deep feeling. In fact, the emotional attachment elephants form toward family members may rival our own.

Joy

In the wild, joy is an emotion that elephants have no shame in showing. They express their happiness and joy when they are amongst their loved ones-family and friends. Playing games and greeting friends or family members all elicit displays of joy.

But the one event that stirs a level of elephant happiness beyond compare is the birth of a baby elephant. In Echo: An Elephant to Remember, the birth of Ebony is one such occasion. The excitement of several of the females in Echo’s family can’t be contained as they are heard bellowing and blaring during the birth of the new baby.

Another highly emotional occasion in an elephant’s life is an elephant reunion. This joyful meeting between related, but separated, elephants is one of exuberance and drama. The greeting ceremony marks the incredible welcoming of a formerly absent family member. During the extraordinary event, the elephants about to be united begin calling each other from a quarter a mile away. As they get closer, their pace quickens. Their excitement visibly flows as fluid from their temporal glands streams down the sides of their faces. Eventually, the elephants make a run towards each other, screaming and trumpeting the whole time. When they finally make contact, they form a loud, rumbling mass of flapping ears, clicked tusks and entwined trunks. The two leaning on each other, rubbing each other, spinning around, even defecating, and urinating (for this is what elephants do when they are experiencing sheer delight). With heads held high, the reunited pair fill the air with a symphony of trumpets, rumbles, screams, and roars. Bliss.

Love

There is no greater love in elephant society than the maternal kind. Nobody who observes a mother with her calf could doubt this. It is one of the most touching aspects of elephant social customs. The calf is so small compared to the adult that it walks under its mother, who, incredibly, does not step on it or trip over it. Mother and child remain in constant touch. If a calf strays too far from its mother, she will fetch it. The mother often touches her child with trunk and legs, helping it to its feet with one foot and her trunk. She carries it over obstacles and hauls it out of pits or ravines. She pushes it under her to protect it from predators or hot sun. She bathes it, using her trunk to spray water over it and then to scrub it gently. The mother steers her calf by grasping its tail with her trunk, and the calf follows, holding its mother’s tail. When the calf squeals in distress, its mother and others rush to its protection immediately. It is easy to see why the bond between mother and daughter lasts 50 years or more.

Grief

One of the most moving displays of elephant emotion is the grieving process. Elephants remember and mourn loved ones, even many years after their death. When an elephant walks past a place that a loved one died he or she will stop and take a silent pause that can last several minutes. While standing over the remains, the elephant may touch the bones of the dead elephant (not the bones of any other species), smelling them, turning them over and caressing the bones with their trunk. Researchers don’t quite understand the reason for this behavior. They guess the elephants could be grieving. Or they could they be reliving memories. Or perhaps the elephant is trying to recognize the deceased. Whatever the reason, researchers suspect that the sheer interest in the dead elephant is evidence that elephants have a concept of death.

Researchers have described mother elephants who appear to go through a period of despondency after the death of a calf, dragging behind the herd for days. They’ve also witnessed an elephant herd circling a dead companion disconsolately. After some time, and likely when they realized the elephant was dead, the family members broke off branches, tore grass clumps and dropped these on the carcass. Another researcher noted a family of African elephants surrounding a dying matriarch. The family stood around her and tried to get her up with their tusks and put food in her mouth. When the rest of the herd finally moved on, one female and one calf stayed with her, touching her with their feet.

Rage and Stress

Terror, rage and stress, unfortunately, are also commonplace in the elephant repertoire of emotions. Terror afflicts baby African elephants who wake up screaming in the middle of the night after they have witnessed their families murdered and poached — a type of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Some researchers suggest a species-wide trauma is taking place in wild elephant populations. They say that elephants are suffering from a form of chronic stress after sustaining decades of killings and habitat loss. The recent surge in cases of wild elephant rage reported by the media is a sad indicator of the kind of stress that wild elephants are undergoing. Nearly 300 persons are killed every year by wild elephants in India. But the increasing numbers of deaths are closely correlated to the ever-increasing human presence in traditional wild elephant habitats, as well as the the effects of climate change, and loss of territory and resources. The ongoing competition between elephants and humans for available land and resources is leading to ever more unfortunate and often deadly consequences.

Human activity does more than put a stress on elephants to find resources. It can often disrupt the complex and delicate web of familial and societal relations that are so important in elephant society. Calves are carefully protected and guarded by members of the matriarchal elephant family. Any perception of danger triggers a violent reaction from the matriarch and, subsequently, the entire family. The extremes a family will go to protect a vulnerable new calf are reported in the news stories as fits of unprovoked “elephant rage.” Charging a village, storming into huts where harvested crop is stored, plundering fields and, if disturbed, turning violent are some of the instances reported by the media.

Compassion and Altruism

Compassion is not reserved for offspring alone in elephant society. Elephants appear to make allowances for other members of their herd. Observers noted that one African herd always traveled slowly because one of its members had never recovered from a broken leg. And in another case, a park warden reported a herd that traveled slowly because one female was carrying around a dead calf. One perplexing report was of an adult elephant making repeated attempt to help a baby rhinoceros stuck in the mud. She continued to try to save the baby rhino despite the fact that its mother charged her each time. Risking her life for the sake of an animal that is not her own, not related to her, or even her own species is remarkably altruistic in nature.

While there is a great deal more to learn about what elephants feel, such accounts are astonishing. They reveal a creature that weeps, revels, rages and grieves. They lead us to believe that the depth of elephant emotional capacity knows no limit. They are striking for they suggest that elephants act on feelings and not solely for survival.

  • laura burke

    you can watch video clips or watch the program

  • Wendy Barrett

    I would like to thank the photographer for his amazing work in making his film. I also found the black and white photos so dramatic and wonderfully textured. He is lucky to have found work that fulfilled him so much, and I and others were lucky to have gotten to see some of his work. Thank you PBS and the elephant photographer.

  • Mary Fogarty

    Still evolving in consciousness as a spirit having a human experience, this film “Unforgettable Elephants” by Martin Colbeck helped me realize how connected I am to all life forms and how elephants mirror a universal wisdom in the mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers of all species. As a mother I cried at how the elephants mourned the death of one of their babies. Mother Mary

  • Cindy Duensing

    I have always ih my heart known that elphants have strong human emotions,like humans. It just touches my heart and is amazing to actually see it.It makes me angry and sad to see animals that have emotins such as us treated like helpless peaple being attacked by a gang of wild huge animals and killed (us). We take there land and kill them for there money (tusk) and leave them with nothing. I believe we and the peaple of the nations should take a stand and help to protect the elephants from the cruelity and murders,before they`re lost and gone forever.We dont expect (as humans) for human murders to be okay and justified so why are we allowing it to happen to a very intellegent and emotional animal as thee with great spirits; happen to them. It is very wrong.!!!

  • Dorothy Sheahan

    I have always loved elephants, and this presentation just enforced my love, I could’t stop crying with joy and grief! I would like to know where I could find some of his photographs.

  • diana white

    Estupendo trabajo me fue muy util la informacion que encontre aserca de las emosiones de los elefantes para mi clase de reading II

  • caroline

    An amazing account of a species we don’t really know much about. i enjoyed reading this excerpt. i love elephants and as Cindy has mentioned, it is heart-wrenching to read about cruel humans hunting them mercilessly for their ivory tusks.

  • Tina Orosz

    How wonderful we still have these gentle giants still among us (though if that changes, we will have only
    ourselves to blame.

  • Camslab

    i could only watch only 1 minute or so….it just ripped me up….i know the joy of animals…thats why i (try to) watch nature shows…but opening with that scene….i gotta go walk it off……

  • marina latorre

    nice facts

  • Kevin Michael Finnegan Brown

    We, the supposedly “superior” animals (humans) could learn a great deal from Echo and her family. MEN, especially could learn how better to get along with our fellow creatures!

  • KATHYH

    Elephants are truly amazing and us Humans can take notes and Learn from the way they live, think and act, and LOVE. The one above is so right on, Who are We to take away their Land, their homes, They were here long before we were. We have NO Right to take that away from them,
    They truly are amazing and for Echo, I am so sad at the loss of her. She was a wonderful, caring, loyal, loving, and so much more., I just now Hope and PRAY that her heard are all ok and doing well without her. yes they will forever grieve her loss, long after I am gone. But I AM Also sure they did Learn from Echo. I did Not see the video of when and where Echo passed and I am not sure That i am able to either. It would bring me to tears and i just know I will break down if I do watch that. so I am thinking I WILL just remember her for the Gentle Giant she was and not for her death that is out there to view. I would one day LOVE to be able to go to Africa and see all the wonderful elephants and other wild life, Mostly Elephants though. I wish I knew along time ago, My feelings towards them, and maybe my Life would have turned out different. For I WOULD be there now If I had the funds to.
    I just forever hope and PRAY that Man does NOT kill off all the elephants for His OWN Personal Greed,

    Long Live Elephants,

    R.I.P.
    Echo…………..you truly were an amazing elephant and LOVED BY So Many of us in Many Many countires.

    Keep her memory ALIVE for the kids of tomorrow and let them see just how amazing she truly was

    now I am getting upset and more at a loss for words then at the start.

    LONG LIVE ELEPHANTS AND EVERY OTHER WILD ANIMAL,

    there are so so so so so so so so MANY Areas in this World, that we DO NOT have to take away from
    the wild life, let them be where they are meant to be. We do NOT have to build on their land
    they were here before us, and so LET THEM LIVE IN PEACE.

  • John H. Ristine

    Humans must change in order to appreciate today’s elephants and the megafauna of the past. I’m writing a fictional novel on the subject of mammoths. It’s a challenge. Readers at the writers’ workshop are familiar with content that relates to humans. When I provide descriptions of an animal’s emotional life, it is assumed that I’m giving the animal human qualities. I’m finding it difficult to show that elephants and related species already have the capacity for emotion.

  • Laureen

    It is so frustrating to hear about how many elephants are killed just for their body parts. The actions of these “humans” if you want to call them that, to cruelly kill them for ivory and genitals is beyond thinking. Truman of course is one of them, killing an elephant and proudly displaying the cut off tail. He is nothing but a piece of murdering crap. Humans were not a good thing to evolve. Elephants are amazing and beautiful. Bless all the individuals who do so much to protect them.

  • Therese Burchianti

    It’s nice to read that I’m not the only person that cried like a baby when I watched this piece. It’s very awe inspiring and heart breaking, as well. Thank you PBS for airing work like this…please continue to do so. And, YES, let’s all of us work to protect these wonderfully majestic, sentient beings!
    Compassionate-hearted people of the world stand up!
    For the sake of all the animals, Please,
    do not be silent!

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