Indian Forest Service ranger Parveen Kaswan posted a video on Twitter of elephants exhibiting some unique behavior. A mother elephant led the herd across a street, carrying a dead calf in her trunk. She put it down to eat as the rest of the herd followed. They sniffed and touched the calf, seemingly mourning it. As the elephants moved on, the mother took the baby with them, as if they were continuing the funeral procession.

The video is one of many that a group of researchers used to understand the mourning behaviors of Asian elephants. Sanjeeta Sharma Pokharel, Nachiketha Sharma, and Raman Sukumar, all from the Indian Institute of Science, turned to YouTube for their study. They found 39 videos documenting 24 cases of Asian elephants reacting to the death between 2010 and 2021. In five of the 12 videos featuring a dead calf, an adult female assumed to be the mother carried it for days or weeks. The authors stated that understanding elephant grief can create a bond with people who can relate to that core emotion. This connection may help lay the groundwork for elephant conservation. 

A similar story happened again this year at Jalpaiguri in north Bengal. For two days, an adult elephant carried the body of her dead calf in her trunk. Forest officials and locals witnessed her take the calf across seven kilometers to a tea garden. Keep in mind, elephants are intelligent and social creatures. They tend to live together in close family groups headed by a matriarch. And this mother seemed unwilling to let her baby go. 

William Stegmann, a spokesperson for the Twyfelfontein Country Lodge, explained that the calf was born on October 27, 2022, to the family unit they nicknamed “Rosy’s Group” after the matriarch, Rosy. “From the first day, the baby was not very strong and struggled to keep up with the herd as they trek long distances to reach drinking water,” Stegmann said. “On the 28th, the guides still saw the baby, but we speculate that she must have passed away during the evening. The heart-wrenching photo was taken on the morning of the 29th.”

The Twyfelfontein Country Lodge reported that the mother held the calf the entire time. She only put it down to eat occasionally. After two days, the matriarch of the family group chased the mother away from the dead calf. Then, the herd moved on, with the mother among them. 


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