When an elephant dies, her calves, sisters, cousins, aunts, and grandmothers visit her body, using their trunks to examine every inch of her and touch her gently. They stay with her body for about three days. Part of this time they stand with their backs to her and occasionally touch her with a hind leg. I’ve seen videos of mothers nudging their newborn babies this way to encourage them to stand. It seems like the gentlest way an elephant can help a loved one.
When they are through grieving, the remaining elephants stand silently in a circle around the dead elephant’s body and then cover her with dirt, branches and leaves. Only then do they leave, taking one last look over their shoulders at the one they loved.
Later they will return to this spot when there are only bones left to mark where she was buried. Picking up some of the bones, they will hold them tight with their trunks, examine them, and then pass them to others. Or they will use their trunks to caress bones on the ground taking care to examine the skull with their trunks to assure themselves this is their relative.
This ancient ceremony for their dead is often denied elephants killed by poachers for their ivory tusks because one elephant was singled out and killed with a shot that sent the rest of her clan running away in panic. The elephant ran for her life, and her clan scattered.
Matriarchs are most sought after because they have the biggest tusks. Sadly, they are also the keeper of the clan’s institutional memory which is handed down over generations. When an elephant dies so a poacher can take her tusks, leaving a faceless body as food for the carnivores and buzzards, she is denied a funeral and the reverence with which elephant families treat their dead, and her relatives lose a lifetime of knowledge making them more vulnerable to droughts and poachers.
Witten By: Pat Cole