Sharma, N., Sharma Pokharel, S., Kohshima S. et al. 2020. Behavioural responses of free-ranging Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) towards dying and dead conspecifics. Primates 61(1), 129–138.

Reactions to dying and dead conspecifics have been observed in many non-human animals. Elephants, particularly African elephants, are thought to have an awareness of the death of their conspecifics, as they show compassionate behaviour towards others in distress. However, there is a paucity of scientific documentation on thanatological responses displayed by Asian elephants. Here, we report three detailed, directly observed cases of free-ranging Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) responding to dying and dead conspecifics. Behavioural responses were recorded opportunistically and described as pre-, peri- and post-mortem phases based on the status of the individual before, near or after its death. In all three observations, elephants showed approach and exploratory (sniffing and inspecting) behaviours, and epimeletic or helping (physically supporting dying calves) in pre- and peri-mortem phases. We also recorded high-frequency vocalizations (trumpets) by an adult female in the presence of a dying calf. Our observations indicate that, like their African counterparts, Asian elephants might experience distress in response to the death of conspecifics, and may have some awareness of death. This information furthers our understanding of the emotional and cognitive complexities of highly social elephants, and contributes to the growing field of elephant thanatology.

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