Behavioural responses of free-ranging Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) towards dying and dead conspecifics


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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Firstly, we thank all the elephants in our study area for allowing us to observe them peacefully. We would like to thank Mr. Krishna, Mr. Prabhu, Mr. Kethan and Mr. Maadan for helping us to track elephants in the field. We also thank all the forest officials, anti-poaching guards and mahouts at the Bandipur and Mudumalai for providing their valuable support during the field work. We acknowledge the Karnataka and Tamil Nadu Forestry departments for giving us necessary permissions to conduct the research at Bandipur NP and Mudumalai NP, respectively. We also thank Prof. James R. Anderson and Mr. Andre Gonçalves for all the inputs and discussion while preparing this manuscript. We would also like to thank the editor and two anonymous reviewers for providing critical feedback and comments on our manuscript. We would like to thank the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Government of India, under the DBT-Indian Institute of Science partnership programme, the Rufford Small Grants Foundation, London, UK (RSG13124-1), the Leading Graduate Program in Primatology and Wildlife Science, Kyoto University, Japan, for their financial supports during our fieldwork. RS was a JC Bose National Fellow during the tenure of this work.

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Correspondence to Nachiketha Sharma or Raman Sukumar.

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

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  • Asian elephants
  • Death
  • Dead conspecifics
  • Injured calf
  • High-frequency vocalizations
  • Thanatology