It has become rare for wild African elephants to live to old age, thanks to their brutal slaughter by ivory poachers. Rarer still is the chance for scientists to observe elephants as they cope with the death of their family leader.
Shifra Goldenberg, a Colorado State University doctoral student, is among the lucky few. She watched the final days as Queen Victoria, one of the last surviving old matriarchs in the Samburu National Reserve in northern Kenya, died of natural causes in 2013, with her family members close by. When Goldenberg returned to the carcass a few weeks later, she encountered elephants from three separate families inspecting the bones. Were they paying respect?
Goldenberg’s 15-minute video of the elephants’ investigation, made available exclusively to National Geographic for the first time, is an important new addition to the growing body of research about the complexity of elephant thought and perception and their responses to death. The video not only captures an important ritual of elephant behavior, but reveals new insights about the strength of social bonds.
Although the three families were not related to Victoria, they knew her, Goldenberg says, and clearly showed a connection to her by lingering over her carcass.
“What the family was doing was interesting, but what her non-relatives were doing is also important,” Goldenberg says. “You see their investigation of the body. You see calves walking past and smelling it. It is amazing to see that level of fascination. Her family was distressed that she wasn’t getting up. But the larger population also was interested in her death.”
Respect for the Dead?
Elephants have long been regarded for their ability, along with dolphins and chimpanzees, among others, to express emotion, even empathy. But their response to death remains a mystery. Do they have the human characteristic of grief? The examples are mounting, though the science remains incomplete.
Other animals do not show great interest in the bodies of their dead. African elephants do. They have scattered their family members’ bones. They have been known to raise a foot over an elephant body. The relatives of Eleanor, another matriarch at the Samburu Reserve, pulled and pushed her carcass for nearly a week after she died in 2003. Some rocked back and forth, while others stood silently.
Elephants also distinguish between elephant remains and other large mammals. In tests to measure their interest, they chose the skull of an elephant over the skulls of a buffalo and rhinoceros.
George Wittemyer, a Colorado State University conservation biologist who has been studying elephants at the Samburu Reserve since 1997, says elephants have “a fascination with death” that is difficult to interpret.
“Elephants have respect for their dead, but their interaction with their dead is not something we fully understand,” says Wittemyer, who also heads Save the Elephants’ scientific board.
“Every time it happens, it’s not the same, but it is striking behavior—not based on survival or necessity, but based on some sort of emotion,” he says. “The fact that they interact and have behavioral interactions with their dead in a form that is not explainable in any simple, evolutionary context speaks to the deeper emotional lives of elephants that we can’t easily study.”
But he stops short of diagnosing grief. To know that is to know what animals are thinking.
Barbara King, emeritus professor of anthropology at William & Mary in Virginia and author of How Animals Grieve, disagrees.
“I have no doubt that elephants grieve,” she says. “We know these are smart and emotional creatures. We don’t need to know what they are thinking. With grief, we have to know that the survivor’s behavior is significantly altered from normal baseline, such as altered social withdrawal, feeding, sleeping, body posture that is sustained in some way.”
In the three years since her book was published, King says, reports of animal grief, based on altered behavior, are accelerating and a database is gaining heft. She adds: “It’s also very important to know when there isn’t grief.”
A Peaceful Death, With Family
Victoria headed an elephant group known on the Samburu Reserve as the Royal family, a group of about 20 elephants all named after kings, queens, and other royalty around the world. The Royals is one of the largest and most dominant families in the reserve, with four large breeding females, including Victoria’s sisters, Anastasia and Cleopatra, now the new de-facto heads of the family.
Victoria was born in 1958, five years before Kenyan independence. When she died on June 12, 2013, at age 55, the reserve had been under siege for several years from poachers targeting older matriarchs, and enduring a severe drought that killed an additional number of older elephants, leaving a much younger elephant population today.
“Families like the Royals remind us of what the society should look like,” Goldenberg says. “While it saddened us to see her die, dying naturally on a quiet afternoon by the river, surrounded by her family was a far more peaceful way to go than what other elephants have been experiencing across Africa.”
Goldenberg saw Victoria the day before she died when the family stopped for water in the heat of the day in a favorite spot along the banks of the Ewaso Ngiro River.
“She looked stressed, but she was feeding and seemed relatively normal,” she says. “Her temporal glands behind the eyes were streaming, which they do when elephants are emotionally elevated.”
The next day, when Goldenberg returned, Victoria lay in the bushes near the river, and when the family moved away from the river bank, she did not get up. Her daughter Noor, 10, lingered before rejoining the group. Victoria’s son Malasso, 13, poked her with his tusks, possibly in an effort to help raise her onto her feet. The day after Victoria died, other family members, including Malasso and Margaret, an adult female, visited her body.
Predators moved in immediately, and by the time Goldenberg returned, the carcass had been worked over. Still, the other elephant families were undeterred from their inspection of the bones.
“I wouldn’t say they were mourning,” she says. “That would be to know what they are thinking. But there is clear interest there and they are taking it in. There is something going on.”