Mourning can be defined as a shared, social response to loss. In the case of elephants it refers to a set of behaviors that are typically observed in the presence of a dead elephant. Elephants may approach, investigate (Trunk-Toward-Carcass, Back-Toward-Carcass, Touch-Carcass-with-Foot, Touch-Carcass-with-Trunk, Mouth-Carcass), stand stationary in Silence, attempt to Lift-Carcass, Carry-Carcass, Mount-Carcass, Cover-Carcass, Feed-Carcass, and or Guard-Carcass. 

References: Moss 1988, Poole 1996, Payne 2003, Douglas-Hamilton et al 2006, Payne 2008, Goldenberg & Wittemyer 2019. (Full reference list)

This behavioral constellation includes the following behaviors: Body-Contact, Cover-Carcass, Feed-Carcass, Guard-Carcass, Lift-Carcass, Mount-Carcass, Carry, Explore-Touch-Foot, Explore-Touch-Mouth, Explore-Touch-Trunk, Lifting, Pulling, Silence, Trunk-to-Body, Trunk-Toward, Carry-Bone and occurs in the following context(s): Death


Context: Death (1)

As Celeste lay dying, too weak to stand, her older male calf came over and reached Trunk-Toward her and then stood by her engaged in Displacement-Dusting. He then turned and Backed-Toward her. We can see he has fresh Temporin and, by his Ear-Flapping, that he is vocalizing. Her younger calf then appears and stands near her mother's face, her trunk making Body-Contact with her dead or dying mother. The younger calf lies down next to her mother's body, while the older calf stands and Waits, Back-Toward Celeste. (Amboseli, Kenya)


Context: Death (2)

This clip is made from a series of photographs. Early one morning in 1980 a colleague had seen an elephant out on the plains alone and 'dropping to her knees.' On her return trip she said that she thought there might be a dead baby at her feet.

We drove out to see and found Tonie with a dead infant. She was still having contractions and blood was dripping from her vulva. Her behavior was very subdued and unlike the exuberant behavior of another mother in Tonie's bond group who I had recently witnessed give birth. Tonie stood quietly, her head and ears drooping forward, playing slowly with the afterbirth with her trunk, The newborn at her feet was dry, and she repeatedly nudged it gently with her feet and trunk and Pulled it toward rolling it over several times, apparently trying to get it to its feet. Tonie stayed with her dead baby for close to 48 hours. (Amboseli, Kenya)


Context: Death (3)

This clip is made from a series of photographs and videos taken by Elephant Aware over a period of 5 weeks. On 10 September 2017 Tuskless female Nalakite was found by Elephant Aware rangers with her three offspring - a male of 10, a male of 7 and a female of about 1 year. She was looking emaciated and had a spear wound.

The vets were called and she was treated, but they gave her only a 50/50 chance of surviving. On 4th October she was found lying in deep mud with her trunk barely above the surface. Rangers and members of the local community worked for 12 hours to try to get her to her feet but it was futile. The team moved away to allow the calves to be with their dying mother. The calves stood by and touched their dying mother for hours. After his caresses failed to revive Nalakite, her eldest son lay down in the mud beside her. The calves seemed to understand Nalakite's dire situation and they repeatedly touched her and comforted one another. Nalakite died the following morning on 5th October.

In the last clip the calves approach their dead mother with Trunk-Toward her. They seem to realise that she is dead as the younger son reacts to her smell with brief alarm. The youngest is obviously in need of milk. She Social-Rubs against her brother and he blocks her, she Solicits-Suckling again and he blocks her more forcefully. Then the calf can be seen to Lie-Down-with-Carcass of her dead mother and try to Suckle from her. This does not appear to be possible and she stands up again. Nalakite’s oldest son appeared particularly distressed over Nalakite’s death, resting his head on a tree for long periods.

Nalakite’s sons were very affectionate and protective of their little sister. The three calves remained close to Nalakite’s body through the day, that night and the next day. The following morning, when the rangers arrived at the mudwallow where Nalakite lay, the calves were nowhere to be seen. Tracks of a male passing near Nalakite’s carcass lead them to a spot a few hundred meters away where they were found. On the 7th they once again had moved. A search was launched to find them. Members of the community said that they had heard the voices of many elephants in the night - and tracks in the vicinity led Elephant Aware to believe that the calves had joined this group. Finally, on the 8th they were found in the company of a family group of about 30 elephants. (Maasai Mara, Kenya)