Article image

Asian elephants perform a special burial ritual for their calves

The mighty rumble of elephants echoing through the jungle might not be what you think. Instead of playful booming, it could be a heart-wrenching farewell. Research from the West Bengal Forest Department in India reveals a surprising discovery: Asian elephants perform a special burial ritual to mourn the loss of their young. 

Asian elephants in mourning

Researchers in northern India closely watched and recorded how Asian elephants acted when their calves died. They wanted to understand how deeply elephants feel emotions and connect with each other. 

The researchers observed the herds’ behavior, how they reacted to the loss, and how they buried the calves. This careful observation helped scientists learn more about the complicated mourning rituals of these endangered animals.

Asian elephant burial rituals

During the burial rituals, the researchers observed Asian elephants carrying their dead calves far from humans and potential dangers. They actively searched for ditches and depressions to bury the bodies, suggesting a deliberate choice of burial grounds. 

According to reports from the West Bengal Forest Department, one mother elephant even carried her dead calf for two days before leaving it alone. The extended care suggests a strong bond between elephants and their young, possibly influenced by hormones like oxytocin and the long gestation period.

Burying the calves involved not just the mothers, but also other female caregivers (allomothers) and members of all ages. This highlights the close social ties within elephant herds and their shared response to loss.

It’s interesting to note that only calves received this burial treatment. Carrying older individuals wouldn’t be practical due to their size. This selective behavior suggests that mourning and burial rituals are reserved for those whose loss significantly affects the herd’s social dynamics.

Avoidance of burial sites

Unlike African elephants, which sometimes return to burial sites, Asian elephants in this study avoided the areas where they buried their calves. They left the sites within 40 minutes and even changed their migration routes to avoid them. 

Interviews with tea garden managers confirmed that elephants now use different paths instead of their old ones. This suggests the burials have a big impact on the herds and might be linked to how they feel about death.

Causes of death

Sadly, all the calves in the study were less than a year old when they died. Some succumbed to illnesses like severe infections or respiratory problems, possibly caused by accidents. 

Others died due to unfortunate circumstances, like falling into irrigation ditches found in their habitat. The detailed examinations after death (autopsies) revealed various health problems these young elephants faced, highlighting their vulnerability in the early stages of life.

Complex emotional response 

The study also identified dangers posed by the environment they live in. Irrigation ditches, common in the tea estates where these elephants roam, proved deadly for some calves. This emphasizes the challenge of managing these shared spaces between elephants and human activities like agriculture, as human-made structures can pose significant risks.

Regardless of the reason for a calf’s death, the study observed a consistent behavior – the herd attempted to bury the deceased in an unusual lying position. This behavior suggests a complex social and emotional response to death within elephant communities.

No infanticide among Asian elephants

Baby killing, or infanticide, happens in many animal groups, like monkeys, meat-eaters, and rodents. There are different reasons for this, like getting rid of competition, not having enough resources, or social order within a group. 

But the researchers found that there was no infanticide among the Asian elephants. They believe there are a few reasons why elephants don’t kill babies:

  • Strong bonds: Elephants live in close family groups, especially females and their young. This closeness might stop them from hurting the young and instead work together to take care of them.
  • Long calf care: Baby elephants need their mothers and other females in the herd to look after them for a long time. This extended care and everyone helping out might make it less likely that someone would kill a baby.
  • Breeding: The way elephants reproduce doesn’t involve killing babies to make the mother ready to have another one sooner. Unlike some other animals, losing a baby doesn’t mean the mother can have another one right away, so there’s no reason for males to kill babies.
  • Male competition: Male elephants don’t directly help raise the babies and aren’t part of the close female groups. They focus on finding females who are ready to mate instead of taking over a herd and getting rid of other males’ babies. This social structure and breeding style make it less likely for elephants to kill babies.

Study significance

The study offers the first photographic evidence of elephants burying their dead, and analyzes their behavior after encountering a dead elephant. The research helps us understand more about elephants, including how they think, feel, and live in social groups. 

This knowledge can be used to improve elephant conservation efforts worldwide. Moreover, the study highlights the importance of protecting areas where elephants live, even if those areas are not officially designated as protected zones. 

This discovery is more than just science; it’s a story of love, loss, and the deep connections these magnificent creatures form. It’s a call to action, urging us to become stewards of their future and ensure their continued existence in the world.

The findings are published in the Journal of Threatened Taxa.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates.

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day