It’s a warm Saturday in summer, and as part of your weekend routine you’re chilling in your own backyard with your partner, two adorable babies, and a few close relatives. Everything is peaceful and quite, and in the background you can hear sweet melodies of birds, and the bubbling brook nearby.
Suddenly the silence is broken. You hear strange voices and bodies approaching you, and before you know it, your home is surrounded by hundreds of aggressive aliens. They invade your home, snatch your most treasured jewel — your two young children, drag their mum, lock her up in one vehicle and relatives in the other, and in a matter of seconds they’re gone.
As you’re being driven to an unknown destination, you hear painful cries of your children and the pounding sounds of shackles and wooden poles reverberating through the space. Now you know in your heart something insidious is happening. You want to run and rescue your children, but you can’t — you are confined, you cry and cry, even as the cries of your children are fading in the breeze until they finally disappear. Unable to bear the insurmountable pain, you struggle hard to free yourself. You jump out of your sleep sweating, your heart palpitating. Thank goodness it was a nightmare!
The truth is your worst nightmare is a reality for captive elephants. However, few people are aware of the way in which these animals are captured, and therefore unable to even comprehend the pain and suffering that elephants endure when they’re removed from their natural habitats, separated from their families, and doomed to captive lives. I’m reminded of a Senegalese conservationist Baba Dioum, who said, “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we have been taught.”
A good starting point would be to understand that in many ways elephants are very much like humans. Elephants have deep social bonds with their families, particularly their babies. They help each other in distress, grieve for their dead, and feel the same emotions as humans do. According to research by Elephant Voices,
“Elephants are renowned for their memory, intelligence, and sociality, and, as with humans, these traits make them particularly vulnerable to stress and to trauma and its longer-term psychological consequences.”
Take a look at this YouTube video filmed at the Amboseli National Park in Kenya. An elephant matriarch named Echo stumbles upon the bones of her former companion Emily and her entire family join in on the grieving ritual by stroking Emily’s skull with their trunks, gingerly feeling every possible crevice with their padded hind feet and then carry around her tusks.
As it turns out this is how elephants consistently react to the death of other elephants, and will even cover their dead with soil and leaves, just as humans bury their loved ones after grieving. Such grief is but one of many indications that elephants are exceptionally intelligent, social and empathic creatures.
Scientists also have preliminary evidence that suggests elephants are self-aware, conscious beings that have feelings and therefore are empathetic towards others’ sufferings. It’s truly heartrending to learn elephants can feel and grieve the loss of humans. Click on this highlighted area to watch a video in which two herds of brokenhearted elephants are mourning the loss of their beloved conservationist friendLawrence Anthony, author of The Elephant Whisperer. These wild South African elephants made a 12-hour journey all the way from Zululand to Thula Thula, and mourned the loss of their protector for two days, as though he was one of their own.
There are many such stories that depict pure and unconditional love of elephants. During my visit to India last December, one of the stories that a researcher shared struck a deep chord. Apparently an elephant handler was arrested and locked up in prison for a few hours, and within a short time his elephant showed up and blocked the prison guards until they released his handler.
Another trainer I met in India shared a story about how his elephant ran to the main street and drew people to the spot where the handler had passed out, and to this day he speaks fondly of the elephant that “saved his life.” Although the elephant is dead, his unconditional love will remain alive forever.
But despite all empathy that elephants shower on humans, humans continue to inflict pain and suffering on these caring, sentient beings. It seems to me, humans are blinded by greed and selfishness, pushing aside their most valuable asset — empathy. Perhaps it’s time for humans to place ourselves in the “elephants’ shoes,” so we can gain deeper emotional understanding of the challenges and hardships they face, and then act more compassionately by boycotting and banning elephant circuses and festivities, creating sanctuaries for captive elephants, and enforcing stringent anti-poaching measures to protect wild elephants.
Empathy and Compassion is the only beam of hope that can prevent extinction of these gentle giants during this very critical period in our planet’s history.
In my ensuing articles I will bring to you the elephant brain science behind their ability to be empathetic.