How does empathy help elephants?

By S. de Silva

P1490826 P1490832

P1490840

A small family of elephants in Uda Walawe wanders upon a dead calf which does not belong to them. Yet they show great interest, touching and hovering over the body for hours, refusing to let any observers near until they finally decide to move off. Photos: UWERP

In the past week a paper on reassurance behavior in elephants by Plotnik et al. in PeerJ has been generating quite a bit of buzz. The study, which you can learn more about from the researchers themselves here, collected a series of observations on a group of captive elephants in Thailand documenting how they reacted when one of their companions was distressed.  It showed that when some individuals were disturbed in some way and expressed their distress, other individuals approached them and interacted in ways (such as touching, vocalizing) that suggested that they might be trying to comfort or console their companion.  Such behavior would indicate that elephants have the capacity for empathy, along with a handful of other species.

The title of this post is meant to work on at least two levels. First, we might wonder at a biological level – what is the function of the curious  behavior elephants sometimes show toward others in distress? Why might it have evolved? Whom does it benefit? Second, we might wonder at a practical level – should the capacities of elephants endow them with additional conservation value? Should it matter on the ground? So today, the first ever World Wildlife Day, I’d like to examine these two sets of questions, which are very distinct. Continue reading

Advertisements

The Twilight Visit of Ghost

*Note from SdS: the following is an account based on Sameera’s experience. I’ve come to think of this mysterious tusker as ‘Ghost’ because we so rarely see him and know so little about him. The name has stuck in my head, so that’s going to be his nickname from now on.

– 27 November 2011 –

It was about 2 o’clock in the morning when I woke up to the sound of something brushing past the pipes outside. It was near the water tank. As I listened harder, I began to make out a distinctive sound – an elephant eating.

Walking over to the window, I could just make out the dark bulk of a big male. I was by myself in the field station, sleepy and tired, but very quickly I became alert. Our housekeeper, who usually sleeps on a bed on the porch, had gone home for the weekend. I was glad about this because I thought he surely would have turned on the lights and scared off our visitor.

Tusker “209” which seems to have been translocated into Uda Walawe National Park in early 2010.

For months we had seen and heard evidence of elephants breaking through the electric fence, but despite numerous attempts they were impossible to find and track down once they got into the sugar cane across the road. There were at least four elephants responsible, people thought. At least one of them was a one-tusked male. We suspected it was an animal that had been translocated into the park last year, but had not been able to verify this. This was an important chance to catch one of the culprits in the act. Continue reading