We usually see elephants as huge, intimidating animals that one would naturally fear due to their impressive size. Their thick skin acts like armour and protects them from any danger while their tusks are weapons feared by other animals. Beneath that thick skin and huge body beats a gentle heart. Yes, elephants have feelings and their feelings are extremely delicate. Elephants are considered gentle giants as these mammals are one of the few animals that are capable of displaying emotions, empathy, and emotional intelligence. We say that elephants have big hearts because they are capable of expressing emotions. Elephant empathy and their emotions may be easy to understand because the emotions felt by elephants may resemble those felt by humans.

Here are some common emotions that both elephants and humans feel:

Elephants are empathetic:

Just like humans, elephants also can be empathetic. It has been recorded that elephants are one of the world’s most empathetic animals. Empathy means that one can sense others’ emotions and understand what they are feeling. Elephants have been known to recognize and respond to other elephants’ pain and sadness.

When a member of the herd is injured and cannot walk as fast as the rest of the herd, the herd will slow down to ensure that the injured elephant is not left behind. On occasions elephants have also been seen trying to help dying loved ones, lifting them with their trunks and tusks while calling out in distress.  This behaviour shows that elephants can understand what other elephants are experiencing.

Physical Touch:

When you are feeling down and out, there is nothing better than a hug from a loved one to make you feel better. When humans feel scared, we tend to comfort each other with touch. Elephants have been known to give and receive hugs, just like we do! Elephant behaviour is no different. Believe it or not, despite being the largest animal in the animal kingdom, elephants still get scared or distressed.

When elephants become distressed, their ears will flap out and they will emit a low-frequency sound. The herd will hear this sound and go comfort them by stroking their trunks. This incredible gesture means that elephants can recognize others’ feelings just like we do.

Lalibela Game Reserve - Elephants

Elephants mourn the dead:

Elephants have demonstrated fascinating reactions to the deaths of other elephants, often displaying what appears to humans as symptoms of grief and mourning. When elephants encounter the remains of a deceased elephant, they will stop and take a silent pause that can last several minutes. While standing over the remains, they will smell and touch the bones – seemingly a display of grief and a sign of respect. They have also been known to cover the remains of another elephant with branches or other debris. They remember and mourn loved ones even many years after their death. This behaviour means that elephants are able to feel and show sympathy to each other.

Love:

There is no greater love in the animal kingdom than the maternal kind. The relationship between a mother elephant and her calf is touching. If a calf strays too far away from its mother, she will fetch the calf so that it can be closer to her. The mother often touches the calf with her trunk or foot, helping it to its feet should it take a tumble. Mothers will also protect smaller calves from predators or the sun by pushing the calf under her body. If a calf is in distress, the mother elephant will rush to its protection immediately. One can see why there is such a strong bond between a mother elephant and daughter which can easily last for fifty years or more!

Lalibela Game Reserve - Elephants

Joy:

The two most joyous occasions in an elephant’s life are births and reunions. Births are celebrated by all the females in the herd with joyous bellowing and trumpeting. Reunions are cheerful and full of drama. When elephants come across other elephants that they have not seen in a while, they will start calling to each other from quite a distance. The closer they get to each other, the faster they walk and run, trumpeting to announce their excitement. When they make contact with each other they will entwine their trunks expressing their delight. Research has shown that elephants form close bonds with other elephants and can recognize them even after long periods of separation. We have all heard the saying “an elephant never forgets” and this couldn’t be more true!

Lalibela Game Reserve - Elephants

There is still so much more to learn about what elephants feel and how they behave. They reveal a creature that weeps, revels, rages, and grieves. One can only believe that the depth of an elephant’s emotional capacity knows no limit.

In search of more reading? Read more about these magnificent gentle giants!

Breaking Down the Big Five: The Elephant