Among the best examples of grief in wild animals is found in elephants in the wild. Joyce Poole, a renowned animal researcher wrote the following:
“As I watched Tonie’s vigil over her dead newborn, I got my first very strong feeling that elephants grieve. I will never forget the expression on her face, her eyes, her mouth, the way she carried her ears, her head, and her body. Every part of her spelled grief. Young elephants who saw their mothers being killed often wake up screaming."
British and Kenyan scientists have observed elephants guarding the bodies of their dead. The researchers also report seeing elephants becoming agitated and appearing to investigate the dead animal, even touching the skull and tusks with their trunks and feet in a ceremonial way. Elephants have also been observed emitting secretions from their temples while near the body of a dead animal.
The scientists report elephants gently investigating the bones with their trunks and feet while remaining very quiet. Sometimes elephants completely unrelated to the deceased will still visit their graves, and when an elephant is hurt, other elephants will aid them. Although scientists have found no evidence supporting the long-held myth, perpetuated by the Tarzan movies of the 1940s and `50s, that elephants visit “elephant graveyards”, they do report that the elephants’ interest in the ivory and skulls of their own species means that elephants would be highly likely to visit the bones of relatives who die within their home range.
Their grief is visible when the elephants shed tears, bury their dead, go into depression or starve themselves in reaction to a loss. One elephant at an Indian zoo was so distraught over the death of her friend that she refused to eat or drink, leading to her own death.
David Field, head of animal care for London and Whipsnade Zoos in the U.K., wrote this in The New Scientist:
"Elephants are highly intelligent and highly tactile animals. The fact they are able to distinguish between their own skulls and those of other species is not surprising. Elephants themselves are a matriarchal society filled with aunties and family members who have close bonds within a group. Therefore, a death in the family could have an impact on social bonding and structure within the group, just as it does in human families."
Anthony Hall-Martin reported the following from an elephant death ritual he witnessed in Addo, South Africa:
"The entire families of a dead female elephant — including her baby — were seen gently touching her body with their trunks, trying to lift her. As they gathered around the dead mother, the herd began to rumble loudly. The calf was observed to be weeping and made sounds that sounded like a scream before the entire herd fell silent. Then, as a group, the elephants began throwing leaves and dirt over the body and broke off tree branches to cover her. They spent the next two days quietly standing over her body, leaving only to get water or food, but they would always return."