How does empathy help elephants?

By SdS

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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.

Biological relevance

What are these two doing and why?

What are these two doing and why?

Social animals like elephants need mechanisms that help them live in the company of other individuals – this means the ability to avoid or resolve conflicts, and have their own needs met. If they are a very cooperative species, strong communication and the ability to understand another individual’s mental states to some degree might help. The scientific debates though, concern just how much we as outside observers can understand about what goes on in the minds of animals, and what sort of evidence is needed. Note that sociality by itself doesn’t automatically demand emotional capacities – social insect colonies such as those of ants and honeybees function perfectly well without any apparent semblance of these types of cognition, though individuals behave very intelligently in many ways. Science is always critical of evidence because otherwise it’s easy to get carried away, that’s just how it works and it is not a bad thing on the whole.  But it can be frustrating at times, even for scientists, that rare observations providing insight into an animal’s cognitive depths can be so hard to publish through formal channels.


This gesture is not a hug, as I’d thought in my early days. It’s an assertion of dominance by Right Hole (on the left) over an unfamiliar female numbered [346].

This is especially true when species that we can relate to as individuals behave in ways that we can also easily relate to, because we interpret these behaviors in a manner analogous to ourselves.  Here, we are the ones that empathize. Sometimes it’s hard to know whether we’re right or not.  In the series of behaviors described by Plotnik et al. it certainly looks as though when one individual gets a fright, and the other approaches her and engages in all sorts of interactions with her, this seems similar to what we might do to comfort a friend in distress.  If so, the biological benefits would be that the companion calms down, which might diffuse a touchy situation.  But it might also benefit the consoler: she might be gaining information about what disturbed her companion in the first place, and in fact she might be setting her own nerves at ease.  If your friend’s distress in turn unsettles you, the latter would be true – and this might qualify as emotional contagion. Both are interesting but we really can’t tell.  In order for the behavior to be recognized as expressions of consolation and empathy we really need to pin down very subtle differences in motivation.  Are they reassuring their companion? Or reassuring themselves? Plotnik et al. are rightly careful about how exactly they interpret these behaviors in their study.

The fact that we can’t make such fine distinctions from this single study does not decrease its value.  It documents something which is extremely rare, intriguing and difficult to observe systematically in the wild.  But on the other hand, it will not lead to a sudden shift in the scientific consensus overnight about the abilities of elephants or any other species.  Why should that matter?  This brings us to the next level.

Practical relevance

This study, among others, adds to an ever-growing awareness of the fascinating cognitive depths of elephants, and subsequently is an opportunity to draw attention to the threats that are destroying them in our lifetimes. But there is a great imbalance in the reporting which accompanies these discoveries.  First, there is an enormous emphasis on the ivory crisis.  Second, there is enormous attention on the African continent.  The general theme: that elephants are marvelously intelligent and yet being annihilated by the unquenched greed and materialism of individuals in the far East, fueling criminal activity on the ground, sowing instability, and if people would only recognize how amazing elephants are this can all stop.  It is a very appealing narrative, and many parts of it are true.  There’s just one problem: it’s not universal.

Like all great narratives, it’s too simple. There are a lot of accounts of the remarkable behavior of African elephants. But Plotnik et al.’s study was about the much less-discussed Asian species.  There’s a difference. It is heavily endangered, some populations numbering only in double digits, and importantly – the majority of the Asian species is tuskless (only males can have tusks, many males don’t have tusks, and in some populations there are many more females than males). Hence today, for Asian elephants, ivory is NOT THE MAIN CONCERN.  We barely know where Asian elephants continue to persist, and the barrage of threats they are under. This narrative therefore just doesn’t work.

What are the threats for Asian elephants?  The story is a lot more complex.  They run the gamut, but it all centers around habitat loss.  From conflict with small-scale farmers, to large scale plantations, to displacement through damming and mining. Name an ecological issue, this species has to contend with it.  Every day they are being shotpoisonedblown upmangled by trainssnared – and, on top of all this, captured for use in captivity. This too leaves orphans and destroyed social lives. These stories are a lot more difficult to discuss and find solutions to because they are not singular issues that fit within our comfort zone of familiar and simplistic narratives. Even the ivory issue is nowhere near as simple as it is often portrayed, interwoven with Western neocolonialist attitudes toward Africa and self-righteous condescension toward Asia. The connections between western consumer and ecological degradation are far more indirect and tortuous.

A famous photo – Joe, orphaned after his mother was poisoned. Photo: Sabah Wildlife Department

At worst, our very adoration of elephants can be detrimental –for instance when people have the desire to bottle feed and pet them, which can lead to calves being taken out of the wild or situations that could help them regain their freedom, and being confined to captivity. This occurred for instance in Sri Lanka, when orphaned calves from the Elephant Transit Home were transferred to Pinnawela Orphanage, against much local public outcry.  At the former facility they would have been rehabilitated and eventually released back into the wild, whereas in the latter they would be paraded before tourists for photo opportunities and tips. No doubt incidents like this occur regularly at other tourist traps throughout Asia.

What difference does it make to a farmer if an elephant is a highly empathetic creature, when it simultaneously has the ability to ruin an entire year’s harvest? And what does it matter if we ourselves are too busy loving them to take responsibility for our parts in their demise?

Unlike with the ivory issue, we cannot squarely point the finger at criminals or single out particular countries.  We are ALL responsible – if elephants are displaced in the name of a strip mine to supply rare earth metals for our gadgets, if they are poisoned in the name of oil palm to supply our food and cosmetics, then we need to acknowledge that WE share as much responsibility as the rural people who live with elephants daily, and the ivory buyers in distant places.  Where are the regulatory bodies that address these issues? Where are the treatises? Where, indeed, is the outrage?

So, perhaps elephants are empathetic beings.  The scientific positions should be understood, but should not lessen our awe and admiration for these truly magnificent creatures that accompanied our own ancestors out of Africa so long ago.  It’s a great time of discovery about the abilities of elephants, and we look forward to more research news. The insights gleaned from these observations may help change attitudes where attitudes need changing.  At the same time, as empathetic beings ourselves, we must also relate to the human components – the social, cultural and economic infrastructure challenging the survival of us all, and be mindful that it takes more to save elephants – or any wildlife and ecosystem – than simply loving them.


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3 thoughts on “How does empathy help elephants?

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