A young elephant in Mikumi National Park, Tanzania

Understanding elephant empathy and their emotions



Observing elephants in the wild is the best way to fully experience these incredible animals.

This blog was written by Dr Helen Lambert

Elephants are at their most awe-inspiring in the wild and some of the behaviours they exhibit show us just how emotionally complex they are. The intelligence of elephants is something which is often overlooked by humans, however, it is clear that they are very smart creatures. but exactly how smart are elephants?

Highly empathetic animals

Elephants are considered to be one of the world’s most empathic species. In my last blog, I wrote about how African elephants grieve and mourn their dead, proving that they’re truly empathetic, social animals.

Scientists have observed many cases of maternal and non-maternal elephants defending calves from dangerous situations such as chasing predators away, stopping aggressive play fights or pushing other individuals away. Such situations do not always elicit distress or pain signals in the calf, and so the protector elephants are predicting their potential distress, rather than just responding to cues.

Byrne and colleagues (2008) suggest that to do this the elephants draw upon their past experiences and use this to consider the calf’s emotional state, they then act to prevent the situation escalating and causing the calf distress. This behaviour is very complex, and few species are known to be able to attribute and consider another’s feelings in this way.

They share strong social bonds

African elephants have huge complicated social groups ranging from tens to hundreds, whereas Asian elephants are often thought to be the loner elephants. Recent research however has shown this is not actually the case. Their social lives are so complex it has taken years of research to understand them, and we are still continuing to learn.

Female Asian elephants will have anywhere from 10-50 friends, but they may not see them for long periods of time (de Silva et al., 2011), instead they will communicate with them both chemically and acoustically (Soltis et al., 2005.)

Elephant mother and calf in the wild

Mother elephant leads her calf

And recognise themselves in the mirror

It is not surprising to hear that as well as being incredibly emotional and social, elephants are considered to be one of the world’s most intelligent species (Plotnik et al., 2011). Asian elephants have been found to pass the mirror test (Plotnik et al., 2006.) Marks are placed on the animal to see whether they use the mirror to inspect themselves.

When they successfully inspect themselves, this is considered to be evidence of a high level of intelligence. Only some species are known to be capable of it: dolphins (Reiss & Marino, 2001) and chimpanzees (Menzel et al., 1985). And the ability doesn’t emerge in human children until 18-24 months of age (Plotnik et al., 2010.)

Making the most of their environment

Both Asian and African elephants have been known to use different objects as tools for conducting various tasks. For example, they've been seen using branches to swat flies, or to use dead vegetation to bury the dead (Chevalier-Skolnikoff & Liska, 1993; Hart et al., 2001.) The way that elephants are able to practically make the most of their environment and use imagination to complete different tasks shows how complex and thoughtful these animals really are.

There are many great stories to illustrate elephants use of tools. Rangers once saw African elephants break off nearby branches and dump them on to a new road, rendering it closed, repeating this four times when the branches were removed. Poignantly the road was built for the elephant cull (Chevalier-Skolnikoff & Liska, 1993).

There is still so much to learn about these fascinating animals, and scientists have only really scratched the surface when it comes to understanding how intelligent and expressive elephants are.

But not all elephants enjoy this freedom

Sadly, elephants used for tourist rides do not have the chance to truly express these behaviours. Their lives in these facilities is so far removed from what it should be; they are almost an entirely different animal.

We want to see elephants living in the natural environments they’re entitled to and we're working with responsible travel companies to make this happen.

More than 80 companies have stopped selling elephant rides and shows to tourists. But to put an end to this cruel industry we need more companies to take action. 

Thailand, Elephants and Tourism


Asian elephants are native to Thailand, but far too many of them are trapped in captivity. Here’s what World Animal Protection Thailand want you to know.

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Captive Elephant Breeding is a form of Wildlife Farming where elephants are farmed for profit. Find out how you can take action to protect these majestic creatures.

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