Do Elephants Weep?
By S M Chen, posted Nov. 18, 2015
I recently had the privilege of viewing a TV documentary, SOUL OF THE ELEPHANT, by the acclaimed, award-winning team of Beverly and Dereck Joubert. Conservationists and producers of over 25 documentaries on various African wildlife, the Jouberts spent two years, including 2.5 months navigating a river by canoe, in an effort to reconstruct the lives and deaths of two adult male elephants whose skulls and intact tusks they discovered in the Selinda Reserve, a remote area of Botswana.
It was an informative, touching work.
Were reincarnation karmic reality and we had a choice, it’d be nice to come back as an elephant. Why? Elephants are highly intelligent (their brains are five times the size of ours; along with chimpanzees and dolphins, whose intelligence may rival their own, they’re the only species known to recognize themselves in a mirror); have prodigious memories (for not only the living but for their dead); are gentle, compassionate, sentient creatures; can live a fairly long time (70 years, not that different from man); and, when they die, legend had it that they often go off to some secret place by themselves.
And, what’s more, they may have souls. What’s not to like?
Caitrin Nicol Keiper wrote a wondrous lengthy monograph, ‘Do Elephants Have Souls?’ which was published in the semiannual ‘The New Atlantis’ (2013) and contains much of what appears below.
Besides humans, elephants are the only other species that commemorates their dead in a manner described by writer Joyce Poole as both ‘eerie and deeply moving.’ When a herd of elephants encounters a departed fellow, their homage is marked by solemnity and silence as they slowly examine the remains with their trunks and hind legs – the ones they use to awaken their babies – then, covering the dead with brush, leaves, branches, and dirt, they eventually move on.
60 MINUTES ran an episode that I found fascinating. Lawrence Anthony, aka ‘The Elephant Whisperer,’ died in 2012. In 1999, he rescued and rehabilitated two groups of traumatized rogue South African elephants. To accomplish his task, he lived with them, night and day. When Anthony passed away, those two herds of elephants traveled up to over 12 hours to his house in South Africa for a two-day vigil of apparently paying their last respects. How did they know/sense he was gone?
Anthony’s son reported an interesting aspect: the trek across the park could take a full day, but, within hours of his father’s death, the elephants showed up. Some of them apparently started for his house before he died.
Zoologist Ivan Sanderson (in ‘The Dynasty of Abu”) relates an incident involving a circus elephant named Sadie. She practiced but was apparently unable to learn a routine. Finally giving up, she fled the training ring, whereupon she was chastised (not with cruelty) ‘for supposed stupidity and trying to run away.’ After which she dropped to earth, lay on her side and, tears streaming, sobs convulsing her body, bawled like a human.
Sanderson had never encountered anything that moved him so profoundly.
Distressed elephants have reportedly killed themselves with intention – not only by refusing water and food, but by such volitional actions as stepping on their trunks (to suffocate) or strangulation by deliberately tightening the chains around their necks. Such seem to stem from loss of hope rather than loss of mind.
Elephants are the largest land animals, weighing 250 pounds at birth (after a 22 month gestation) and growing up to 7 tons if male, 4 tons if female.
Their trunks are marvelous prehensile appendages, containing up to 150,000 muscles and capable of activity as disparate as picking up a pin or moving a massive tree trunk.
Their tusks are problematic, in that, while utilitarian and mainly defensive (occasionally offensive, as during pre-mating activity), they are the cause of the premature demise of many elephants. Elephants are killed (as many as 5 per hour, over 25,000/year) for their ivory by poachers.
Animal Rights Africa, citing high cognition and self-awareness in elephants, posed this question: “How much like us do elephants have to be before killing them becomes murder?”
It is ironic that some of most sublime music in the classical repertoire has been performed on instruments whose keys have been made from parts of one of the most sublime members of the animal kingdom. The birth of one (the piano) has been a consequence of the death of another (the elephant). Happily, newer pianos do not have keys of ivory.
Elephants have highly sophisticated vocalization and a vocal range of ten octaves (a piano has 7). Many (up to 75%) low-frequency infrasonic (15-30Hz) emanations are inaudible to the human ear, which detects 20Hz-20,000Hz. They can sense these emanations with trunks and feet and communicate seismically with their feet for astonishing distances, up to 50 miles away.
Lyall Watson (“Elephantoms,” 2002) describes a haunting encounter between the largest land animal (one park’s sole surviving elephant, on the coast) and largest animal on the planet (a blue whale, at sea):
“It is a sound that sneaks up on you, something you feel rather than hear, a rumble which is more visceral than cerebral…
“The sensation I was feeling on the clifftop was some sort of reverberation in the air itself… I realized that the (blue) whale had submerged and I was still feeling something…
“Standing there in the shade of the (milkwood) tree was an elephant. A fully-grown African elephant, staring out to sea… I had never seen this elephant before, but I knew who she had to be. I recognized her from a color photograph put out by the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry under the title ‘The Last Remaining Kenya Elephant.’ This was the Matriarch herself. But what was she doing here?
“She was here because she no longer had anyone to talk to in the forest. She was standing here on the edge of the ocean because it was the next, nearest, and most powerful source of infrasound. The underrumble of the surf would have been well within her range, a soothing balm for an animal used to being surrounded, submerged, by low and comforting frequencies, by the lifesounds of a herd…
“My heart went out to her… But just as I was about to be consumed by helpless sorrow, something… extraordinary took place…
“The throbbing was back in the air. I could feel it, and I began to understand why. The blue whale was on the surface again, pointed inshore, resting, her blowhole clearly visible.
“The Matriarch was here for the whale.
“The largest animal in the ocean and the largest living land animal were no more than a hundred yards apart, and I was convinced that they were communicating. In infrasound, in concert, sharing big brains and long lives, understanding the pain of high investment in a few precious offspring, aware of the importance and the pleasure of complex sociality, these rare and lovely great ladies were commiserating over the back fence of this rocky Cape shore, woman to woman, matriarch to matriarch, almost the last of their kind.
“I turned, blinking away the tears, and left them to it. This was no place for a mere man…”
In the 1980s, drawings by an elephant named Siri of the Syracuse, NY zoo were collected in book form and praised by artist Willem de Kooning.
I invite you to watch this 8 minute video of an Asian elephant painting a canvas, and challenge you to come away unmoved.
This passage from W. H. Hudson (‘The Naturalist in La Plata”) is, I think, a fitting one with which to end:
‘… above all others, we should protect and hold sacred those types, Nature’s masterpieces… singled out for destruction on account of their size, or splendor, or rarity… In ancient times the spirit of life shone brightest in these; and when others that shared the earth with them were taken by death they were left, being more worthy of perpetuation. Like immortal flowers they have drifted down to us on the ocean of time, and their strangeness and beauty brings to our imaginations a dream and a picture of that unknown world, immeasurably far removed, where man was not; and when they perish, something of gladness goes out from nature, and the sunshine loses something of its brightness.’