The natural death of a 55-year-old elephant called Victoria in a national park in Kenya, surrounded by her family, has helped to provide researchers with a unique insight into how the animals respond to loss, including a prolonged interest in the deceased even as the body decays.

After Victoria died the herd clustered around the fallen matriarch, exploring her body with their trunks and feet. Among the last to leave was her ten-year-old daughter, who was observed by scientists to have temporal glands streaming with liquid, a reaction linked to stress. Later, they found evidence of an attempt to move the carcass, apparently by her son.

Death in Kenya

“Witnessing elephants interact with their dead sends chills up one’s spine, as the behaviour so clearly indicates advanced feeling,” said George Wittemyer from Save the Elephants, a co-author of the findings published in the journal Primates. “This is one of the many magnificent aspects of elephants that we have observed but cannot fully comprehend.”

Anecdotes of emotional interaction between elephants and their dead are a familiar part of the species’ lore, but the research from Samburu National Reserve, northern Kenya, is the first comprehensive study of these interactions. The day after Victoria’s death, more family members visited her carcass, which was already being picked over by predators. In the weeks that followed, five other herds arrived on the banks of the Ewaso Ng’iro river to make their own inspection of the bones. A review of field observations at the scene of elephant carcasses reveals a pattern of behaviour, whether the deceased were known to the visiting elephants or not.

After Victoria died the herd clustered around the fallen matriarch. Among the last to leave was her ten-year-old daughter.

Some of those making the journey to Victoria’s corpse would have been familiar with the scent of the matriarch, but many more would have been strangers. If this had been a wake, it would have been well-attended, said Shifra Goldenberg, from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, who observed and filmed the elephants attending the body in 2013.

The study included 32 observations of wild elephant carcasses from 12 different locations in Africa and the case of Victoria, born five years before Kenya’s independence from Britain in 1963, offered great insight. One of the most commonly observed behaviours seen by scientists was elephants approaching the dead and examining the carcass. They also appeared to use their advanced sense of smell to identify which of their kind had died, with some seen attempting to loudly lift or pull at the corpses.

“We don’t know what’s going on in their heads,” Dr Goldenberg, also co-author of the report, said. “But we do know that they’re constantly updating social information about each other.”

Mike Chase, an experienced elephant researcher, said that the species had “an intense and curious fascination with death”.

Although the latest research stops short of describing the elephants’ response as a mourning emotion, Dr Chase said that he identified it as such. “I am often at the carcass of a poached elephant and there will be live elephants nearby demonstrating typical behaviour which strongly implies to me they are mourning,” he said.