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Have you ever sat amongst a herd of elephants and felt a sense of calm and tranquillity fall over you as they move silently through the bush around you?


For those who have had the privilege of spending time on safari with these beautiful gentle giants this will be a feeling that you can most certainly relate to. The natural world is one that, time and time again, surprises us.


Ndumu River Lodge
Below are five traits that elephants and humans have in common:

1. Family bond

Like humans, elephants have a very close-knit family bond. In the ideal world, a human family is loving, caring and protective of its members. Similar to humans, when a herd member has been absent or fallen behind, the herd shows great emotion when reconnected. This manifests as a combination of vocalisations and touch. The members will rub up against each other’s bodies and often intertwine their trunks. Humans place a high value on family and the bond between family members and similarly the fabric of elephant society is family.


2. Empathy

In most human societies, when an individual shows signs of pain or distress, we step in and provide support, care and comfort to that individual. This includes simple behaviours such as communicating with the individual using language or through touch. Touch is one of many ways in which we communicate with one another. By simply hugging or holding an individual in pain we offer comfort, care and support. This very same behaviour has been witnessed in elephants. When an individual in a herd is in discomfort, other members of the herd have been seen to make noises in communication with the hurt individual and, in some instances, elephants have been seen using touch to comfort other individuals in the herd. By gently using their trunks, they comfort the distressed individual with a caress.


3. Mischief

When watching elephants interact with one another we find ourselves fixated. Why is it that when we watch two young elephants bumping, chasing and playing with each other we can’t stop watching? Is it simply because we find it cute or humorous? Or do we relate to the mischievous side of the elephants inherent in ourselves? When young men are going through adolescence, there is competition amongst themselves for attention. Young men will push each other around, joke with one another and in some cases wrestle. Young bull elephants possess the same mindset. They have not quite reached the age to move away from the herd but being mischievous teenagers, they often test each other in front of other individuals of the herd for a ‘popularity’ ranking.


4. Communication

Both humans and elephants have various methods of communicating. Just as we can tell how another person is feeling based on their body language, tone of voice and physical gestures, elephants too can communicate their emotional status.

Elephants have five main methods of communication:

– seismic communication (where depending on the frequency, sounds can be transmitted through the ground as vibrations);

– visual communication (many of us have witnessed the head-up, ears-out posture of a displeased elephant);

– chemical communication (elephant in musth);

– tactile communication (touch); and

– acoustic (sounds).

Much like with us humans, 70% of acoustic/verbal communication is done by the females and youngsters.


5. Mourning

Elephants have been known to show distinct mourning behaviour when a family member dies. Humans go through a mourning period when a close relative or friend passes away. Humans generally hold a service in remembrance of the deceased and spend a large portion of their time healing from the pain of loss. It allows us time to remember who we have lost and deal with their passing so that we can move on.

Elephants have been known to do something very similar. They will sometimes spend hours with the individual that has passed away and even days in certain cases. The distress of the herd after the loss of a member is clear. Using their trunks, they will touch the remains of the lost member and reassure one another by rubbing up against each other, akin to holding their own ‘service of remembrance’. Elephants have also been known to spend time with the member’s remains when the herd passes through the area in the future, sometimes decades after the death. It is a time where they can once again recognise the life of the individual that has passed and show respect.

So next time you find yourself amongst a herd of elephants, remember to sit back and observe them, what are they doing? Why are they doing it? And how are they interacting with each other? You just might find something that you can relate to.

Shenton Safaris
At Close Quarters

At Close Quarters is a South African based photographic safari team. Our passion is creating tailor-made safari experiences to help you get your dream wildlife images. We love Africa and can't wait to share it with you!