The Emotional Lives of Elephants
Elephant in the wild

The Emotional Lives of Elephants


There is no denying that elephants are a tourist draw card. These magnificent and fascinating creatures are one of the most intelligent mammals on the planet.

Elephant portrait

In the wild, they live in large family groups; forage and travel up to 65 kms (40 miles) a day and have a long life span (50 to 70 years) as they have no natural predators other than humans.

Elephant herd in the wild

Elephants communicate both verbally and by body language. Through grunts/growls and trumpeting calls that can be heard by each other as far as 8 kms (5 miles) away, they convey messages, such as excitement, warning and danger. They are often seen showing affection by rubbing their bodies against each other or hugging by wrapping their trunks.

These amazing social and playful creatures once roamed throughout the continents of Africa and Asia. Their population fell dramatically from the 20th century, mainly due to habitat loss and the ivory trade.

Why Elephants Never Forget

The more we learn about elephants, the more it appears that their impressive memory is only one aspect of an incredible intelligence that makes them some of the most social, creative and benevolent creatures on Earth.

~ TED-Ed

Elephants’ Intelligence and Deep Emotions

Research shows that elephants have remarkable problem solving skills. They have been observed using tools such as palm leaves to swat flies and improvising stepping stools to gain height in order to reach for food in the trees (The Science Is In: Elephants Are Even Smarter Than We Realized, Scientific American 2014).

Their impressive capacity for learning is clearly demonstrated by the various tricks they can be trained to perform (often under duress) such as painting or riding a tricycle.

Elephant painting

Elephants comfort their upset friends; develop strong loving bonds with their keepers; grieve and mourn the dead [Elephant Trauma and Elephants on the Edge, Bradshaw]. Baby elephants suffer from severe trauma after witnessing the killing of their families [Trans-species Psychology, Bradshaw and Watkins].


A report from a Kenyan elephant orphanage tells that some baby elephants who have seen their families massacred by poachers and witnessed the tusks being cut off the bodies wake up screaming in the night, showing clear signs of having nightmares from post-traumatic stress.

Elephant Mother and Baby

Animal Emotions

These impressive creatures not only wow us with their size, but their strong family ties, empathetic nature and long memories also inspire us to consider the emotional intelligence of all animals.

In his book When Elephants Weep, Jeffery Moussaieff explained that one of the reasons why there was little scientific research on the emotional intelligence of animals, was because scientists, animal behaviourists or zoologists were fearful of being accused of anthropomorphism, a form of scientific blasphemy. In fact, many who dared to defy orthodoxy were gravely criticised for ascribing human characteristics to animals, and their work being conveniently ignored.

Jeffery also pointed out despite science turning a blind eye on animal emotions, some innovative work was done directed at language use, self-awareness and other cognitive abilities as the subject of animal cognition was much easier to test and more worthy of scientific attention.

Elephant Mother and Baby

The book was published nearly 20 years ago. More and more people begin to ask questions and want to understand animals’ inner lives. There is no doubt in the pet owners’ minds that their pets have rich emotions. In the last decade, even though research is still scarce, books such as The Emotional Lives of Animals by scientist Marc Bekoff have been published, demonstrating both through extraordinary stories and the latest scientific research results that animals have complex emotions of joy, empathy, grief, embarrassment, anger and love that common sense have long implied.

A number of tragedies have happened in Thailand when trainers and tourists were killed by these highly intelligent captive animals, kept in inadequate conditions, suffering from cruel treatments and enormous stress, similar to what occurs in marine parks to the captive whales.

Given what we now know about elephants, and what they teach us about animal intelligence and their deep emotions, it is time for us to reassess both how we perceive the creatures we share the planet with and how we treat them.

We admire elephants in part because they demonstrate what we consider the finest human traits: empathy, self-awareness, and social intelligence. But the way we treat them puts on display the very worst of human behavior.

~ Graydon Carter

Elephant Mother and Baby

 Mother and Baby Elephants, a drawing by Matt Mawson from Perspective – View of the World through Illustrations


Author: Chen Mawson



Dog read drawing

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