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A photo of an elephant bathing her baby.

An African elephant spends time with a young one at Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya.

PHOTOGRAPH BY CB PICTURES, WESTEND61/CORBIS

Virginia Morell

for National Geographic

Published February 21, 2014

Elephants, we all know, are in peril. We humans are waging what amounts to a war against them because they have something we want and cannot make on our own: ivory.

The West African country of Gabon holds most of Africa's remaining forest elephants. Their main stronghold, Minkebe National Park and its surrounding buffer zone, was home to an estimated 28,500 elephants in 2004. By 2012 the number had plummeted to about 7,000—a loss of 20,000 or more elephants.

People are shooting, poisoning, and spearing the animals at such a rate across the continent that some scientists already consider them "ecologically extinct." There are now fewer than 500,000 wild African elephants—maybe no more than half that number—and barely 32,000 Asian elephants.

They cannot fight against us; they cannot win this battle.

And the horror of what is happening to them is surely compounded in their minds by the empathy they feel for one another—an emotion that scientists have at last been able to demonstrate experimentally in elephants.

Elephant Empathy: One Example After Another

But why did it take an experiment? Research on elephants is full of examples of the animals apparently behaving empathetically—recognizing and responding to another elephant's pain or problem. Often, they even make heroic efforts to assist one another.

In Kenya, researchers have watched mother elephants and other adult females help baby elephants climb up muddy banks and out of holes, find a safe path into a swamp, or break through electrified fences.

Scientists have spotted elephants assisting others that are injured, plucking out tranquilizing darts from their fellows, and spraying dust on others' wounds.

A photo of a baby elephant mourning over its mother.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ATTILA BALAZS, MTI/AP
A two-year-old African elephant baby climbs on the back of his mother in the Nyiregyhaza Animal Park in Budapest, Hungary, one day after the mother died. The baby stayed near the lifeless body of his mother for 14 hours after her death, and wept after the body was removed.

And on at least one occasion, researchers have watched an elephant struggle to help a dying friend, lifting her with her tusks and trunk, while calling out in distress.

Aren't such accounts sufficient for scientists to say unequivocally that elephants, like us, are empathetic beings?

Sadly, no. For various reasons—some scientific, some philosophical, some religious, some economic—we have set the bar exceedingly high for recognizing emotions (other than anger and fear) in other animals.

Saying absolutely that elephants (or other animals) are empathetic requires an experiment, something that is difficult to do in the wild. Experiments mean that these are not chance observations—the results are repeatable.

To show that elephants experience the same emotions another is feeling, scientists watched captive Asian elephants in a park in Thailand. They noted when one elephant was upset by something, such as by a snake in the grass, and they recorded her behaviors to see if there was a pattern.

There was. In response to a stressful event, an elephant flares out her ears, erects her tail, and sometimes makes a low rumble. Scientists watching elephants in the wild have reported the same behaviors. (See "Surprise: Elephants Comfort Upset Friends.")

Emotional Contagion

Both in the wild and in this captive study, researchers have watched other, nearby elephants react to the other elephant's distress by acting in exactly the same way. Scientists call this emotional contagion.

The elephants also ran to stand beside their friend, touched her with their trunks to soothe her, and made soft chirping sounds. Sometimes one would even put her trunk inside the other's mouth, a behavior elephants find particularly comforting, the researchers say.

We do something very similar when watching a scary movie with a friend. When the main character is threatened, we feel his fear. Our hearts race, we may tremble, and for reassurance, we reach for our friend's hand.

The researchers also recorded what the elephants did when they were in the same locations with their same friends nearby, but nothing stressful occurred. In those moments, none of the elephants acted in an empathetic way.

By comparing the two types of events—stressful versus nonstressful—the scientists were able to say that "emotional contagion" occurs only when an elephant sees another in distress.

Some scientists may still argue that this is not sufficient evidence for true empathy, that the experiment doesn't reveal what's going on in an elephant's mind when she rushes to aid a friend or worries over a dying companion.

But the fact that elephants make any effort at all on another elephant's behalf suggests that they are at the very least highly aware and emotional beings, concerned in some manner for each other.

Do They Know We're Destroying Them?

We cannot know for certain if African elephants know that they're under attack, that we're wiping them out across the continent. There are few, if any, survivors from most poaching events, and those that do make it can't tell us of their trauma. We'll never know what elephants may have witnessed or heard in the forest while their friends and relatives in other families were being slaughtered.

We have some idea, though, because in South Africa in the late 20th century, wildlife officials authorized the killing of entire elephant families in some fenced parks, such as Kruger. The officials worried that if a fenced elephant population grew too large, the animals would consume all the vegetation—so they culled the elephants.

Somehow, other elephant families in the park knew this was happening. Perhaps it was the cries of terror as the animals were shot. Or perhaps those being killed were able to emit low rumbles that carried the news for miles.

Immediately after a culling operation—and even after rangers cleaned up the area, removing all the bodies—other elephant families would come to the scene. They inspected the ground and smelled the earth, and then the visiting elephants left, never to return.

Observers say that even when the area where a culling took place was good habitat for elephants, the animals chose not to live there.

What happens now where poachers kill elephant families and herds? Do the animals, filled with empathy for what the others suffered, come to investigate the killing fields? Do they abandon those awful precincts forever?

Those studies have yet to be made. But in the meantime, can we put our empathy to use in finding a way to help the elephants? Can we put an end at last to the poaching?

Virginia Morell is a correspondent for Science and the author of four acclaimed books. Her newest, Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures, has received several honors, including a Notable Book for 2014 award from the American Library Association and a Best Book of the Year designation from Kirkus Reviews. She lives in Oregon with her husband and their working farm collie, Buckaroo.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Gabon has lost more than half its elephants—11,000—in the last ten years. It is known with a high degree of confidence that in a recent eight-year period, the loss in just one Gabon park approximated 20,000 elephants.

59 comments
Joy Saldanha
Joy Saldanha

Really, elephant's are empathetic, and it takes science to discover this? wonderful, great.,and I am being more than sarcastic here.It is known as fact that they are empathetic animals, and that we are not! Read the true stories, look at the photographs of these beautiful animals and their behaviour, to simply KNOW for sure. Then to look at some humans behaviour patterns and again to know for sure, that we do not measure up,no way.......  j.e.s. 

Carla Porter
Carla Porter

I do not agree with the title of this article.  Based on our daily treatment toward all non-human organisms, the human race has proven that we are NOT "empathetic beings."

Peggy Rapier
Peggy Rapier

I watched this documentary once about elephants that followed one family group. During that time a baby was born that was crippled and could only walk on its knees because its front legs wouldn't straighten out. Its whole family stayed with it, They kept encouraging it, caring for it. They just would not abandon that crippled baby for anything. I was just bawling through the whole thing. And then somehow, the baby's legs straightened out and it went on to live a normal life. Words just can't describe how sick I feel when I think of any elephant being killed much more that they are actually being wiped out as I type. 

Ha Ting
Ha Ting

I have seen a herd of elephants surrounded a dying elephant and "crying" in a zoo.

I felt so touched when I saw that scene.

Animals have feelings too, no doubt.

Jim Ong
Jim Ong

Here we are questioning on whether these elephants can exercises empathy, why don’t we cast the first stone to save them from extinction.

Subramanian A L
Subramanian A L

Why should the science try to appease all scientists who wants facts demonstrated their way to accepts the facts. All we need to be concerned is how to provide better conditions for the animals.


Elephants so far survived in Africa and Asia since people lived in harmony with fellow beings in nature. Now the greed for money makes people do all sort of illegal things.

Also due to emotionless chinese people/government who support massive illegal elephant an tiger poaching for their tusks and skin is fueling the illegal trade. 

99% of the poached tiger skin and Rhino horns are smuggled into China with the help of China government.



Trina Vaughn
Trina Vaughn

It seems ridiculous for us to keep asking this same question. Anyone with half a brain can see they are of course empathetic. All large brain mammals are. It is well documented. My questions is, are there definitive steps that we can take to assist these creatures? If so please post a link for us to follow. Thanks for you concern and consideration.

Jacob Stephens
Jacob Stephens

People have you gone insane!? I have been to Africa many times exploring elephants and their killers and if I have learned one thing during my studies, its that elephants are among the dumbest creatures on earth. They suck water in through their noses for crying out loud! WHY NOT JUST USE YOUR MOUTH? I swear, if elephants expect to stay around for much longer then they need to brighten up. I have written a book entitled "pros and cons of killing elephants" I encourage you to read it. In it lies all the secrets of elephants. You will soon realize why elephants are so dumb.

Paulette Markwood
Paulette Markwood

A fabulous book regarding this subject is "The elephant Whisperer" by Lawrence Anthony. Mr. Anthony owns a reserve named Thula Thula in the heart of Zuzuland. I couldn't put it down.

Sabine Zell
Sabine Zell

I, too, have witnessed, empathetic behavior among captive elephants.  At the Elephant Nature Park, in Chang Mai, Thailand there is evidence of this every single hour of every single day.  During our elephant walk in which we walk deeper into the park and observe elephants being elephants, one female in a group of 3 approached us for some bananas.  Once she saw one of the park dogs walking with us, she backed up and chirped.  Her friend, who was over 200 feet away, came running over.  Her friend stood between her and the dog and proceeded to aggressively thump her trunk on the ground until the dog, who very friendly in nature, walked off in another direction.  On another occasion, a helicopter flew over the park which created much trumpeting and roaring among the elephants.  Standing close to the edge of the observation/feeding platform, I saw 2 elephants who were several feet apart, huddle side by side.  One was making soft chirping noises, the other was caressing her friend's face with her trunk and often times placed her trunk in her friends mouth.  And yet on another occasion, we witnessed two 2 year old calves playing about 30 feet from the family group.  One chirp from a calf was all it took for the entire family to come running, not walking, running, toward the calves and create a circular barrier around the calves.  We could not even see the calves.  As a day visitor, I am not sure that I would have witnessed enough of these types of interactions.  But as a 2 week volunteer, the evidence was concrete.  Elephants are empathetic, sentient beings.

DIXIE Dodge
DIXIE Dodge

The elephants have much to teach us.  It will be a loss of immeasurable dimensions to loose these gentle creatures.  I love them so much my husband keeps telling me I cannot have one in the backyard no matter how much that love is.

Lauren Haupt
Lauren Haupt

I'm not sure about the 'like us' part. Are WE

'empathetic beings'?

Alayón Giraldo
Alayón Giraldo

An important article.., indeed I´m sure that the adquisition of the concius in evolution is a fact i spite of science methods didný find a way to demostrate..,I have a lot of personal experiences with different animals that reveals this self-awareness..,

Dr. Giraldo Alayón


Paul Matich
Paul Matich

Not when you have christians eating muslims in CAR. These are the natives of this country disgusting! 

Kone Ismael
Kone Ismael

There is not a moving (living) creature on earth, nor a bird that flies with its two wings, but are communities like you. We have neglected nothing in the Book, then unto their Lord they (all) shall be gathered.
Quran 006:38

Susan Scimeca
Susan Scimeca

It is emotionally and spiritually painful for me to read this article knowing that what is stated here is true. I cannot imagine a world without these unique life forms in it. What makes life so wonderful for me is the diversity of our world and all its inhabitants.Each one weaves a beautiful web of life. I am glad that most of my life has been lived so I won't be around to see the end, but I ache for my daughter and granddaughter and the generations after them who won't know what real treasures  they have lost....profoundly sad and truly disheartening.

Elie Morisse
Elie Morisse

I too feel like the pedantism of ethology is only "proving" what's been obvious for a very long time: that elephants are very intelligent and empathic creatures, feeling emotions etc. etc.

But saying "we", "scientists" are bad practices of scientific journalism because science isn't a hivemind and a study only reflects the authors' thoughts. That a team of two or three pedantic scientists felt that yet another "rigorous" demonstration that elephants do feel empathy was needed doesn't put every other living scientist on their line of thinking.

Alan Lieberman
Alan Lieberman

It saddens me knowing that rinosaurus, elephants & tigers, among other animals are being slaughtered everyday just to fulfill the demand that generates from China.  Poachers are being paid for doing what they're hired to do.  If the poachers can be compensated without destroying these animals, would that be the solution?  Probably just a temporary measure.  Ultimately, the solution is to stop the demand.  Hopefully education will lead towards the destruction of demand. 

Rebekah Hollenberg
Rebekah Hollenberg

"For various reasons—some scientific, some philosophical, some religious, some economic—we have set the bar exceedingly high for recognizing emotions (other than anger and fear) in other animals." 

We study these traits in other races of animals in order, I think, to better understand ourselves. Why don't we more easily respond to emotions in other people? Why do we only seem to act empathetically when there is a crisis?
Will we ever learn to acknowledge and value the sentience of other animal races the way we have for other human races?

Russ Nash
Russ Nash

Despite some understanding of why some poachers do what they do, as (admittedly) a distant westerner, I'd be really happy with a shoot-to-kill policy on poachers.

Russ Nash
Russ Nash

I sincerely hope that one day we will start to realise the truly dreadful evil we wreak upon our fellow creatures. The tragedy is nearly overwhelming. On the whole, our species is a cancer upon the planet. Fortunately some of us have a degree of empathy and at least try to do our best not to be part of it.


Irene Tiedt
Irene Tiedt

This unacceptable decimation of all animals of every species is happening throughout the world. I am sorry but I have to disagree with scientific study that says animals are incapable of empathy and emotion. Animals have enriched the lives of humans and give unconditional love. What would the blind do without their dogs, and those that sniff out cancer, and those that are used to save drowning victims;  the list goes on and on. Animals have given more to humans than we have given to them, we kill them for profit and to make our lives more comfortable when they get in our way. We will indeed have to give an account to The Creator who created humans and put them in charge of His animals!

Kassandra Earls
Kassandra Earls

 Was watching the Giving Tree and then read this- I may have been crying at some parts. All things are created equal- 

"With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch,

They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch;

They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings;

So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things" ~Kipling

We are valuing the wrong things in this world.  :-( 

gill upson
gill upson

Perhaps they should put all the poachers  tied to stakes either on the floor or upright in a pen with a heard of elephants with no weapons & see if they can defend themselves 

Arjun t
Arjun t

That's the reason we, Hindus consider all living being as divine. We even worship elephants as god. Lets we, human, not forget humanity. 

crystal wu
crystal wu

@Subramanian A L  


You shouldn't just pinpoint all, "Chinese-people" as emotionless. I am Chinese, and I definitely do not support taking elephant and tiger's tusks and skin!

Virginia Morell
Virginia Morell

@Trina Vaughn Thanks for writing, Trina. That's an excellent question. I'm away from my office for a few days, so don't have access to all my files. But you might look at the Amboseli Trust for Elephants; also Voices for Elephants. @VirginiaMorell

Sarah Dykeman
Sarah Dykeman

@Jacob Stephens  I know you're a troll but I do need to point out that they DO use their mouths, the trunk acts as a straw. They suck up the water into their trunk, then place their trunk into their mouth and release the water into their mouth. Which you would know if you ever actually spent any time around them. Troll a little harder next time. 

Manny Lugo
Manny Lugo

Also, they drink with their nose instead putting their head in the water to drink water because when they drink with their nose they get to look their surrounding for predators. At african you cant turn you back even when eating or drinking. You alway had to look around you for predators. All gotta say for you. Dumbest creature in the earth.

Manny Lugo
Manny Lugo

Hi, I'm 10 year old and smarter then you. You been exploring elephant for years and you don't know why they use their nose instead their mouth to drink water? Reason why they do because only way they can drink with their mouth if they get in the water or get down their knees which too much calories to spend and too much to risk since there are crocs in the water, but since they are too smart to know there are crocodile in the water, they will carefully use their long nose to drink. they know croc take the advantage in the water than land. Also, they spend too much calories to get down their knees to drink water with their mouth so they use their long nose as a straw.

Elephant can live 60-70 years on the wild bare naked and with no technology on the toughest environment. Can you live 60 years bare naked and bare handed without technology on africa? Can you survive on the wild with no technology? You don't know what is eatable or not since you are the dumbest creature in the world. You depend on smart human and technology to survive. You depend on your job and money to pay other so you will be able to survive. You aint smart as you think. You are dumb. You can bring human friend make a herd on africa and see how long you and they can survive naked and with no technology. Once, Christian say we arent animals and animal have no souls. Animal means organism the eat and poop. Do we eat and poop? Oh no i have no soul.

Virginia Morell
Virginia Morell

@Sabine Zell Thanks, Sabine. These are wonderful examples! You're fortunate to have spent so much time with elephants. Thanks for sharing.

Virginia Morell
Virginia Morell

@Lauren Haupt Thanks, Lauren. Yes, I think we are empathetic beings -- or that we strive to be. The fact that you responded as you did tells me that you are a very empathetic person.

Chelcie Ratinaud
Chelcie Ratinaud

@Lauren Haupt

I have to agree with your idea here.  It is difficult to call human beings, as a species, empathetic.  The sheer amount of harm that we can and have caused in our history is astounding.  We seem to destroy everything that we come in contact with.  We kill animals, plants, each other, etc. and there is usually no reason for it other than greed or anger. 

However, on an individual basis, I know that a lot of people do have the capacity for kindness and empathy.  It is hard to say that people aren't empathetic beings because of all of the good that we also do.  I mean, most of the people on this discussion board are feeling empathy for the elephants that are the subject of this article.  

Just something to ponder.

Diana L.
Diana L.

People who do not believe will use a religion to justify their acts. In its purity, religion should help, not harm. Very few truly religious people exist. The purely religious people would never do something so detrimental and so, they are unjustly prejudiced and said that they are capable of doing such a horrible thing. What a horrible thing to hurt these beautiful creatures!

Russ Nash
Russ Nash

@Paul Matich Religion: written by humans for humans and interpreted by humans any way they choose - to justify whatever good or bad behaviour they have a leaning toward.

Virginia Morell
Virginia Morell

@Susan Scimeca I sympathize with your thoughts, Susan. But I'm also optimistic, and want to think that we humans will do better.. That we'll take on the hard task of stopping the trade in ivory -- all of it. I think that is the only way to stop the poaching and save the elephants. Like you, I cannot bear to think of the world our children and grandchildren may inherit if we don't.

Russ Nash
Russ Nash

@Irene Tiedt

@Irene TiedtI agree in the main but science has, by its very nature, to be coldly logical. It needs data, testing and verification to express an opinion before it can reach a rational, working truth. In the context of this article "scientists" aren't saying it's not there, they're simply saying they haven't the requisite standard of proof. 

Ironically, if you approach this from an emotional and empathic point of view you will tend to feel in conflict with science... For my own part, I empathise and have empathised with numerous animals so I 'know' myself that we share many 'bands' of our awareness with them - but I accept that science would need more than that to go beyond speculation.

I agree that we owe them a great debt and always our respect as fellow creatures, whatever the situation. Us considering ourselves separate from them though is part of the problem - we were not "put in charge of them", we are just part of the same biosystem but it turns out that our particular evolutionary adaptation (intelligence) has moved things on a bit quick and we are not currently 'in harmony' with nature, stupid smartarse monkeys that we are.

Jennifer Austin
Jennifer Austin

@Irene Tiedt  To play devil's advocate--it isn't that science says animals are incapable of empathy.  Just that we cannot scientifically prove it.  How can we prove emotion?  Many of these behaviors can be explained as group survival instincts.  

But, our reaction should not depend on whether or not we can prove elephants or any other creature has empathy.  Because we claim to.  Maybe scientists should re-examine whether humans actually have this, or if it is something we made up to try to set us above other animals.  

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