Updated at 3:00 pm on April 10
The saying “an elephant never forgets” has new meaning this week, as a video of a rescued Asian elephant reuniting with its mother goes viral.
Shot on the nonprofit Elephant Nature Park sanctuary in northern Thailand, the video shows a young female Asian elephant named Me-Bai nuzzling and interacting with her mother, Mae Yui.
According to Natthanit Sommana, a spokesperson from the sanctuary, Me-Bai spent about three and a half years with her mother in another part of Thailand until she was sold to give rides to tourists.
“Because she was too young, she began to lose weight and could not carry the tourists any longer,” Elephant Nature Park, which is based in Chiang Mai, wrote on its YouTube page.
The young elephant spent three to four years away from its mother, but was recently rescued and brought to the sanctuary. She was nervous and wary of people at first but soon adjusted to her new surroundings, park staff said.
When the caretakers learned that Me-Bai’s mother was working in the tourist industry nearby, they reached out to her owners, who agreed to her retirement at the sanctuary. Mae Yui is thought to be over 30 years old, says Sommana.
The video of the reunion of a long-separated mother and daughter is the result.
“Now, Mae Yui’s owners and Elephant Nature Park are working together to rehabilitate Mae Yui and Me-Bai so that they can return to the wild and live free,” the group writes.
Preston Foerder, a psychologist at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga who studies elephant behavior, says releasing former work elephants into the wild is extremely difficult, since they are no longer afraid of people and often get into trouble. But, he adds, they can live well on natural sanctuaries.
In the wild, elephants typically stay with their mothers at least until they are adolescents, around 11 years old, says Foerder. "Elephant years are pretty close to human years.”
History of Behavior Science
Elephant Nature Park is a well known sanctuary, where behavioral studies are also carried out.
Between 2008 and 2009, researchers from Mahidol University in Thailand and Emory University in the United States studied Asian elephants at the park to learn how they “console” each other after being stressed by helicopters or dogs. They learned that elephants comfort their companions by approaching them, chirping softly and stroking their head and genitals. (Behavior that can be observed in the video above.)
Foerder says such behavior is typical. "Their trunks are very sensitive, so they communicate with touch, as well as scent and sound," he says.
Elephants have a sophisticated system of communication; they can alert each other to danger, and respond to deaths of family members, among other behaviors. (Check out this guide to elephant calls.)
Still, animal behavior expert Frans de Waal of Emory University cautions that it’s also possible the elephants didn’t recognize each other and are merely a compatible pair. “There is no doubt about elephant feelings and bonding, but we humans like to read the mother-child relation into this,” says de Waal.
“It is possible the two remember each other but the video itself does not necessarily prove this.”
But Joyce Poole, a National Geographic explorer who studies elephant behavior, says, "The heart-touching story about the reunion of a mother and baby elephant illustrates beautifully the incredible memories and love elephants have for one another."
"It is with this science-based understanding of elephants as empathetic beings that we ask [countries to amend their treaties] to protect elephants from brutal capture, separation from family, and export to zoos.”
Conservation of elephants is needed, says Foerder, because they have been under assault from poaching and loss of habitat. "There isn't much wild room left for Asian elephants," he adds.