Elephants More Compassionate Than Humans?

In recent years in parts of India, including the region of West Bengal, there has been more tension in what is regarded as an elephant/man conflict. There have been reported alterations in the patterns of land use by humans. That is, more people have been encroaching on more land traditionally inhabited by elephants, and in these areas new housing has actually blocked the animals’ traditional migration routes. Herds allegedly raid or smash farms, houses and even small villages, displaying likely anger at these structures (and people) being in their path. On the evening of Monday, March 10, one elephant who had been reported as previously killing possibly three people showed it has much more compassion than thought, perhaps even more so than some humans.

The beast rushed past the house of the Mahato family of the Olgara village in Purulia district, West Bengal. Dipak Mahato and his wife, Lalita, had just sit down to supper after putting their infant down for the evening when they heard a terrible crashing. They rushed to where the loud sounds were coming from, as it was in the direction of their child, only to find a male elephant who has already reportedly damaged upwards of 17 houses in nearby villages (while his herd has stuck to nearby fields rather than going so close to humans).

The Mahatos saw that in the room their child was in, a bedroom wall had been brought down by the “tusker,” as the animals are referred to locally, and there were apparently huge chunks of wall strewn about. Their baby was covered in debris. The elephant began walking away from the scene, but when the baby began crying, the creature returned and, according to Dipak, used its trunk to remove every last piece of debris off of the infant before moving on again. The Mahatos took their baby to the hospital where minor surface abrasions were treated. The child is overall in very good health, and was essentially unharmed.

Humans are sometimes surprised to discover how compassionate elephants can be, despite repeated evidence of their altruistic and sensitive natures. There have been numerous accounts, including those from studies, of their emotional and loyal natures. As far back as 1910, news reporting has turned up such instances of kind-hearted acts by these large creatures. In an October, 1910 issue of the Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, several hundred pilgrims were said to have been bathing in a river in Agra, the former capital of Hindustan (now India) in the northern province of Uttar Pradesh. Today, there are several fairs held in Agra, some religious and some civic. This must have been the case in 1910, where the pilgrims had reportedly gathered for an unnamed fair and were bathing, likely in the Yamuna, though the river is also unnamed in the early 20th century article.

A precipitating event is not mentioned, but for whatever reason, pilgrims began drowning. A visiting official there with his elephant loaned the creature out for a rescue effort. The beast, named Jung Bahadar, had ropes tied to his harness and repeatedly swam back and forth, saving stranded pilgrims, along with police boats that had been dispatched. Although 200 pilgrims were reported to have died that day, the elephant, described as noble, was reported as alone having saved at least 1,000 lives.

In an article on elephant emotions, PBS wrote a section on compassion and altruism, highlighting that the creatures’ empathy is not reserved for their offspring alone. One account is of a herd who all walked extra slowly to allow a herd member who had recently broken a leg that had not healed properly to keep up with them. Another account given by a park warden is of a different herd also walking slowly to accommodate one member, this time a mother carrying her dead calf around with her. The most astonishing account of all is of an elephant who made continued attempts to rescue a baby rhinoceros that was stuck fast in mud, despite the fact that with each attempt the mother rhinoceros charged her. The author of the report mentions this account as being perplexing, but is it not like a human trying to save someone else’s child, no matter the cost?

These attempts to save another’s child, rhinoceros or human infant, not even within its own species and at potential risk to itself, illustrates that elephants encompass the highest form of altruism: a compassion that may be more than human. Elephants do not differentiate between species when it comes to their ability for empathy.

Opinion by Julie Mahfood

Follow Julie Mahfood on Twitter @Julie11153717


Times of India
National Library of Singapore

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.