Grieving Mother Elephant Carries Dead Calf For Days in Gut-Wrenching Photos

by Shelby Scott
(Photo by WAHYUDI/AFP via Getty Images)

A grieving mother elephant in Namibia is breaking hearts worldwide after she was spotted carrying around her dead calf for days. Images show the elephant with her trunk wrapped around of the baby’s foreleg as the rest of its body dangles.

Newsweek reports that the gut-wrenching photos were taken at Namibia’s Twyfelfontein Country Lodge. William Stegmann, spokesperson for the lodge, identified the elephant as a member of the group of the Huab River group. This herd is more commonly known as Rosy’s Group because, according to Stegmann, staff have nicknamed the matriarch Rosy.

Of the deceased calf, Stegmann said, “The baby elephant was born on 27 October, 2022 … From the first day, the baby was not very strong and struggled to keep up with the herd as they trek long distances to reach drinking water.”

The following day, one of their guides saw the baby, with the assumption it passed the evening of the 28th. The gut-wrenching photos of the elephant carrying her dead calf were taken the next day.

For several days, the bereaved mother carried the body of her offspring, only putting it down to eat. This reportedly continued for two days before Rosy chased the mother away from the calf, forcing her to move along with the herd.

Animal Experts Evaluate the Mother’s Grief-Like Behavior

Alongside animals like primates and dolphins, elephants are some of the most intelligent creatures on the planet. As such, this may contribute to the elephant’s human-like grief and her unwillingness to abandon her lifeless baby.

John Poulsen, an ecologist and elephant conservationist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, spoke out about the complex behaviors of these great creatures.

“These behaviors, like similar behaviors in primates, seem to upend the popular belief that only humans have an awareness of death,” Poulsen said. However, experts are still uncertain about the calf-carrying behavior exhibited by elephants and other animals.

“The underlying mechanism or motivation for carrying dead calves is not fully understood,” he stated.

Poulsen also argued, however, that some believe the calf-carrying rituals mean that elephants actually might not comprehend death at all. The conservationist explained further, “Ironically, the calf-carrying behavior could indicate either lack of understanding of death cues and hence perceiving it as an unresponsive calf, or perhaps might imply a ‘grief-like’ response.”

Why the Mother-Baby Bond Between Elephants Is So Strong

Whether or not the mother elephant truly recognized the death of her baby, the situation is still sad. This is especially true if you consider just how strong the bond between mother and baby elephants is.

In light of the calf’s death, experts believe the mother experienced such strong “grief” for two main reasons. The first has to do with the fact that elephants are extremely intelligent and social creatures. As such, they “show a greater awareness of death.”

The second reason is likely due to the unique bond between mother and baby. In total, elephant gestation lasts a long two years. In addition, the calf remains with its mother until it is mature enough to survive alone, and, in addition, does not reach sexual maturity until the age of 18. With those factors in mind, giving life to another being is certainly an important feat for an elephant.