National Geographic ran a special that followed an elephant herd making their trek across Africa. They were there to film all the trials and hardships the elephants faced in their journey. As the herd came across a pile of sun bleached bones, something incredible happened.
They circled the bones and started to perform what looked like a ritual for the deceased. They knew this pile of bones was a fallen member of their herd.
It was extremely moving watching the elephants perform their ceremony on TV. Elephants are not too far off from humans. They mourn their deceased kin just as we would, and it’s not just a one time occurrence. Humans visit the graves of their loved ones on a regular basis. Elephants will also visit the graves of their friends and family who have passed on. Whether they are making the long journey across Africa or living at a sanctuary in Thailand, they will pay their respects.
I never in a million years would have thought that one day I would have the chance to actually experience such an event in person, but it’s funny how life works. Years after seeing that program on the TV, I had my chance and became one of the participants in an elephant funeral.
Our last efforts
We were in the middle of our afternoon chores when they told us the news.
An older male named Ashii had laid down the night before and hadn’t gotten up since. His circulation to his legs was bad which is why he laid down.
Elephants do not normally lay down for long periods. They could potentially harm themselves due to their sheer size, and it weakens their circulation. Older elephants especially don’t like to lay down. Once down, it is a struggle for them to get back up.
ENP had a crane (donated by Bob Barker) that they would use to help lift a downed elephant, but the fact of the matter is, if that elephant doesn’t have the will to stand up, crane or no crane, you are not getting them up.
We had to try and get him propped up to relieve some of the pressure on his body from laying down and to get the circulation flowing back to his legs.
We all stopped what we were doing and started filling bags with sand. The bags would then be placed underneath Ashii’s side to prop him up.
The sun was going down soon, and we needed to act fast. This particular winter in Thailand was said to be much colder than past years. While the weather was perfect for me, the animals were feeling the extra chill in the air. We needed to get Ashii up and standing or he might get too cold during the night, and then there would be more problems.
After all our efforts, it didn’t work. He had lost his will and was ready to let go. All we could do now is gather enough firewood to keep him warm and hope he would make it through the night.
Ashii’s life at ENP
Ashii’s last year and a half was spent at Elephant Nature Park. He was found chained to a tree with his tusks cuts off. Thankfully he lived through the poaching, but he suffered from a bad infection because of it. Remember when I said ENP had been treating an elephant’s infection for more than a year? Well that was Ashii. However his infection was not the cause of his passing. He was around 65 years old.
Ashii was quite the ladies man and had many romances while at ENP. He was actually in a romantic bond with one of the lovely ladies when he passed.
Ashii passed away during the night
At 10pm that night, Ashii took his last breath. He had moved on, and the herd knew it. Trumpets rang out throughout the grounds signaling the passing of their friend. All of the elephants had been put in their enclosures for the evening, so none of them were near the area that Ashii was laying, but they knew. Their intuition is incredible!
The next morning the elephants were let out to roam the grounds again. Ashii’s girlfriend, Mae Lanna, was the first of the herd to visit him. She ran her trunk up and down his motionless body looking for a sign of life, but there wasn’t going to be one. He was gone.
Mae Lanna didn’t know what to do with herself. She started walking in circles. When her mahout tried to take her away from Ashii’s body, she would put up a fight. She did not want to leave him.
They eventually had to get her away, so they could bury Ashii’s body.
We were told that a monk would be coming out to the park and blessing Ashii before burying him, and all the volunteers were welcome to join in the ceremony.
The ceremony begins
At 10am that morning, the volunteers started making their way to the Ashii’s grave. My roommate and I were some of the last few volunteers to make their way across the grounds.
About half way to the gravesite, we hear a loud trumpet and deep low grumbling echo across the sanctuary. The group of girls about 40 feet ahead of us all stopped dead in their tracks looking to their left.
Mea Lanna was quickly making her way towards the group of volunteers, and she was not happy. The grumbling coming from her stomach was so low it could almost be mistake for a growl. I could feel the anger and sadness coming from her. She was hurting so bad, and she did not want us near her lost friend.
Kat, the mahout coordinator, jumped to the rescue and put herself between the girls and Mae Lanna. Lucky enough there was a large bush that the girls kept between themselves and the angry elephant.
One thing to always be kept in mind when working around wild animals. They are beautiful, but they can do some serious harm. Always be aware of your surroundings and always follow the rules set for visitors.
Mae Lanna’s mahout and Kat stood their ground against her and eventually she backed down, but not without making a scene. Mae Lanna tore off across the grounds charging at the herd of water buffalo who were heading towards the river for a drink.
Her best friend Medo was hanging out down by the water when Mae Lanna got there. They stood side by side as Medo comforted her friend.
The ceremony was very nice. We all lit a stick of incense and stuck it in the dirt surrounding the grave letting the smoke cleanse the air. The monk said his prayers and blessed Ashii. Lek and other crew members said their final goodbyes and placed flowers on Ashii’s body.
Everybody gave their final condolences and the ceremony was finished. We made our way back to the common area to get ready for lunch.
An elephant funeral
During lunch, Ashii’s body was covered with dirt, and the elephants were allowed to make there way to the area he was buried.
Mae Lanna, of course, was the first to go. She made her way to the dirt mound that covered Ashii’s body and just stood there. Trunk down just swaying back and forth.
A few minutes later the family group tried to join Mae Lanna in paying their last respects. Just like Mae Lanna had done earlier to the group of volunteers, she charged at the family group keeping them from getting close to where Ashii was buried.
The mothers and aunties quickly formed a protective circle around the 2 young ones, but none tried to retaliate on Mae Lanna. They stood their ground, and Mae Lanna soon returned to Ashii’s grave.
The family group did not retreat but kept their distance and gave Mae Lanna some time. After about 15 minutes, one of the young mothers walked over to Mae Lanna as if to have a conversation. She pressed her side against Mae Lanna’s and started touching her with her trunk. I saw this action before when 2 elephants were having what seemed like a conversation.
The rest of the family group made their way over one by one. They all started circling the area around Ashii’s grave. In the wild, the elephants would have picked up the bones, but since Ashii was buried, they had to make due with what was around them. They started picking up sticks and passing them to each other. They picked up tires and threw dirt from the grave in the air.
This went on for about half and hour until they were called to the river for their daily bath. The family group quickly complied, but Mae Lanna stayed until the last minute just standing over the grave and swaying.
Each day after that, Mae Lanna would visit Ashii’s grave at the same time. And again she would stand there swaying. She would hang out for an hour or so before her mahout would guide her away. It was heartbreaking seeing her standing there having lost her lover.
We had been told stories of other elephants passing at the sanctuary and how the rest of the herd reacted. One elephant visited the grave of her best friend everyday for 2 weeks. When a popular male was on his last days, all the females came through his enclosure and said their goodbyes. One even tried to get him to stand up.
It was incredibly touching to be able to see the herd mourn. I don’t think I can stress enough how amazing these creatures are. Humans could learn a lot from watching them. Like I’ve said before, they aren’t all that different from us.
Have you ever witnessed an animals showing “human” emotions? Please tell us your story in the comments below.