It’s easy to forget human beings aren’t the only mammals who grieve.
The story of Nalakite and her three babies is a good example of the power of family bonds and what happens when those connections break.
Nalakite was an elephant matriarch. As a respected member of her herd, she exerted a lot of influence and power. This was, in part, because she’d already birthed and raised three babies.
Elephants don’t abandon their young as many other mammals do. They stick close by, teaching and guiding. In fact, when elephant females grow up and have their own babies, the mothers are the primary source of information.
So, it’s fair to say elephant bonds are extremely strong and heavy with significance.
Unfortunately, Nalakite grew sick, and her children were frightened.
In September, Kenyan bush rangers observed the elephant mother and her children (12, 8, and 2 years of age) walking in the Masai Mara National Park.
Immediately, they knew something was wrong. Nalakite was shockingly thin and had a nasty wound on her side.
As the rangers were part of a team of elephant conservationists, they knew what to do. They rushed back to the base and informed the vets of her condition. It didn’t take long for an emergency crew to be assembled.
When they saw Nalakite, they knew she’d been struck by a weapon of some kind. It’s a common occurrence in Kenya, as elephants sometimes wander too close to villages. Often, the locals throw spears, and it looked like one had hit the matriarch.
It was a very serious situation. Nalakite was found sprawled in a mud hole, unable to get to her feet. The wound was very badly infected and, without treatment, death was certain.
Yet, even knowing this, the team had to consider the decision to help her carefully. Not only is working around an elephant, even a sick one, very dangerous, but there’s also no guarantee it won’t make things worse.
It’s dangerous for the elephant too, as sedation affects all animals differently. Plus, if Nalakite could not get to her feet, she would die anyway.
After some deliberation, the team went ahead with emergency treatment. The elephant was put under general anesthetic so that her wound could be fixed. She was dosed with vitamins, pain meds, and antibiotics.
However, when it came time to wake Nalakite up, she was unable to pull herself out of the mud hole.
Throughout all of this, Nalakite’s children were kept at a safe distance so they wouldn’t cause harm to the team. Although, they could see everything that was happening and they were very upset.
Eventually, Nalakite was dragged to her feet with the help of winches and pulleys. Sadly, it was not meant to be.
Just one month later, she was found collapsed in another hole, too weak to move.
The same team returned to the spot and spent twelve hours trying to save the elephant, but there was little they could do. It was time to let nature take its course.
It was an extremely tough experience for the rescuers. However, it taught them some fascinating things about elephant emotions and behavioral responses.
For many decades, evolutionary experts have asked an important question.
Are animals capable of feeling grief?
Do they understand the death process?
After observing Nalakite and her children during those final few hours, the Kenyan team is sure of their answer.
As Nalakite faded away, her children were seen to comfort not just her, but also each other. The oldest son, especially, became very affectionate and wrapped his trunk around his two-year-old sister.
On the morning of her passing, the three calves laid next to her body for a number of hours. They would touch it softly from time to time and, occasionally, circle around it.
For the rescue team and for many animal experts, this is evidence of grieving. We know elephants share unique bonds that are unlike others found among mammals. There is compelling research to suggest they understand the difference between past, present, and future.
If this is true, it makes sense for them to understand death, because they are able to grasp the concept of something being gone.
While this story has a sad ending, the tale is ongoing for Nalakite’s children. At the moment, they are healthy, strong, and back with the herd. Hopefully, it won’t be long before they are raising babies of their own.
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