Humanosity says…Is self-sacrifice a particularly human trait? This tragic case of family members in an elephant herd drowning whilst trying to save one of their own raises questions about emotional intelligence in animals and whether they risk their lives to save each other…
Last week, Thailand suffered one of its biggest-ever single elephant tragedies, when 11 animals in one family died in a swollen river.
At first, only six elephants were thought to have died – days later another five were spotted downstream.
The initial theory from park rangers in Khao Yai National Park was that they died in a rescue mission. As they crossed the treacherous 150m-tall Haew Narok – or Hell’s Falls – a baby slipped and the others fell trying to save it.
Though the loss of 11 elephants isn’t catastrophic to the species, there is something about them that draws us in, and this apparent self-sacrifice struck a chord around the world – millions of you read our story alone.
But emotions aside, how plausible is it that elephants would have both the empathy and skill to risk their lives for a baby? And perhaps more importantly now, what does this mean for the survivors?
Dr Joshua Plotnik, assistant professor of psychology at Hunter College, City University of New York, has been studying elephants in Thailand for more than a decade.
He told the BBC that with no witnesses, we can’t assume what happened. But he says it’s “certainly reasonable to suspect that when an elephant in a family group is in danger the other elephants might do everything they can to go help”.
There is well-documented evidence of elephants recognising danger and coordinating their actions to stage a rescue.
But Dr Plotnik says it seems unlikely that they would “actively all go over a waterfall in a dangerous situation like that”.
It was more likely a terrible accident….