A mother elephant was seen carrying her dead calf along with her herd. The herd of 30-35 elephants travelled over 7 km in West Bengal's Jalpaiguri district.
A forest official said the calf died yesterday morning in the Dooars region's Chunabhatti tea garden in Banarhat block. The mother picked the calf up with her trunk and walked from one tea garden to another. Forest officers are keeping a close eye on the situation.
The behaviour caused panic among the locals as the herd walked from Chunabhatti to Ambari tea garden, Diana tea garden, and Newdooars tea garden. The calf finally laid near a bush at Redbank tea garden.
Scientists have observed this behaviour among Asian elephants in recent times. Elephants are social animals with a strong emotional response. Carrying the dead calf and walking around in a manner imitating a procession is being interpreted as an attempt to grasp the death of a child and come to terms with the situation.
African elephants are already known for mourning their dead. They sniff, pick up, and nudge at the corpse to understand the situation or in an attempt to revive the dead. It is customary for zookeepers to give herdmates a chance to say goodbye when an older elephant dies. Asian elephants are less understood in the matter as they live mostly in forested habitats. They are harder to observe.
New research co-authored by Sanjeeta Sharma Pokharel of the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute has revealed understanding the elephants' response to death might have "far fetching effects on their conservation". It makes people more compassionate toward the species.
While experts have found videos showing Asian elephants' behaviour after a herd member's death, the most striking behaviours are shown when a calf dies.
In a video uploaded on YouTube by Indian Forest Service ranger Parveen Kaswan in 2019, an elephant is seen dragging the body of her calf across a road. Based on the decomposition of the corpse, the calf has been dead for days or weeks.
Dr Pokharel thinks it is common for elephants to stay close to a corpse and mourn. But carrying the dead around in an evident show of distress is unusual behaviour. It is a hint that they know something is wrong. She added that people often talk about habitat loss. But, there is little talk about what animals are experiencing psychologically.