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Species of Generosity

definition of generous

a: liberal in giving

b: marked by abundance or ample proportions

c: characterized by a noble or kindly spirit

The definition of generous brings a certain animal to mind—one who is “marked by ample proportions” and characterized by a “noble or kindly spirit.” That animal, if you haven’t already guessed it, is an elephant. Although it’s widely understood that elephants are highly intelligent and lead complex social lives, a lesser-known fact is how empathetic they can be. Time and time again, elephants have shown their generous and “liberal in giving” nature.

According to a report by the Greater Good Science Center, behaving generously is an evolutionary adaptation shared by many species. But why? Some theories include reciprocal altruism (I scratch your back, you scratch mine), kin selection (helping relatives who share the same genes so they can propagate them), or even group selection (improving the herd’s chance of survival). For humans, culture is also an evolutionary force for generosity, since societies that promoted altruism would have had a higher survival rate that those who didn’t.

But we are not the only species to have created cooperative social systems. A study from 2008 collected the observations of several scientists over a 35-year period to document elephant behavior that suggests they have an empathic understanding of the physical and emotional states of others. Examples from the study include elephants comforting the distressed with physical touch, babysitting calves and showing them care, and even using their trunks to remove darts from each other’s bodies.

If you love elephants for their affectionate nature, as I do, you may have even noticed instances from the news that reflect the behaviors these researchers are describing. I’ve selected a few of my favorites to share here. Collectively, they say a lot about elephants, whose kindness is so great it can even transcend species.


Acoustic biologist and founder of the Elephant Listening Project Katy Payne tells NPR’s On Being about an experience she had observing African forest elephants.

We witnessed the death of a young calf, a yearling calf, on the clearing right in front of our observation platform. This baby had come in with her mother repeatedly. She was very thin and weak, and on that day we knew she was going to die. She lay down and within a couple of hours, indeed, she had died. We were keeping a video record. It was very painful and hard for us to do so, but we did this for the rest of the day and all the next day. And during that time, more than 100 elephants, unrelated to the calf, walked past the place where the little corpse lay on the ground. Every single one of them did something that showed alarm, concern, or somehow showed they were aware of something novel that they were approaching. Some of them took a detour around. About a quarter of them tried to lift the body up with their tusks and their trunks, sometimes trying over and over again. One adolescent male attempted to lift up this little corpse 57 times and walked away from it and came back five different times. These elephants were not related.


In her book, Coming of Age with Elephants, elephant researcher Joyce Poole shares an anecdote about a ranch herder whose leg was broken by a matriarch in an accidental confrontation (retold in 2013 by The New Atlantis).

When his camels wandered back without him in the evening, a search party was sent out. He was eventually discovered under a tree, attended by a female elephant who fiercely prevented anybody from approaching. As they were preparing to shoot her, the herder frantically signaled for them to stop. When they were finally able to draw her far enough away for them to go and get him, he explained that, after the elephant had struck him, she “realized” that he could not walk and, using her trunk and front feet, had gently moved him several meters and propped him up under the shade of a tree. There she stood guard over him through the afternoon, through the night, and into the next day. Her family left her behind, but she stayed on, occasionally touching him with her trunk. When a herd of buffaloes came to drink at the trough, she left his side and chased them away. It was clear to the man that she “knew” that he was injured and took it upon herself to protect him.


At the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, an unlikely friendship formed between Tarra the Asian elephant and a dog named Bella who wandered onto the property. A 2011 report by CBS tells how Tarra seemed to have brought Bella's body home after she passed away.

They were so close, in fact, that when Bella got injured a few years ago and had to spend three weeks recuperating in the sanctuary office, guess who held vigil outside the entire time? Twenty-two hundred acres to roam free, and Tarra just stood waiting. Home video of their reunion shows how inseparable they'd become and remained, right to the end. Last week, sanctuary workers found Bella's body. By all indications she'd been attacked by coyotes. Whether Tarra witnessed it, tried to intervene or was too late - no one knows. All they do know is that where they found Bella is not where she was attacked. "When I looked around and saw there was no signs of an attack here. No blood, no tuffs of hair, nothing," said director of elephant husbandry, Steve Smith. "And Tarra, on the underside of her trunk, had blood - as if she picked up the body."


In a 2011 feature in National Geographic, a keeper from the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust notes how ex-orphan Edo kindly escorts a youngster—not yet ready to leave the nest—back home.

An orphan named Irima was just over three years old and still milk dependent when he insinuated himself into a wild group near Voi, a stockade where orphans are introduced to the wild. After five days the Voi keepers heard a series of frantic, high-pitched elephant trumpets coming from the direction of an electrified fence. "Irima must have told the group that he still needed his milk and orphan family and wanted to go back, so Edo [a former orphan] escorted him home," Voi's head keeper, Joseph Sauni, recalls. "The keepers opened the gate, and Edo escorted Irima all the way back to the stockades. Edo drank some water from the well, ate some food, and took off again. Mission accomplished."


At the zoo in Seoul, South Korea, a baby elephant fell into a pond. Two adults worked together to get her out, while another elephant in the next enclosure paced frantically back and forth. As elephant expert Caitlin O'Connell-Rodwell explains to The Washington Post, although the video did not capture sounds, it was probably a noisy few moments.

When a baby screams, its mother, sisters and other adult females in the family come to its rescue. It’s obvious that these two females are particularly bonded to the baby, and I assume given the size difference and assertiveness, that the one that came running from afar is the matriarch of this small group and understands the danger and was quite agitated (most likely rumbling loudly). I also assume that the small individual that is running back and forth in the pen in the background is upset that the calf is in trouble and the others are distraught. I’m assuming that there are a lot of vocalizations cuing this onlooker’s behavior.

If you're reading this post, you probably already know that elephants are awesome.

Join our movement and help us keep wild elephants wild.

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