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Elephant Mourning

Using tea pots to explore whether elephants get angry when humans interfere at elephant grave sites 

Elephants appear to mourn their dead kin, often returning to carcass sites for months after an elephant’s death. We recently noticed that elephants that return to grave sites sometimes behave aggressively towards our equipment, pulling camera traps down from trees and flaring their ears at the chicken-wire exclosures. This behavior could be a response to any human intrusion, or it could be due specifically to human meddling on a carcass site. We are interested to find out!

An elephant get upset at a camera trap; you can tell by the flared ears 


The last picture on a destroyed camera trap we found  at a research site (grave site)

We designed an experiment to test whether elephants are more responsive to human activity on carcass sites than on non-carcass sites. At a dozen of the carcass sites, we placed a piece of rebar in the ground and attached an aluminum teapot. These shiny metal objects, along with our distinct human smell, send a clear signal to elephants that we have spent time at those sites.


We also placed the same objects randomly in the field (at non-carcass sites) about 20 m away and placed motion-activated cameras in trees to record any interactions between elephants and the metal objects. Footage from these cameras will allow us to compare elephant behavior between carcass and control sites, revealing whether living elephants respond more aggressively towards human disturbance on sites where elephants have died.


What we placed at elephant grave sites

What we found when we came back!

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