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Two real-life stories illustrating the intelligence and compassion of elephant

Elephant are among the most eye-catching and intelligent creatures on the planet. We’ve written often of the complexity to their societal design, their intelligence and their capacity to be shape emotionally; much as we are.

In many cultures, elephants are revered as symbols of wisdom, strength, and good fortune. In this article, we will explore two stories that illustrate the intelligence, the compassion, and the capacity for sympathy that is observable in elephant.

The Elephant Whisperer: gone but not forgotten

Lawrence Anthony, a conservationist in South Africa, was faced with a difficult decision when a group of wild elephant was going to be culled. According to an article posted to Guideposts and written by the wife Anthony left behind, Françoise Malby, the elephant sentenced to death were going to be killed because they were boisterous and incapable of behaving well in their present environment.

Anthony, thinking that, perhaps, all they were really displaying was discomfort in their then home, decided to rescue them and took them to his Thula Thula game reserve. There, he thought he would be able to rehabilitate and comfort them better. At first, the elephants were hostile towards their human caregivers, but over time, Anthony developed a deep understanding of their communication patterns and social structures. He was able to bond with them and even developed a method of “whispering” to them, using body language, vocalizations, eye contact, and according to his wife, even son to convey his intentions and feelings.

Lawrence’s elephants, as his wife calls them, were rehabilitated, if that’s what you want to call it. They became settled in Thula Thula; they talked with Anthony and seemed to have found peace on his game reserve. When he died, Françoise Malby documents, they came up to his house rumbling and ‘talking’, seemingly asking about his absence. Françoise Malby considers this the elephants’ goodbye.

According to his wife, every year since the death of Lawrence Anthony, on the anniversary of that first elephant goodbye, the herd comes up to the house where the Anthonys lived and they do what Françoise Malby calls a ‘procession’.

Anthony’s experience with the elephants is chronicled in his book “The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild.” The book has become a bestseller and has inspired people all over the world to view elephants with greater respect and understanding.

The Kruger Elephant Incident illustrating the compassion of elephants

In 2017, a group of tourists in Kruger National Park in South Africa witnessed a remarkable display of compassion from a wild elephant. They saw a baby antelope that had slipped and fallen into a man-made watering hole. While the impala calf floundered in the water, a wild elephant appears from off-screen, demonstrating some distress. It trots across the edge of the watering hole and (admittedly inelegantly) half pulls, half kicks the impala calf out of impending danger.

Have a watch of the video yourself, here is the link, and you’ll be able to see the urgency and end result of the elephant’s actions in saving a member of another species. (That’s even if the delicate care you might expect from a human rescuer is left a little wanting).

This incident was captured on video and has enjoyed some measure of virality. There will, of course, always be question marks over the creature’s true motives and even more over how we interpret those motives from the actions displayed. What certainly seems evident, to this writer and viewer of the video, is that the elephant displayed urgency and distress at the other creature’s danger and those two expressions in concert suggest of concern.


These stories demonstrate the incredible qualities of elephants: their intelligence and their capacity for compassion. These creatures are not just capable of capturing imaginations half a world away; they may have modes of behaviour that we would benefit from replicating.  

We have much to learn from them, and we must take great care to protect them and their habitats. As we continue to coexist with elephants, let us remember that they are our neighbours and they deserve our respect and admiration.

If you want to read more about the capacity for compassion and intelligence of elephant, read our other article on the subject: ‘3 monitored events that illustrate the intelligence of elephant’. 

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