Eleven wild elephants have drowned while trying to save each other after a baby elephant slipped from a waterfall in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand.
Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) say that the incident came to light in the early hours of Saturday, October 5 when elephants were heard loudly calling at the bottom of the Haew Narok waterfall, meaning "Ravine of Hell" or "Hell's Abyss" in Thai.
After arriving on the scene, they noticed that a 3-year-old baby elephant had drowned in the river below. Rescues teams initially spotted six elephants dead in the water after evidently attempting to reach the young calf, according to park authorities.
A drone survey of the area later revealed the bodies of five more elephants further downstream, thought to be involved in the same incident.
Meanwhile, two adults were saved by Thai wildlife authorities (pictured below) after becoming stuck on the cliffside of the water, also attempting to reach the others below. Although they are still suffering from distress and exhaustion, the DNP said the pair are in safe hands and receiving veterinarian attention.
"It's like losing half your family," Edwin Wiek, the founder of Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, told BBC News.
"There's nothing you can do, it's nature, unfortunately," he added.
Khao Yai National Park is part of the UNESCO Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex, home to hundreds of wild Asian elephants, along with many other species including macaques, gibbons, porcupines, reticulated pythons, and Chinese water dragons.
Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) are listed as an endangered species on the IUCN Red List. One of the more recent estimates, from 2003, of the global population size suggests there are between 41,410 and 52,345 Asian elephants left. However, the population is known to be shrinking and remains extremely fragmented across the Indian subcontinent and southeast Asia.
It’s very easy to anthropomorphize the behavior of animals, especially in heartwrenching situations such as this. However, elephants are truly emotionally intelligent creatures that are known to display empathetic behavior and even express “grief” at the loss of a herd mate or family member. Researchers have documented wild elephants, albeit African elephants (Loxodonta africana), mourning dead relatives by quietly standing around their body and closely inspecting the bones with their trunks. If scientists are interpreting this behavior correctly, it could suggest that elephants are among the few animals that have some understanding of death.