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Unravelling ceremonial calf burials among Asian elephants in Northeast India
  • Parveen Kaswan,
  • Akashdeep Roy
Parveen Kaswan
Indian Forest Service
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Akashdeep Roy
Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Pune

Corresponding Author:[email protected]

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Rampant environmental change and forest destruction push elephants, both Asian and African, to explore human spaces to fulfil their dietary and ecological requirements. Many ‘novel’ elephant behaviour in sharing spaces come to the limelight. Elephant calf burial is reported in African literature but remains absent from the Asian context. We concretely report calf burials by Asian elephants in the eastern Himalayan floodplains of the north Bengal landscape. The study area consists of fragmented forests, tea gardens, agricultural lands, and defence establishments, among others. Tea gardens form the majority of elephant corridors, and we explain the burial strategy of elephants in the trenches of tea gardens. We present four case reports of calf burials by elephants. We aimed to understand the perimortem strategy and postmortem behaviour of Asian elephants. The major findings reflect that the carcasses were carried through trunks and legs for a distance before burying in a ‘legs-upright-position’. We further investigated the underlying reason for calf deaths through postmortem examinations. Direct human intervention was not recorded in any of the four deaths. Through opportunistic observation, digital photography and fieldnotes, and postmortem examination report, we suggest that the carcasses were buried in an abnormal recumbent style irrespective of the reason for calf deaths. Through long-term observation, we further report that the elephants in this region clearly avoid the paths where carcasses were buried, attributing to “bad milestones” and “bad omens”. We discuss and connect the literature of two distinct elephant species and also compared thanatological studies of other sentient nonhuman species. Keywords: Thanatology, animal behaviour, Asian elephant, calf burial, eastern Himalayas, tea gardens