The elephant has one of the most closely knit societies of any living species. Elephant families can only be separated by death or capture. Cynthia Moss, an ethologist specialising in elephants, recalls an event involving a family of African elephants. Two members of the family were shot by poachers, who were subsequently chased off by the remaining elephants. Although one of the elephants died, the other, named Tina, remained standing, but with knees beginning to give way. Two family members, Trista and Teresia (Tina’s mother), walked to both sides of Tina and leaned in to hold her up. Eventually, Tina grew so weak, she fell to the ground and died. However, Trista and Teresia did not give up but continually tried to lift her. They managed to get Tina into a sitting position, but her body was lifeless and fell to the ground again. As the other elephant family members became more intensely involved in the aid, they tried to put grass into Tina’s mouth. Teresia then put her tusks beneath Tina’s head and front quarters and proceeded to lift her. As she did so, her right tusk broke completely off, right up to the lip and nerve cavity. The elephants gave up trying to lift Tina but did not leave her; instead, they began to bury her in a shallow grave and throw leaves over her body. They stood over Tina for the night and then began to leave in the morning. The last to leave was Teresia.
Because elephants are so closely knit and highly matriarchal, a family can be devastated by the death of another (especially a matriarch), and some groups never recover their organization. Cynthia Moss has observed a mother, after the death of her calf, walk sluggishly at the back of a family for many days.
Edward Topsell stated in his publication The History of Four-Footed Beasts in 1658, There is no creature among all the Beasts of the world which hath so great and ample demonstration of the power and wisdom of almighty God as the elephant Elephants are believed to be on par with chimpanzees with regards to their cooperative skills
Elephants are thought to be highly altruistic animals that will even aid other species, including humans, in distress. In India, an elephant was helping locals lift logs by following a truck and placing the logs in pre-dug holes upon instruction from the mahout (elephant trainer). At a certain hole, the elephant refused to lower the log. The mahout came to investigate the hold-up and noticed a dog sleeping in the hole. The elephant only lowered the log when the dog was gone.
Cynthia Moss has often seen elephants going out of their way to avoid hurting or killing a human, even when it was difficult for them (such as having to walk backwards to avoid a person).
Joyce Poole documented an encounter told to her by Colin Francombe on Kuki Gallman’s Laikipia Ranch. A ranch herder was out on his own with camels when he came across a family of elephants. The matriarch charged at him and knocked him over with her trunk, breaking one of his legs. In the evening, when he did not return, a search party was sent in a truck to find him. When the party discovered him, he was being guarded by an elephant. The animal charged the truck, so they shot over her and scared her away. The herdsman later told them that when he could not stand up, the elephant used her trunk to lift him under the shade of a tree. She guarded him for the day and would gently touch him with her trunk