The short answer is yes, elephants have been observed crying. The more complicated answer is that we can’t be sure they cry for the same reasons as humans.
Elephants are very intelligent creatures with complicated social relationships and have been shown to grieve, express empathy and even understand language. While we know elephants definitely exhibit these complex behaviours, we can’t say for certain whether elephants cry as an emotional response.
The weeping elephant
There have undoubtedly been reported cases of elephants crying during very emotional events. In 2013 the heartbreaking story of a newborn elephant rejected by it’s mother reported that the infant elephant cried inconsolably for five hours. Even though this is a rare example, it’s hard to ignore evidence like this and treat it as a coincidence when we know how smart elephants are.
In 2014 Raju the elephant became famous after he was freed from a live of nearly 50 years of slavery. It was widely reported at the time that Raju cried with happiness as his chains were cut by rescue workers. Raju’s story had a happy ending though, two years later he had gained over a thousand kilos and was living peacefully in Mathura, India.
Elephants as emotional creatures
So there’s certainly some compelling examples of elephants crying to express their emotions, however these are rare occurrences and there are also many examples of elephants in very emotional situations not shedding any tears. So it seems the jury is still out on this question for now.
It is worth noting that whilst research into the emotional lives of animals is still ongoing, the general trend seems to be that humans are not so unique as we would like to think. As we gain a better understanding of the inner workings of the animal mind, don’t be surprised to find that elephants are a strong candidate for sharing many of the complex emotions and behaviours that humans do. Current observations of elephants and their behaviour could suggest that their internal state of mind is not as far from how we experience the world as some might think.
The absence of tear ducts
There is possibly a simple biological reason as to why elephants may sometimes be seen crying. Unlike many other mammals elephants don’t have tear ducts, this means when there is moisture in their eye it has no way to drain away other than evaporating or rolling down the elephant’s face.