Do elephant graveyards exist? Were they a myth? How has elephant culture changed?

Answer by Rory Young:

The poor old girl in the right of the picture above has a blocked uterus. She was darted and treated by a vet who did what he could but she continued to decline. Every time I visit this area to train rangers and guides I both dread being asked to shoot her and also wish I could just end her suffering.

It is always easy to find her. She hardly moves more than a kilometer or so from this stretch of shoreline. The reason she doesn't move away is that this is the easiest place to feed.  There is a lot of mopane and a few other tree species as well as some panicum and cynoden grass  which appears as the water level drops at this time of the year.

Normally she would travel long distances to get the variety of plant species necessary to get all the nutrients she needs. By not moving she is eating much less than she needs and also not getting enough nutrients. Furthermore, species such as Mopani are known to pump tannins into their leaves making them bitter so as to fend off over-browsing. More importantly these tannins are not healthy for the poor girl.

Sadly she is slowly but surely starving to death. It is debatable as to whether she will be shot or euthanized in some other way as her illness is considered natural and therefore the policy is that nature should take its course.

Either way it is most likely that she will die on this area of the shore and her bones will lie there for some time to come.

In the same picture in the distance can be seen a group of elephants. Their location is the picture below where the remains of an elephant that died two years ago are to be found and which can be seen in the below image. Most likely they were examining the bones which is normal behaviour for elephants when they come across elephant bones.

They will carefully smell them with their trunks and then pick them up and carry them for a while before dropping them. This behaviour has been well studied and documented by Joyce Poole in Kenya. (Please see…).

This poor animal was wounded by poachers and moved to the same area before dying on the shore. Most likely it went to this location for the same reasons; the best food option and close to water.

You cannot see in the picture that the bones are not spread
being spread out but bones can be found as far away as the small patch of water in the in the upper right hand part of the image.

By contrast the remains of the elephant in the picture below, that was killed by poachers about nine months ago are still all together. When you compare the two pictures it is easier to see how the bones in the above picture have been more spread out.

In the below picture of an elephant killed by poachers about three years ago you can only see a few larger bones at the site of the horrible crime. Wandering around the area now bones can be found several hundred metres away.

All of these sites are within a couple of kilometers of each other. There are others in the same area that died both of natural causes and of course by poachers' bullets. Over time the bones get moved by elephants especially but also by the elements and even other animals that gnaw on the small bones to get calcium such as porcupines, tortoises and most notably giraffes (it is quite surprising to come across a giraffe sucking a bone believe me. However, giraffes are not found in the area that the pictures were taken which is the Omay district middle Zambez-Kariba area.

Imagine now you came wandering along a few hundred years ago and had little knowledge of elephant behaviour which was very much the case in the West until very recently, and suddenly you came across numerous scattered bones from a number of different elephants. Considering the reputation elephants have always had for great intelligence, then it would not be unreasonable to assume that the animals had come here to die.

In reality they came to this place to try and survive but didn't make it.

Another reason that the myth most likely developed is the mass die-offs during drought periods especially in arid areas when the few water holes that sustain the elephants have dried up. This has been recorded many times, especially in the Namib desert of Nabiaand the Kalahari desert in Botswana.

Lastly I must add that today elephant graveyards are a very real and tragic reality. They are a result of the sickening and fast spreading practice of poachers poisoning waterholes.

Most recently this was done in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. I was initially shocked and horrified to hear that eighty elephants had been killed in one incident. However, the number has continued to climb and today I learned that the tally has now reached 300 elephants of all ages; complete herds.

Very, very soon there will only be elephant graveyards to be seen and no more living ones.

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