Where Do Elephants Go to Die?
Groups of elephants have been found buried together both in Africa and Asia. The nearness of the animals to each other may be no more than a coincidence. The areas may be no more than sites, since elevated and dried, where elephants have been drowned in bogs or while crossing rivers.
However, many people will argue that old elephants, when their end is near, resort to their legendary “graveyards”. An elephants’ graveyard is a place where, according to legend, older elephants instinctively direct themselves when they reach a certain age. They then die there alone, far from the group.
Several theories are given about the myth’s origin. One theory involves people finding groups of elephant skeletons together, or observing old elephants and skeletons in the same habitat. Others suggest the term may spring from group die-offs, such as one excavated in Saxony-Anhalt, which had 27 Palaeoloxodon antiquus skeletons. In that particular case, the tusks of the skeletons were missing, which indicated either hunters killed a group of elephants in one spot, or else opportunistic scavengers removed the tusks from a natural die-off.
Other theories focus on elephant behavior during lean times, suggesting starving elephants gather in places where finding food is easier, and subsequently die there.
The myth was popularized in films such as Trader Horn and MGM’s Tarzan movies, in which groups of greedy explorers attempt to locate the elephants’ graveyard, on the fictional Mutia Escarpment, in search of its riches of ivory. Osamu Tezuka’s Kimba the White Lion episode “A Friend in Deed” centered on it.
More recently, the 1994 Disney animated film The Lion King; as well as the Broadway/West End musical adaptation; referred to the motif. In “Fearful Symmetry,” an episode from The X-Files which revolves around a mysterious invisible elephant, a character refers to the mythical concept as fact.
Prolific elephant hunter Walter “Karamojo” Bell discounted the idea of the elephant’s graveyard, stating that bones and “tusks were still lying about in the bush where they had lain for years”.
The discovery of the remains of a solitary elephant is rare. On the other hand a body in elephant country would usually soon disappear owing to the activities of natural scavengers. Most experts will accept that there is much truth in the old saying “an elephant never forgets”.
It does have a retentive memory. Also, when an elephant is dying it is not uncommon for members of the herd to gather round and try to revive it. When all hope is lost they encircle their relation as if in mourning at a funeral.