Where do elephants go to die?

December 11, 2016 | Author: | Posted in Environmental

It is often said that the remains of elephants that die a natural death are never found in their native haunts and that the question is a mystery to scientists. Numerous hunters have reported that they never have found the skeletal remains of elephants in the jungles. An Englishman, who had charge of the capture of elephants for the government, said he had never found the carcass of a dead animal. The natives in the elephant country in Africa and Asia say all wild elephants go to certain secluded spots to die. These supposed graveyards of elephants are known in legend as “Valleys of Ivory.” The existence of these elephant graveyards appears to be confirmed to the satisfaction of many Europeans in those regions by the fact that from time to time natives bring in old tusks that they say they got “in the bush.” Many ivory hunters have dreamed of finding one of these places with their untold wealth of tusks. Needless to say, the belief is a myth. There is no great mystery as to what becomes of dead elephants. In the first place, comparatively few wild elephants die of old age. Most of these animals sooner or later fall a prey to their only enemy, man. Collectors for the Museum of Natural History report that the bones of wild animals are rarely found in Africa. The same is true in most other regions. There are several reasons for this. Wild animals commonly attempt to hide when they feel death approaching. Even domestic dogs often conceal themselves when sick. Elephants are no exception to this rule. They usually die singly and far from the settlements. In some cases they may even seek relief in the rivers and are carried into the sea after death. Elephant fossils have been found in soil once covered with water. Climatic conditions in Africa and southern Asia cause the carcasses to decay rapidly. The natives, carnivorous animals, carrion birds and swarms of insects make quick work of the flesh; rodents frequently contribute to the rapid disposal of the bones. Thus an elephant that dies in the jungle would quickly disappear. After the bones are cleaned of their flesh they are soon scattered far and wide. Within a year or two the remaining parts, such as the skull and larger bones, are completely overgrown by mosses, underbrush and other vegetation. In fact the factors contributing to the elimination of such remains are so numerous and work so rapidly that it is not surprising that elephant bones are not a common sight. Dr. William M. Mann, former director of the National Zoological Park in Washington, said when he was in Africa in 1926 his guide took him to a place where a hunter had killed a large elephant only the year before. A part of the skull and a couple of widely separated bones were all of the remains that could be found. But Theodore Roosevelt, in African Game Trails, referring to burnt-over places in the Lado, wrote: “Here and there bleached skulls of elephants and rhino, long dead, showed white against the charred surface of the soil.” Speaking of the “wild llama” in Patagonia, Charles Darwin wrote in The Voyage of the Beagle: “The guanacos appear to have favourite spots for lying down to die. On the banks of the St. Cruz, in certain circumscribed spaces, which were generally bushy and all near the river, the ground was actually white with bones. On one such spot I counted between ten and twenty heads. I particularly examined the bones; they did not appear, as some scattered ones which I had seen, gnawed or broken, as if dragged together by beasts of prey. The animals in most cases must have crawled, before dying, beneath and amongst the bushes. Mr. Bynoe informs me that during a former voyage he observed the same circumstances on the banks of the Rio Gallegos. I do not at all understand the reason of this, but I may observe, that the wounded guanacos at the St. Cruz invariably walked towards the river. At St. Jago in the Cape de Verde Islands, I remember having seen in a ravine a retired corner covered with bones of the goat; we at the time exclaimed that it was the burial ground of all the goats in the island. I mention these trifling circumstances because in certain cases they might explain the occurrence of a number of uninjured bones in a cave, or buried under alluvial accumulations; and likewise the cause why certain animals are more commonly embedded than others in sedimentary deposits.”

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