Several months ago a large elephant bull was badly injured in what was most likely a fight with another bull. Although not territorial, bull elephants may fight to establish dominance. Depending on the size of the bulls involved and the severity of the fight, it is quite possible for the bulls to die as a result of their wounds. This is what we think happened to the elephant in question. Large puncture wounds from the tusks of another elephant had pierced his body in several places. Shortly after the carcass had been found in the northern parts of Londolozi, it was fed upon by a myriad of scavengers including lion, leopard, hyenas and vultures.

Following the death of this elephant, a myriad of animals such as hyenas, vultures and lions fed on the remains of the carcass. However, they were not the only animals interested by the remains.

A few months later, I went past the carcass again. I was amazed by how little remained of this large elephant. Only the bones were left. Looking around nearby, we noticed tracks of hyenas that had opportunistically come looking for any scraps. However, these tracks were not in isolation. There were also elephant tracks – a lot of elephant tracks, both fresh and old, surrounding the site. From the tracks we were able to deduce that each elephant had walked up to the carcass to investigate it. In fact, there were several prominent elephant pathways that had been developed which radiated from the carcass.

A number of biologists have described elephants as having “a fascination” with other dead elephants. Some have describe this as mourning, however, understanding the deeper emotional lives of elephants remains challenging.

Several biologists have noticed that elephants have what could be interpreted as a “fascination with death”. When they pass the remains of another elephant, elephants will stop for several minutes before gently caressing the bones with their trunks. This can often be combined with rumbling and signs of distress. In some cases, it has even been observed that elephants may cover the bones of another with grass or sand, even if this elephant was not part of the same herd. What is of much interest is the fact that elephants don’t show this interest toward the carcasses of other species. In fact, studies have shown that elephants spent twice as much time around the bones of elephants than those of either rhino or buffalo. In other cases, observed by Joyce Poole, a well known elephant biologist, it has been seen that an elephant cow stayed with her stillborn calf for over two days, desperately trying to resuscitate it.

In this image an elephant carries the skull of a white rhino in its trunk. Studies have shown that elephants spend twice as much time caressing and smelling the carcasses or bones of another elephant than those of rhino or buffalo.

We cannot claim to know what elephants are thinking. However, there does appear to be a clear interest shown by elephants toward the carcasses of other elephants. Although we may not yet fully understand its cause, there is something going on.

Several experts have suggested that this kind of behaviour is not based on survival or necessity, but could very well be based on emotion. This is where things become difficult, because this is not easily explained in simple terms and is not easy for us to confirm. Whether or not this is any form of mourning or grieving is difficult for us to know for sure. We know that elephants possess a large volume of cerebral cortex – the part of the brain that processes memory, consciousness and awareness. However, the deeper emotional lives of elephants remains largely a mystery. After all, we cannot claim to know what elephants are thinking. Despite this, there does appear to be a clear interest shown by elephants toward the carcasses of other elephants. Although we may not yet fully understand it, there is most certainly something going on.

Filed under Wildlife

10 Comments

on Elephants And Carcasses – A Complex Affair

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Senior Moment
Guest

The picture does raise the question of the so called “legal” ivory trade.

Frances Fearnhead
Guest

I remember having the very same experience once in Addo where an elephant had died naturally and the rest of the herd were seen to be mourning, touching and caressing the carcass. Not only emotional for the elephants but for observers too.

Lynn Rattray
Guest

Excellent post!

denise huxham
Guest

I once saw a heart-rending scene at Londolozi, where a very weak calf’s mother and the females in the herd, tried to get him to stand between the mother’s front foot and that of another female, facing one another. The mother put her trunk down her mouth, and tried to revive the calf with liquid. There was a pack of lion circling, and overnight the herd left. The next morning the mother was very distressed, the calf had died, but she was still keeping the lions at bay. Did I ascribe feelings to her frantic efforts? She seemed very sad and desperate.

Jill Larone
Guest

Shaun, thank you for a very interesting post. It’s so fascinating watching and learning about Elephants. The more we learn, it seems the more we need to learn about these very complex old souls.

Russ Considine
Guest

Very interesting article and wonderful photographs. Thank you for sharing Shaun!

Wendy Hawkins
Guest

Thank you Shaun for the interesting blog! I have a question that I am not sure if you will answer, what happens to the tusks of this & any from elephants that die of natural causes??

TED SWINDON
Guest

HI SHAUN,
THANK YOU FOR A VERY INTERESTING BLOG AND FOR SHARING YOUR WEALTH OF KNOWLEDGE ABOUT ELEPHANTS.
LOOKING FORWARD TO SEEING YOU IN A FEW WEEKS.
KIND REGARDS,
TED.

Vicky Sanders
Guest

My understanding is any tusks or fragments found are turned over to the proper authorities for burning.

Lea
Guest

Beautiful blog Shaun. It does appear that ellies have a mourning over their departed brother or sister. Ellies are gentle giants and appear to be close knit families. Love how they all guard the younguns. Thanks for the info.

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