Most animals don’t seem to show too much interest in their deceased kin. Elephants are unusual in that they not only show dramatic responses to other dead elephants, but that they may also investigate the bones of other elephants long after they have died. As humans, we often associate this with our own rituals of mourning the passing of close kin. This poses the common question, do elephant graveyards exist? The answer is no.

There is no particular place that elephants will go to die. Elephant bones are large and conspicuous, and are often too large to be carried off or broken down by scavengers such as vultures and hyenas. As a result, these carcasses may have been more frequently noticed by early naturalists. Furthermore, in areas where they are threatened, older bull elephants may also move into areas where there are less people, which could have given the impression that these bulls were going to certain areas to die.

It is the fascination that elephants have with the bodies and bones of their own kin that make them so intriguing.

A few months ago we came across the carcass of a bull elephant who had been killed in a fight with another bull. Radiating in all directions from the carcass were several pathways created by elephants, but until recently we had never had the opportunity to observe what the elephants were actually doing around the carcass. A few days ago we followed a bull elephant who was walking in the direction of the carcass. At this point there was nothing left of the dead elephant apart from a few scattered, sun bleached bones. However, realizing that this may be an opportunity to record his reaction, we drove ahead and waited for him to arrive at the carcass.

The bull walked up to each bone, sniffing each with his trunk, threw the bones around and on one occasion even walked off with the femur of the dead elephant.

When the bull arrived at the carcass, he immediately hesitated and stood in dead silence. He approached the bones and began to touch and smell them with his trunk. He then gently picked up the bones and moved them around. We will never know exactly what was going through his mind, but we do know that there was some level of either excitement or distress because his temporal glands began to stream with liquid. Before leaving he began to throw several of the bones around and on one occasion even walked off with the femur of the dead elephant in his trunk.

Could this behavior just be a response to a novel object? Experiments have shown that this is not the case. Elephants tend to show more interest in the bones or tusks of other elephants than random objects or even the bones of other species. Could it then be possible that elephants could recognize other elephants from the bones? More studies have also shown that this probably not the case. In areas like Amboseli National Park, where elephant families are well known, elephants would still show the same behavior toward elephant bones, even if the dead elephant was not from the same family group.

What remains unclear is why elephants show this kind of behavior. 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 remain something that we know very little about. 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 something going on. Have you ever witnessed anything like this or have read anything that further explains this behaviour? If so, we’d love to hear from you in the comments section below so that we can delve deeper into the mystery together.

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12 Comments

on Do Elephant Graveyards Exist?

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Marinda Drake

Great footage captured on the video Shaun. I have seen elephants smell and touch the bones before. An elephant died of anthrax at the Tohongenyeni waterhole close to Mopani in Kruger in January 2013. Those bones are still around there today. The skull has moved quite a few meters into the veld. It can only be elephants moving it as it is probably very heavy. Although hyena are very strong and might be able to pick it up. There are a huge amount of elephant traffic in the area. I have read a few books that touch on this subject but no new information than what you wrote about in the blog. It is a subject thst is fascinating.

Darlene Knott

Fascinating reading! And I loved the video. You could almost feel his emotion! Thanks for sharing, Shaun! Good luck on researching this topic. I would love to see any updates.

Ian Hall

I think this response has been seen and noted before with elephants deliberately scattering bones of other elephants. Who knows what goes through an elephant’s mind?

Judy Hayden

Great story, information and photos. I have always been interested in this topic. As they say that elephants can remember other elephants as long as 25 years or more, after being separated. It appears to me that they definitely morn a loss, and part of that process is feeling and smelling the bones. The question is are they trying to identify the lost elephant as they will go back more than once to visit the grave site. In other videos I have seen, although they move the bones around, they are very careful not to step on them. A sign of respect-maybe. I would like to believe so. I dream of coming over there one day. I would like to see this in person.

Jeff Rodgers

I have seen this behavior from a bull elephant in Botswana. We watched for about 10 minutes as he picked up bones from a deceased elephant and held them high while his eyes were closed. We finally left as we felt as if we were intruding on his mourning process.

Callum Evans

I have not seen this behaviour myself, but I did know about it. On the first day of my iMfolozi Wilderness Trail, we found the old bones of an elephant bull. They had been scattered around the site, in a manner that matches your description. There was one femur that had been broken in half by one elephant, and we found 2 other bones about 500 metres up the game trail.

I am 100% convinced that elephants and certain other animals experience complex emotions like grief. I recently watched an episode of Blue Planet 2 that showed a pilot whale mother carrying her calf that had been dead for many days, with the whole pod appearing to mourn its death. And pilot whales are potentially more intelligent than elephants, so it makes sense.

Denise Vouri

Love the video Shaun. Reminds me of elephants I saw in Botswana exploring the vibes of a bull elephant that mist likely died from natural causes. The bones were in a rather secluded area of the bush leading rangers to believe he walked off to die there. The two visitors smelled around the bones, moved them around and then left. It does. Eg the question, do elephants mourn initially and then return to “graveyards “ to pay their respects from time to time. Great research project!

A B

Interesting topic..quite intrigued and would love to know further if anything more comes to light.

Joanne Wadsworth

What a fascinating video! So much is unknown surrounding this sensitive and intelligent animal.

Cynthia House

Recently I was watching an online doco about lion interactions that featured the reactions of giraffe when they came across the bones of another giraffe that the lions had killed. One by one they arrived at the bones behaving in much the same way elephants do, sniffing, looking and even nuzzling the bones. They stood around the bones looking at down at them in a clear display of some kind of awareness that almost looked liked a homage to the deceased giraffe. It was incredibly moving.

Amy Attenborough

Such an interesting topic Shauno and beautifully captured. I’ve also seen behaviour like this before at Phinda. There an elephant bull died in much the same way and whenever herds of elephants passed through the area for years after his death, they would make a detour to visit the site. There they would roll the bones, pick them up, smell them, move them, all the while sweating from their temporal glands and rumbling to one another. Truly amazing to witness.

Eulalia Angédu

Very interesting text.Elephants i suppose have very close traits with humans.They mourn,the spend time to look and gather their kin bones,that is simply incredible.Awesome text and blog. Applause
Shaun.

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