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.
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.
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.
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.