About the Author

Pete Thorpe

Alumni Ranger

Pete was a Field Guide for Londolozi for 4 years, contributing to the blog as a fantastic writer as well as photographer. Right from his very first bush trip at the age of four, Pete was always enthralled by this environment. Having grown ...

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on The Mystery of The Moving Elephant Skull: Part 3

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elephants are the most interesting animals. their families are wonderful to see, their babies are without doubt the most adorable. however beyond that they have such a fascinating « culture » if you would their long term memories their knowing when someone is trying to help them and I am sure many other traits i don’t know about.i was brought up on Kipling’s The Jungle Book stories, several stories talked about elephants. how lucky you all are to be able to see them each day. thank you!

Amazing. It is so interesting. I alqays thought it was hyena moving the skulls.

Pete, glad you found who moving the skull🤗

Senior Digital Ranger

I’m glad this finally sheds some light, some interesting pictures as well. In all my years of going to the bush I’ve never seen this and I don’t recall any rangers ever discussing it so it would be interesting to know why they do this. Thanks for all the effort that was put in to documenting this, the natural world and it’s beautiful creatures fascinates me and I love learning knew things.

So fascinating! Is there any insight into how often or how long the elephants will interact with the skull? Do they investigate and move along, or do they continue to interact with the skull as it naturally breaks down?

Hi Paul,

Based on the time stamp on the trail camera videos, the elephants hung around investigating the skull for over twenty minutes. Since taking the cameras down, we have noticed the skull has moved several times again, with elephant tracks in the area. I would go so far as to say that every time elephants move past the skull, they take a bit of time to investigate it.

Amazing! Thanks Pete!

Interesting. What I find fascinating is how do they know it’s an elephant skull rather than, let’s say, a rhino skull? Does an old skull still have an elephant odor of some kind? Do they remember that an elephant died at this place? How long does the memory last? Fascinating questions!

Hi Mary Beth,

All fascinating questions which would require a more in-depth investigation to answer. I don’t think they remember that an elephant died in that spot as in this case, the carcass was dragged away from the Londolozi camp area and onto this crest (see Part 1). With their acute sense of smell, they must definitely be able to differentiate the remains of an elephant from other species. For how long though, I am uncertain.

Master Tracker

Elephants are much more thoughtful and intelligent than we give them credit for.

My heart bleeds that the CV19 will give poachers a free rein

Hi Ian,

As we continue living in times of lockdown, the anti-poaching efforts are still continuing. We hope that our mere presence in the reserve will deter any potential poachers too.

Love seeing how you all keep yourselves occupied! Cameras everywhere! In trees, flying through the air by elephants and even drones floating over lions feeding at night! Can’t wait to see what you all come up with next! 😉

Plenty more to come…

I suggested in earlier parts that it was elephants that were investigating and moving the skull. I’ve seen them mourn over the loss of a family member. It’s painful to watch so I was not surprised at all to see it was in fact the elephants moving the skull. I’m also willing to venture a guess that it is an homage or a memorializing. Potentially an elephant from their group. The one Takeaway I had initially after leaving Londolozi and I feel even stronger about it now, is that we underestimate the emotions and intelligence of these animals that live here. Their social structures are far more tightknit than many of us might have believed. I’m glad to see the mystery has been solved

Hi Andrew and Daniel,

Yes, I do believe that sometimes we do not give animals the credit they deserve in terms of their intelligence and their social structures.

Now onto the next trail camera project!

Interesting behavior elephants are so smart.

Senior Digital Ranger

Inviting Anna Breytenbach to Londolozi and having her take the guides on a safari to explain what these sentient beings are thinking and feeling and for her to answer this question, among others you might have, directly from the elephants would be an excellent education. She knows a great deal about elephants. I feel moving that skull goes much deeper than we could ever realize. However I noticed they were able to move it further with their hind legs then their trunks, which makes sense force wise. The question for me is what information are they receiving or giving with their investigation of the skull? Is it a respectful blessing to the spirit of the animal that is no longer in physical form? Is moving the skull an assistance for the spirit? Elephants having the largest brain of any land mammal, I want to know what they are thinking! But would we even be able to comprehend what their high intelligence does? Maybe not. As a species we aren’t very conscious.

Hi Johanna,

As is often the case, as one question is answered, so many more arise. If only we had a means of determining the real meaning behind all this behaviour other than just noting that it is a ritual that takes place.

Senior Digital Ranger

That is why I offered up the suggestion of inviting Anna, or even another to Londolozi. Opening our minds to the understanding of sentience and those who listen to the animals and what they have to say can teach us so much. If you aren’t familiar with her work you can check this out here… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gvwHHMEDdT0&t=17s You all may roll your eyes at this but listening to Boyd’s 40 day journey tells me there is some understanding of the greater beingness of animals there on Londolozi then just an academic zoological approach. There is a whole universe out there that few understand. Elephant wisdom is vast and these animals have so very much to teach us, not the other way around 🙂

Mystery solved! Fascinating!

Yahoo! I was correct in my last response to part two of your series that it was elephants moving the skull. I haven’t observed this particular behavior but did watch three years ago, several females hovering around an elephant skull, using their trunks to gently probe the sun bleached bones and then leaving one by one, as if their respects had been paid. Elephants are so intelligent and so caring….. what’s not to love about this mighty species! Thanks Pete for solving the mystery.

That is amazing. At first I wondered if the Elephant flipped it/moved it to smell the different parts of the skull (when it did so with the trunk), but then the Elephant kicks it! Fascinating behavior!

Very interesting conclusion, I had a feeling more than one elephant was involved. I do know that young bulls will pick and carry bones from other elephants away from the rest of the skeleton, sometimes for over a few hundred metres, and they will also break bones too. I’m wondering if this behaviour might be related to strength or dominance, or just fun.

Senior Digital Ranger

Yes, that behavior surprised me, too. I once watched a documentary about elephants and their grief for dead individuals. Everyone in the herd would touch the bones with their trunks. They’d even line up in circles and sniff one by one. But I’ve never seen anything like this. Is it possible that the elephant pushed her away with a heel because it smelled of hyenas and other predators?

Hi Ana,

It’s not possible for us to draw conclusive reasons for the moving of the skull in a basic study like this. However, I would tend to agree with Johanna above that moving the skull with the heel is probably easier than moving with the trunk. Maybe moving the skull opens up different angles for sniffing and investigating further?

Senior Digital Ranger

I had a feeling it was something “Relative,” as it’s not like “human bandits” going out committing disrespectful antics in the night. – It must make one wonder as to WHY the elephants do what they do in the night time hours verses that of during the day,.. I guess we can say that elephants not only have long term memory, but the also have they own sense of curiosity, and humor?? .. Not to mention their own language upon how they communicate within their own herd.

Hi there,

Yes it is fascinating to see what goes on at night with the use of these trail cameras. In this case on Londolozi, all of the moving took place at night. However, the videos that I was sent from a reserve just north of here took place during the day with the same behaviour being documented. So much we have to learn!

Senior Digital Ranger

Good morning Pete! .. So true! There are days when life surprises us by virtue of the saying “We learn something new everyday.” It’s just a matter of how conscious we are to be open to new “possibilities” as they present themselves to us. I would give ANYTHING to come spend time at Londolozi, to be able to see the bush for all that it is!
(I returned to college 2 years ago, so for me, I’ve made a routine of reading the daily blogs and watching the videos every morning, as it adds a profound sense of learning that expands one’s daily academic studies.) – Nature (and animal behavior) truly does provide a unique way of “installing” one’s “focusing skills,” thus creating hunger for wanting to venture to see and learn more!

Glad the mystery is solved but as you say a whole new set of questions arises.
Thank you.

interesting theory

Digital Ranger

This series was most interesting. I too have witnessed an elephant smelling, touching and moving the bones of an elephant that died of natural causes, and have photographs of the scene. I also followed the desecration of a shot elephant carcass, by hyenas, and on repeat visits noticed that the skull was continually changing positions and questioned too, “who was moving it” – at one stage I even thought it had disappeared so far away had it been moved!

Finaly the mystery is solved. My gut feeling was that the culprits were indeed ellies. Some very interesting comments here and theories as to what they are thinking. Elephants have to be the most intelligent animals in the world and their family structure is second to none. Thanks Pete and the rest of the crew for all your hard work in solving this. Be well and stay safe all of you.

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