The elephants’ graveyard

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In The Lion King (1994), the famous Disney animated film, young lion Simba is tricked by the villain, Scar, and finds himself with his friend Nala in the unsettling elephants’ graveyard: hundreds of immense pachyderm skeletons reach the horizon. In this evocative location, the little cub will endure the ambush of three ravenous hyenas.

The setting of this action-packed scene, in fact, does not come from the screenwriters’ imagination. An elephants’ graveyard had already been shown in Trader Horn (1931), and in some Tarzan flicks, featuring the iconic Johnny Weissmuller.
And the most curious fact is that the existence of a mysterious and gigantic collective cemetery, where for thousands of years the elephants have been retiring to die, had been debated since the middle of XIX Century.

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This legendary place, described as some sort of secret sanctuary, hidden in the deepest recesses of Black Africa, is one of the most enduring myths of the golden age of explorations and big-game hunting. It was a true African Eldorado, where the courageous adventurer could find an unspeakable treasure: besides the elephants’ skeletons, the cave (or the inaccessible valley) would hold such an immense quantity of ivory that anyone finding it would have become insanely rich.

But finding a similar place, as every respectable legend demands, was no easy task. Those who saw it, either never came back from it… or were not able to locate the entrance anymore. Tales were told about searchers who found the tracks of an old and sick elephant, who had departed from the herd, and followed them for days in hope that the animal would bring them to the hidden graveyard; but they then realized they had been led in a huge circle by the deceptive elephant, and found themselves right where they started.

According to other versions, the elusive ossuary was regarded as a sacred place by indigenous people. Anyone who approached it, even accidentally, would have been attacked by the dreadful guardians of the cemetery, a pack of warriors lead by a shaman who protected the entrance to the sanctuary.

The elephants’ graveyard legend, which was mentioned even by Livingstone and circulated in Europe until the first decades of the XX Century, is indeed a legend. But where does it come from? Is it possible that this myth is somewhat grounded in reality?

First of all, there really are some places where high concentrations of elephant bones can be found, as if several animals had traveled there, to a single, precise spot to let themselves die.

The most plausible explanation can be found, surprisingly enough, in dentition. Elephants actually have only two sets of teeth: molars and incisors. Tusks are nothing more than modified incisors, slowly and incessantly growing, whose length is regulated by constant wear. On the contrary, molars are cyclically replaced: during the animal’s lifespan, reaching fifty or sixty years of age in a natural environment, new teeth grow on the back of the mandible and push forward the older ones.

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An elephant can have up to a maximum of six molar cycles during its whole existence.
But if the animal lives long enough, which is to say several years after the last cycle occurred, there is no replacement and its wore-down dentition ceases to be functional. These old elephants then find it difficult to feed on shrubs and harder plants, and therefore move to areas where the presence of a water spring guarantees softer and more nutrient herbs. The weariness of old age brings them to prefer regions featuring higher vegetation density, where they need less to struggle to find food. According to some researchers, the muddy waters of a spring could bring relief to the suffering and dental decay of these aging pachyderms; the malnourished animals would then begin to drink more and more water, and this could actually lead to a worsening of their health by diluting the glucose in their blood.
Anyways, the search for water and a more suitable vegetation could draw several sick elephants towards the same spring. This hypothesis could explain the findings of bone stacks in relatively circumscribed areas.

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A second explanation for the legend, if a sadder one, could be connected to ivory commerce and smuggling. It’s not rare, still nowadays, for some “elephants’ graveyards” to be found — except they turn out to be massacre sites, where the animals were hunted and mutilated of their precious tusks by poachers. Similar findings, back in the days, could have suggested the idea that the herd had collected there on purpose, to wait for the end to come.

But the stories about a hidden cemetery could also have risen from the observation of elephants’ behavior when facing the death of a counterpart.
These animals are in fact thought to be among the most “intelligent” mammals, in that they show quite complex social relations within the group, elaborate behavioral characteristics, and often display surprising altruistic conduct even towards other species. An emblematic example is that of one domestic indian elephant, employed in following a truck which was carrying logs; at the master’s sign, the animal lifted one of the logs from the trailer and placed it in the appropriate hole, excavated earlier on. When the elephant came to a specific hole, it refused to follow the order; the master came down to investigate, and he found a dog sleeping at the bottom of the hole. Only when the dog was taken out of the hole did the elephant drive the log into it (reported by C. Holdrege in Elephantine Intelligence).

When an elephant dies — especially if it’s the matriarch — the other members of the herd remain around the carcass, standing in silence for days. They gently touch it with their trunks, as if staging an actual mourning ritual; they take turns to leave the body to find water and food, then get back to the place, always keeping guard of the body. They sometimes carry out a sort of rudimentary burial practice, hiding and covering the carcass with dry twigs and torn branches. Even when encountering the bones of an unknown deceased elephant, they can spend hours touching and scattering the remains.

Ethologists obviously debate over these behaviors: the animals could be attracted and confused by the ivory in the remains, as ivory is used as a socially fundamental communication device; according to some researches, they show sometimes the same “stupor” for birds’ remains or even simple pieces of wood. But they seem to be undoubtedly fascinated by their counterparts, wounded or dead.

Being the only animals, other than men and some primate species, who show this kind of participation in death and dying, elephants have always been associated with human emotions — particularly by those indigenous people who live in strict contact with them. There has always been an important symbolic bond between man and elephant: thus unfolds the last, and deepest level of the story.

The hidden graveyard legend, besides its undeniable charm, is also a powerful allegory of voluntary death, the path the elder takes in order to die in solitude and dignity. Releasing his community from the weight of old age, and leaving behind a courageous and strong image, he proceeds towards the sacred place where he will be in contact with his ancestors’ spirits, who are now ready to honorably welcome him as one of their own.70

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