Elephant graveyards is the stuff of legends, and the scene of drama in the animated movie, The Lion King, but are they real?
Yes, and No.
It does happen that you come across carcasses during your game walks and drives on a South African safari. These are usually the work of predators, or nature taking its course and elephant bones are particularly noticeable.
Firstly, their large size makes them easy to spot, and secondly an elephant carcass is not as easily dealt with by scavengers. The larger bones of the elephant’s skeleton are usually left to whiten in the sun for many years before they decompose.
Because they are left ‘lying around’ for longer it can seem that elephant bones are more plentiful in certain areas. This, coupled with the knowledge of the animals’ intelligent nature is what lead to the belief that elephants travel to a certain area to die.
This is where the concept of the elephant graveyard does ring true in a sense.
In most cases, elephant bones are found near water. This is due to several reasons.
Elephants depend on large amounts of water and plant material to sustain them. For this reason, weak, aged, sick or wounded elephants will not travel far from reliable sources of water and food.
It makes sense then, that when their time comes they are found close to the resources which sustained them during their final weeks.
Waterholes are also a favorite spot for predators to lie in wait for their next meal, and while it is rare for lions to attack elephants, it does happen.
During times of drought, water sources dwindle, confining elephants to ever smaller areas. Those that don’t make it to the rainy season will often perish alongside these dried up springs.
Diseases and epidemics can also cause large numbers of elephant to die in one area.
Elephants are naturally curious and will investigate any elephant skeletons that they come across, sometimes carrying the bones around. Giraffes are known to gnaw on the bones and scavengers disrupt the smaller ones.
For this reason, elephant bones can be scattered over some distance, making it seem like there is more than one skeleton present.
While large gatherings of elephant skeletons have been found, there is no evidence that suggests all elephants travel to one place to die. This is a legend started by fortune-hunters of old in search of a large cache of easy ivory pickings.