Are there elephant cemeteries

Mystery: What about the legend of the elephant cemetery

Old or sick elephants retire to an elephant cemetery to die. This mystical notion is evoked in many legends, films and books. But how do scientists explain the phenomenon?

In 1908, many elephants roamed in herds around the Ruaha River in Tanzania. When hunters target the animals, a bull is shot. He withdraws from his herd and goes to the swamp. The German African explorer Hans Schomburgk has a fever and is cured in a native village. The next day the residents tell him about the dying animal.

Schomburgk becomes curious, he watches the elephant for five days as it stands in the tough morass with tall grass. The animal is one and a half meters deep in the swamp and does not move during the whole time. The researcher is looking for an explanation, which the natives finally give him: The animals knew that they would have to die, and so they would withdraw to an elephant cemetery in the water.

The researcher describes the place in his diary with poetic words: "Here he dies, because here he can die in peace, people will never find him." On his travels through Africa, the researcher discovered another elephant cemetery.

Secluded and quiet places to die

For many peoples on the continent the belief in such cemeteries was and is widespread. In fact, in some places in the jungle you can find countless bones of elephants. It is mostly quiet, remote and swampy there. In the legends of indigenous peoples it is said: This is where the largest living land animals instinctively go when they are dying.

The Chagga tribe on the edge of Kilimanjaro in Tanzania has modified this legend a little. Beyond the snow line, there is said to be a huge elephant cemetery in an inaccessible pit. For generations, the animals have allegedly rushed into it at the end of their life. Especially so as not to become prey to scavengers after death.

Such a place would, however, attract poachers looking for ivory. But the Chagga legend describes the place as cursed. No one who finds it and steals a tusk will survive.

Elephant cemeteries exist - but for a different reason

A hidden place where the big and gentle animals retreat to die? This gruesome and at the same time romantic notion is taken up again and again in popular culture - for example in Asterix comics, in "Tarzan" blockbusters, in a poem by Stephen King and in the Disney film "The Lion King". But what is really behind the seemingly mystical legend?

Researchers do not deny that elephant cemeteries exist. In certain areas of Africa and Asia, in some places, there are actually very many elephant bones in one place. Elephants also have a motivation to retreat there. However, it is not an awareness of "I'm going to die soon." There is a banal and biological reason behind this: the animals have toothache.

Elephants spend most of their lives eating - they consume 200 to 300 kilograms of food a day. Your teeth have to do a lot. Therefore, the molars naturally renew themselves up to five times in a lifetime. However, by the age of 50 to 60, teeth are worn out. Now the animal is dependent on soft food.

Cemeteries become visible in the dry season

The elephant therefore separates from its herd and goes where there is plenty of water and soft food. This is also the place where he dies because he is old and possibly sick. Since all old elephants do this and several animals die in these areas, the bone finds pile up there.

This can only be seen in the dry season. Because when the water is high in the swamps and rivers, the bones cannot be seen. Only when the earth dries up are the skeletons of the dead elephants exposed.