Many of us remember the first time we saw Simba and Nala brave the ruins of the elephant graveyard in The Lion King, feeling as though we, too, were being pursued through the tangled bones by hyenas. Is this just a story of adventure and treasure, or are elephant graveyards actually real?
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Where Does the Elephant Graveyard Story Come From?
- So, Is the Elephant Graveyard Story Actually True?
In this post, we’ll discuss where the story of elephant graveyards comes from, as well as some true and untrue elements. Whether you’re reading this for the history or chasing the nostalgia of the classic movie scene, hopefully you’ll gain some interesting answers. You may also be interested in these other questions about death.
Where Does the Elephant Graveyard Story Come From?
The elephant graveyard story comes from bits of fact and fiction that have been woven together over time. For quite a while, the stories have existed to both tempt and deter ivory poachers in Africa. Regardless, coming upon hundreds of elephant remains would be astonishing for anyone, ivory aside.
The stories were told to poachers, mainly, to lure them into an inescapable area of the dangerous African wilderness—essentially, letting nature take care of them. After all, they were there based on greed instead of exploration, anyway. The story of elephant graveyards will likely continue as long as there are interested parties, including poachers.
In the following sections, we’ll discuss the nature of elephants, as well as some other animals. You’ll see that elephants’ caring dispositions have fed into the idea that they may want to be among their own to die.
The nature of elephants
One factor that helped perpetuate the stories about elephant graveyards is the nature of elephants themselves. Elephants are known for being intelligent but mysterious animals that care deeply for their own. Elephants are even widely believed to care for humans and express empathy for them.
Like us, elephants mourn and even “bury” or sit with the remains of both elephants and humans. Elephants are just one of many animal species who seem to grieve. Another animal famous for funeral-like activities is the crow. And, like elephants, crows are known for being incredibly intelligent. You can read more about crow funerals on Cake, too.
Of course, these sensitivities, as well as elephants’ “pack mentality,” contribute to the belief in large-scale elephant graveyards. It was historically quite common to come across several carcasses, or more, in one area. However, it’s not quite right to assume that elephants travel to a specific place to die.
Unfortunately, elephants are often forced into a given area based on environmental or human factors, which aren’t always one and the same. Granted, elephants do make efforts to migrate under certain circumstances. In the section below, we’ll dive into a bit more of the truth and fiction of elephant graveyards.
So, Is the Elephant Graveyard Story Actually True?
Both fortunately and unfortunately (depending on how you look at it), the mythical elephant graveyard story is not true.
However, countless elephants have died over the years due to upsetting circumstances, and not entirely due to natural causes. And it’s a bit more palatable to think that elephants are choosing to pass away amongst their own, rather than just passing away in large numbers in a relatively small area.
As we mentioned before, it’s been reported that elephants linger among their pack’s remains if they come across them in their path. But they don’t necessarily go out of their way to do so.
On that note, how do people who live near elephants deal with any bones they may come across? Are there any customs? Interestingly enough, friends of the animals, such as camel herders and locals, fill the empty eye sockets of skull bones with seeds and grasses as a way of showing respect. This treatment borders on ceremonial, and it’s in stark contrast to the activities of hunters and poachers.
In the following sections, we’ll discuss environmental factors, human interference, and other challenges that contribute to elephant deaths and, inadvertently, elephant graves. Depending on which subspecies of elephant you’re thinking of, the immediate threats vary slightly.
To begin, elephants don’t seem to choose when or where they die or where their remains rest. For there to be true elephant graveyards, or for them to be as mystical as the stories suggest, there would have to be a finite destination or, at the most, a handful of destinations.
Instead, elephants often end up dying in the place where they had the most hope for survival. This is quite the opposite of what some stories may have suggested, in which elephants would choose to lie down for a final time in a secret oasis.
Of course, they don’t always choose these “survival spots” so wisely. Often, older, ill, or injured elephants sometimes don’t have a choice but to stay in one general area. It’s likely, too, that they choose a spot with other elephants, whether or not they’re family.
The fact is, larger concentrations of elephant bones in a given area often occur due to environmental circumstances, such as droughts, bad weather, or a poor choice of a watering hole. For example, remains are often found near Lake Rudolf in Kenya, as the water is extremely salty and dehydrating.
Of course, there have been more sinister occurrences of elephant graveyards and massacres, such as when poachers killed 300 elephants in one month in Bouba Ndjida National Park in Cameroon. On another occasion, 41 elephants died in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park after poachers poisoned the animals.
In these cases, elephant graveyards become not tales of mystery and wonder, but instead, of hard truths and human interference in the lives of a beautiful and valuable species. Unfortunately, despite an international effort to ban ivory trade, elephants are still being poached, though in lesser numbers.
In other instances, elephants and humans clash in Africa over land. Elephants sometimes damage crops and even raid farmland. The farmers often retaliate, killing the elephants on some occasions.
Currently, African elephants have the status of “vulnerable,” whereas Asian elephants have the status of “endangered.” This is because Asian elephants’ habitat is diminishing at a faster rate than African elephants are being poached.
Though an endangered status is technically more severe, it doesn’t spare African elephants from the risk of extinction. Fortunately, many research, rescue, and conservation efforts are being made to help elephants everywhere.
“Elephant’s Graveyard,” the play
There is a true, different kind of story originating from Tennessee. A play called “Elephant’s Graveyard,” based on the true-life tale, is still produced today. The events took place in a small town off a railroad stop of Kingsport, Tennessee, in 1916.
A five-ton Asian elephant, Mary, lovingly nicknamed “Big Mary,” and later, “Murderous Mary,” was unfortunately left in the care of an under-qualified trainer at the Sparks World Famous Circus show. On the trainer’s second day of work, he was killed by Mary. In response, Mary was put to death in nearby Erwin, Tennessee.
Everyone Has Questions About Death
Whether animal or human, death (and how we all deal with it) borders on enigmatic at times. There are countless variables to consider, from how we die to how we mourn or host memorials or celebrations.
End-of-life planning and questions surrounding death don’t have to scare us. Instead, it can feel like an important adventure of discovery (unlike the hunt for an elephant graveyard that doesn’t truly exist). And if revisiting “The Lion King” causes any children in your life to ask questions about death, here are some tips for discussing death with kids.
When it comes down to it, none of us have all the answers. But sharing discussion, compassion, and sensitivity can go a long way. Growing more comfortable, or at least OK with death, doesn’t have to happen overnight, but it can happen one step at a time. For example, you can learn more about free end-of-life planning tools as well as the concept of death positivity right here on Cake.
- Pierce Jessica. “Do Animals Experience Grief?” Smithsonian Magazine. 24 August 2018. www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/do-animals-experience-grief-180970124/
- Turner Bambi. “Are there really elephant graveyards?” HowStuffWorks. 15 April 2015. animals.howstuffworks.com/animal-facts/are-there-really-elephant-graveyards.htm
- “Still poached for ivory.” World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). wwf.panda.org/knowledge_hub/endangered_species/elephants/african_elephants/afelephants_threats/
- “The status of Asian elephants.” World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Winter 2018. www.worldwildlife.org/magazine/issues/winter-2018/articles/the-status-of-asian-elephants