The Elephants' Graveyard: undiscovered riches or a charming jungle myth?
An elderly Sri Lankan male elephant … en route to the Elephant’s Graveyard?
Having been an aficionado of Tarzan when I was a boy, the concept of the elephants’ graveyard is a familiar one. The story depicted in the 1930s movies (as I remember them - and this might not be exactly right, I saw the films over 70 years ago), was that elephants from all over Africa, feeling death approaching, would move off to a secret place and there they would die in peace. Over time, the elephants’ graveyard became a mountain of bones and valuable ivory tusks. The word got around, and serious gangsters from Chicago arrived in Africa to locate the spot and collect the ivory. Tarzan got wind of this and spiked their plans.... his noble motive being, I think, to protect the dignity of the elephants’ last resting place. Well, that’s how I remember it.
That mountain of tusks and bones is an enduring image. Other famous literary characters have also sought the elephants’ graveyard over the years, including the indomitable elephant hunter Allan Quartermain, hero of King Solomon’s Mines, perhaps the most gripping story I ever read as a schoolboy. Artists and cartoonists have always loved the images conjured up.
Poingant cartoon by Susan Brack
Looking back I can now see a lot of holes in the idea of an elephants’ graveyard. Africa is a big place, and elephants are (or were) abundant and widely distributed. The entire country has been minutely explored, and every corner of it, needless to say, has been well-known to the indigenous people for a very long time. Yet the concept has persisted. Indeed it even extended beyond Africa to India, Myanmar and Sri Lanka where the native villagers held a similar belief. [Footnote 1].
Despite its holes, the story has persisted, and was encountered and reported upon by the early European foresters and soldiers working in these countries. This is demonstrated in the following extract from an article in an 1884 edition of my favourite journal, The Indian Forester. The extract is from a long three-part article on the capture, domestication and training of elephants written by Colonel G.P. Sanderson, whose impressive title was ‘Superintendent of Elephant Catching Operations for the Government of Bengal’. It is an article full of interest, and one that left me with a great admiration for the Indian elephant, if not for Colonel Sanderson.
The Colonel begins his treatise with a comment on elephant longevity:
The age to which the elephant lives is, as must ever be the case with denizens of the forest, uncertain. The general native opinion is that they attain 120 years in exceptional cases (they have been known to reach this age in captivity), but more usually 80 years. Under the more favourable conditions of a natural life the elephant must attain a much greater age than in captivity. I think it by no means improbable, looking to their peculiar dentition and other circumstances, that elephants live to 150 or 200 years, but this view is, of course, to a great extent a supposition.
He then goes on to touch on an intriguing fact:
One of the most remarkable facts in connection with wild elephants is the extreme rarity of any remains of dead ones being found in the jungles. This circumstance is so marked as to have given rise to the belief amongst some wild tribes that wild elephant never die; whilst others believe that there is a place, unseen by human eye, to which they retire to end their days. The latter belief is untenable, as there are no parts of the forests of India that are not well known to, and occasionally visited by, the wild tribes who inhabit them.
In my own wanderings for many years through elephant jungles I have only seen the remains of one female elephant that had died in giving birth to a calf, and of one elephant drowned in a mountain torrent. Not only have I never seen the remains of an elephant that had died a natural death, but I never met anyone amongst the jungle tribes or professional elephant hunters who had.
Colonel Sanderson proceeds to quote Sir Emerson Tennent, the Irish politician and traveller who in 1845 was the Colonial Secretary in Ceylon, and later wrote a book called Ceylon – Physical, Historical and Topographical. Tennent, credited as being the first to use the English phrase “rogue elephant”, also dealt in his book with the question of dead elephants:
The natives generally assert that the body of a dead elephant is seldom or never to be discovered in the woods. And certain it is that frequenters of the forest with whom I have conversed, whether Europeans or Singhalese, are consistent in their assurances that they have never found the remains of one elephant that had died a natural death. A European gentleman, who for 36 years without intermission had been living in the jungle, ascending to the summits of mountains in the prosecution of trigonometrical surveys, and penetrating the valleys in tracing roads and opening means of communication—one, too who had made the habits of wild elephants a subject of constant observation and study—has often expressed to me his astonishment that, after seeing many thousands of living elephants in all possible situations, he had never yet found a single skeleton of a dead one, except those which had fallen by the rifle. The Singhalese have a superstition in relation to the close of life in the elephant. They believe that, on feeling the approach of dissolution, he repairs to a solitary valley, and there resigns himself to death.
I once raised this question with my friend John Robley. John had worked as a forestry officer in East Africa for many years before coming to Western Australia (where he later became a renown Superintendent of the Bush Fires Board). “There is no mystery about the missing elephant corpses” John told me, “at least not in Africa. When an elephant dies in the bush, the Africans find it. Everything is taken, and used: the meat, the offal, the skin, the tusks, the toenails, the bones. Dead elephants disappeared alright, but only because the villages valued the spoils so highly”. John went on to relate how he had once visited a remote tribe in what was then Nyasaland, and on being taken to meet the tribe’s Chief, found him ensconsed in an elaborate bone throne that had once been the head of a giant elephant.
[Incidentally, the contemporary view on elephant longevity by wildlife scientists is that the Asian elephant lives to an average age of about 70 and the African elephant on average to about 90].
The first Tarzan story (by the American Edgar Rice Burroughs) did not appear until 1912, but by then, thanks to the writings of people like Sanderson and Tennant) the myth of the elephants’ graveyard had taken hold and spread to Britain and America. It was inevitable that Tarzan would become caught up in it.
Indeed, the myth was dramatically reinforced in both of the first two Tarzan movies: Tarzan the Ape Man and Tarzan and his Mate. In the latter we were horrified to watch the bad guys deliberately shoot Tarzan’s pet elephant, but wounding it mortally, so that they could follow it as it made its inevitable way to the elephant’s graveyard. The plan works, but before they can get away with the ivory, Tarzan gallops in at the head of a cavalry charge of elephants and the whole dastardly plan is foiled [Footnote 2].
The poster for the first Tarzan movie. It introduced movie-goers to the Elephant’s Graveyard and was a powerful force in spreading the myth
Astonishingly, and still without the slightest evidence on the ground, the myth persists to this day. According to a note on the subject published by the contemporary website “Elephant News”: this legendary place is said to lure dying elephants by a supernatural force, something that can not be explained by natural or physical laws. You can say that again.
I would give the whole story more credence if it was supported in Elephant Bill by J.H. Williams, my favourite book about elephants. Williams was an ex-serviceman who, immediately after the first World War, took up a job running elephant logging camps in Myanmar (then known as Burma). He devoted his life to his elephants and developed an intimate knowledge of their diet, health, training, capabilities, breeding, loyalties and work ethic. He wrote of them with respect, admiration and affection; each working elephant had a name and a dossier recording its life history. There was no elephants’ graveyard in Burma, a concept that Williams good-humouredly discounts. He writes:
One of the most delightful myths about wild elephants is that the old tuskers and females drop out of the happy herd life when they realise they are no longer wanted, and that they finally retreat to die in an traditional graveyard in some inaccessible forest. This belief has its origin in the fact that dead elephants, whether tuskers or females, are so seldom found. I wish I could include here a description of how I had discovered one of these graveyards. But … I cannot.
Williams goes on to describe the way an old elephant will find its way to a pool in a river bed, where it eventually dies a natural death of old age, and the body is then washed away in the monsoonal floods and devoured by the many jungle animals that prey on carrion.
The best book about elephants I have ever read.
‘Elephant Bill’ Williams is a man to whom the reader warms, but this cannot be said for Colonel Sanderson, the Bengal Government Elephant Catcher quoted above. Sanderson comes through in his articles as a hard man, ruthless in his approach to pit-trapping wild elephants or capturing them in a khedda operation (where trained domestic elephants are used to “muster” wild elephants into pens). His domestication and training operations struck me as harsh and unsympathetic, first and foremost aimed at breaking the wild elephant’s spirit. Perhaps this was what was needed to domesticate a wild elephant, but I note that Elephant Bill was unenthusiastic about it. Williams’ view was that the best way to increase the number of working elephants is to let the existing captive herd breed, which they do very happily. The calves born to working mothers are far easier to train, and suffer none of the injuries (including psychological) associated with the capture and domestication of wild elephants.
Mind you, I am in no position to be judgemental, having never had to capture or train a wild elephant nor manage domesticated elephants engaged in logging or forest engineering. This distinguishes me from an old forester I once met in Tasmania. He had received his university training in Wales (at the famous Bangor Forestry School) in the 1940s, and (he told me) one of the subjects forestry students had to study in those days was “The care and management of the elephant”. In the early years after the War, the University understood that most of its forestry graduates would end up in Africa or India.
The other thing that surprises me about Colonel Sanderson was his very low opinion of the intelligence of elephants. This cuts across everything I have ever read on the subject, especially the views of Elephant Bill Williams.
I did learn, however, something of particular interest about elephant nutrition from the early journals. Elephants have large appetites and working animals required a lot of feeding. To overcome seasonal shortages, a suggestion arose that the jungle grasses could be harvested “before they were burned” and converted into silage (a form of preserved fodder), which would then be available as elephant feed for months to come. Accordingly an experiment was set up. A long pit was dug, five feet deep, and freshly cut jungle grasses laid on its floor. The layers of grass were compressed by getting an elephant to walk up and down on them. Eventually the packed grass was covered with earth until it was converted into silage, or “ensilage” as it was then called. The trial was carried out by a Forest Officer, who reported:
The elephant was fed on ensilage at 200 pounds per day. Finding that he quickly consumed the ration and still seemed hungry, the daily ration was increased to 300 lbs and then again to 400. From the avidity with which he ate it, it was supposed that it was not satisfying. This ration was continued [for another six days] when the elephant was measured. The measurement disclosed a falling-off of five inches around the fore-arm.
It was evident that the ensilage was not suitable as a ration [for elephants] and I therefore directed that he should revert to his normal food.
It seemed to me very appropriate that measurement of an elephant by a forester, used to measuring trees, should be made in terms of the girth of the foreleg. Unfortunately he does not say that the measurement was made at ‘breast height’ (1.3m from the ground, the conventional point for measuring trees), but I think this can safely be assumed.
For the last word on elephant eating I return again to Elephant Bill.
In the 1940s when the invading Japanese Imperial Army was threatening to take over Burma’s logging elephants for military purposes, Williams organised and then led a famous evacuation of women, children and elephants from Burma across the mountains into Assam. Later he returned with the XIVth Army, leading an elephant company, which did wonderful work building roads and bridges, and helping the troops cross rivers, as the Japanese were driven out of Burma. Of the work of Williams’ elephant company, General Slim later wrote:
They built hundreds of bridges for us, they helped to build and launch more ships than Helen ever did for Greece. Without them … our advance to [Burma’s] liberation would have been slower and more difficult ..
In the most trying parts of the long and difficult evacuation to Assam, the elephant convoy was led by a mighty tusker called Bandoola. Indeed Bandoola, with his courage and leadership, deserved as much credit for the success of the operation as Williams. Arriving eventually in Assam, the evacuees camped for a while in a plantation owned and run by a European tea planter. During their first night Bandoola got loose and found his way into a pineapple grove full of ripening fruit.
After his recapture the next day it was estimated that Bandoola had eaten 900 pineapples in a single night. According to Williams he subsequently suffered from “colic”, but soon recovered.
I could not help thinking that a lesser animal than Bandoola, with 900 pineapples fermenting in his stomach, might well have sought directions to the nearest elephant’s graveyard.
1. An elephants’ graveyard in Sri Lanka would have been valueless, as Celanense elephants have no tusks. At one time, biologists regarded the Sri Lankan elephant as a fourth species (after the African, the Asian and the Congolese Pygmy Elephant), but today it is classified as a variant of the Asian elephant. Some male Asian elephants in India and Myanmar also have no tusks.
2. An interesting echo of the elephants’ graveyard myth crops up in an early Phantom comic, published at about the same time as the first two Tarzan movies. In the 1935 story titled The Singh Brotherhood, the American adventuress Diana Palmer (later to become the Phantom’s wife) discovers the graveyard of the whales. This was a spot deep in the ocean where whales came to die, and at the graveyard there were accumulations of “tons of ambergris”, worth a fotune. The Phantom foils the plot by the Singh pirates to pillage the graveyard, rescues Diana and is pleased to have preserved the dignity of the old whales.
Diana Palmer, in a bathysphere, discovers the graveyard of the whales
I enjoy a good Phantom comic, but they are not a credible source of information about the natural world. Nevertheless, it is striking how the myth of the elephants’ graveyard not only persisted but was translated into a new myth altogether in comic book literature.