A Tale of Legends
from the book, "Our Fascinating Earth"

Book: 
Our Fascinating Earth

A Tale of Legends

Johnny Weissmuller's original role in Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932) involved a safari searching for the legendary elephants' graveyard, which, of course, they found. This subject has been pursued in many novels and films, and there are probably still people searching for the place where elephants, as they feel death approaching, go to die. The amount of ivory accumulated there through the ages would be fantastic. The one major flaw with this legend is that the elephants' graveyard simply does not exist!

The legend undoubtedly arose from the fact that elephant remains are rarely found in the wilds. Because such massive bodies would take a long time to break down, they could not go unnoticed for long. But the scarcity of elephant remains can be explained. Old elephants often go off into inaccessible jungles to die. At times they are escorted by two bulls that support the feeble elephant by standing on either side so it can lean on them. Arriving at a satisfactory destination, usually where food and water are close at hand, the young bulls leave the ailing elephant to its fate. There it will remain until it becomes too feeble to feed, when it will quietly languish and die. Scavengers quickly reduce the carcass to a pile of bones. During the rainy season floodwaters will deposit tons of silt over the skeleton, and the chances are excellent that the elephant's bones will never be located.

When younger elephants are sick or wounded and feel death hovering, they seek out water to soothe their feverish bodies. Those that die will settle into the water, and their flesh will be eaten by crocodiles and fish. In time river or swamp silt will cover the skeleton, tusks and all.

Many native ivory prospectors, aware of this practice, have made an adequate living by prospecting along the shores of old and new rivers as well as at the sites of temporary waterholes. Through the years an enormous amount of ivory has been recovered this way. When they sell the unearthed ivory to "civilized" traders, their compensation is often somewhat below fair market value. Poaching, the ivory prospectors have discovered, is more profitable.

Scientists have observed that this tendency of elephants to seek out a waterhole during illness is quite ancient. Geologist in search of fossil elephant material, whether it be mastodon or mammoth, prospect the shores of ancient lakes. A scientist from the University of Arizona was once able to locate the remains of four mastodons in sediments deposited at the shoreline area of an extinct 500,000—year—old lake. Doubtless any mastodon feeling ill and feverish would seek the cool comfort of the waters of this lake. Those that did not recover are still there. Since this was during the middle of the last Ice Age, there were no crocodiles among the scavengers. Although fish undoubtedly feasted on the flesh, very little disturbed the bones, and they were soon buried in the ancient mud.

All this does not, however, prove that there is no such thing as an animal graveyard. Observations of animal remains indicate that possibility, as reported in the following accounts.

While serving as physician with an Antarctic expedition, Surgeon—Commander G. Murray Levick was temporarily separated from his forces at Hell's Gate near Drygalski ice barrier. To his amazement he found there what appeared to be a cemetery of seals. On a large patch of ground in front of the doctor and his companion a great number of seals were lying together, frozen solid and in many cases mummified. An examination of the bodies led to the physician's verdict that the seals