Elephants’ Graveyards ~ Treasure-troves of ivory ~ Did they once exist?

Elephants’ Graveyards. Fact or Fiction?

The fable of elephants’ graveyards is long established in European and Middle-eastern storytelling. It was probably most popular when elephants were still portrayed as dangerous beasts that should be killed on sight and, as a reward for such hazardous work, the hunter would be rewarded with the valuable tusks. Writers such as H. Rider Haggard, whose stories I loved as a teenager, made the killing of elephants for their ivory a perfectly acceptable way for an English gentleman to restore the families’ fortune.

I have always loved elephants, even my tiny clique of friends when I as ten years old was called by ourselves, ‘The Elephant Gang’, though it is probable that none of us, in 1947, had ever seen a live elephant! When I came to do the research for my novel, God’s Elephants I frequently came on references to these fabled graveyards and looked into these to see if there was any truth in these legends. The idea that elephants knew that they were dying and made their way to some sacred spot, did not seem to be supported by the evidence but that did not prevent me incorporating the concept into my novel. (Authors are allowed by tradition to do this.)

There was evidence that considerable numbers of tusks had been found massed together in various parts of Africa and this has been explained by the following. Elephants live for about sixty years and during this time they grow and wear-out six sets of teeth. Unlike our teeth, theirs move forward in their jaws and are ground down by chewing on hard wood and by the soil attached to the roots of the grass they eat. As each set of teeth wear out they are replaced by a new set which move forward to replace the worn-out ones. Eventually, there are no new sets and the elephant starts to die of starvation. When the ageing elephant can no longer chew the usual foliage, it makes for a swamp where the reeds are soft enough to eat with bare gums and the water and mud support its tired old legs. Eventually it dies there, as did generations of elephants before it, its body eventually sinking below the surface and decaying or being eaten by crocodiles and catfish. After considerable time even the bones break down and only the almost indestructible tusks are left on the bed of the swamp.

Here they accumulate over centuries until a climate change or an alteration in the flow of a river leave the swamp to dry out, exposing the tusks which could be lying there in their hundreds or thousands. It is easy to see how the discovery of such a horde could lead to the legend of ‘ A Place Where Elephants Come to Die’. And in a literal sense it was true.

I also found another more prosaic reason for tusks to be gathered together in one place. Throughout most of Africa, dead wood is rapidly devoured by termites, often called ‘white ants’. Cattle-owning tribesmen would build stockades of wooden posts around their villages to keep out lions and other predators. These would last only a few years before being eaten away by termites and would then have to be replaced. If a native found a tusk, or more probably a pair of tusks, lying in the bush where an elephant had died or been killed, he and his fellow villagers would carry or drag the tusks home and plant them upright in the stockade to replace failing timber posts. Eventually the whole stockade would consist of vertical tusks, immune to the predatory termites and a sound defence for the villagers and their stock for generations.

Such large rings of tusks would last for centuries and, if the village was wiped out by disease, a natural disaster or an attack by an enemy tribe, then the ring would, over many years, collapse into a circle of tusks lying in the encroaching bush. The huts and other structures made of wood and thatch would by then have long disappeared. Finding such a circle of tusks in uninhabited country could easily have contributed to the legends of Elephant Graveyards.

It is a sad fact that such tusk-protected villages were sometimes found by Arab slave-traders who realised the value of the tusks themselves and who increased their trading profits by forcing the enslaved natives to carry the tusks to the coast on their way to slavery.

In my novel, God’s Elephants, the local San Bushmen, at some unspecified time in the past, worked with the local elephants to create a place safe from such robbery by slave traders and ivory hunters. The elephants call it ‘The Place of Peace’ and do make for it when they know that their lives are coming to an end.

Ivory is special in some difficult to describe way. Even though one knows that an elephant has died to provide the tusk from which some artefact or trinket has been carved, one cannot help feeling that the substance itself has some magical quality.

(Writers have a name for a concept or idea that is central to their story – a conceit. I was unaware of this until I started writing and it does mean something other than the usual meaning of this word.) One of the conceits in God’s Elephants is that elephants generate so much love that they store the excess in their tusks and they believe that humans have so little love in their lives that the reason they kill elephants is to steal theirs.

Wildlife films of elephants finding dead elephants with intact tusks, frequently show the live elephants running the tips of their trunks along the tusks of the dead ones as if they were reading some message hidden there. A second conceit in my book is that the life of an elephant is recorded in their tusks and the life-story of a dead one can be ‘read’ by a living one.

My fictional elephants also believe that a very special elephant, that they call Tembo Jay, lived among them some 2000 years earlier and taught them how to live by the mantra, ‘Be Kind, Be Gentle and Be Fair’. But that’s another story!

Actually, it’s not – it’s an important part of this one.

Click here to learn more about God’s Elephants.

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