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Elephant - Where is the Cemetery ?

Elephant Cemetery

The discovery of black Africa by the Europeans and, above all, the large herds of elephants that roamed it caused many rumors. It was said that when it feels near death, the animal retires to a secret place to end its days among the remains of its already dead fellows. These cemeteries would overflow with ivory.

Ivory mountains at the bottom of dark forests

One of the first travelers to mention such places is, in the nineteenth century, the famous explorer David Livingstone who tirelessly travels the continent. He is the author of many studies on African geographical curiosities and his stories help to create a legend.

Some African traditions report that elephants, on the approach of death, abandon their herds and, guided by their instinct, or the collective memory of the species, gain a place known to them alone. Arrived at this ancient burial place, where the bleached bones of their ancestors were crammed on acres, the pachyderms would lay there to die of a last sleep. This behavior would be especially that of the wisest elephants: the oldest males, that is to say, beasts whose tusks can exceed 3 meters in length and weigh more than 100 kg. We understand why, from the second half of the nineteenth century, many hunters, driven by the hope of making their fortune or by mere curiosity, risk their lives and their money in expeditions destined to find these famous cemeteries of elephants.

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Disappointing cemeteries

The occasional discovery of piles of elephant skeletons confirms explorers' belief that cemeteries overflowing with precious ivory are indeed real. However, the existence of these piles of bones does not imply any premeditated behavior on the part of the animals.

When all the defenses have disappeared, we can conclude that they are remnants of a massacre organized long ago by poachers and made possible by the massive introduction of firearms in the late nineteenth century in black Africa. If, on the contrary, the defenses are always attached to the skulls of animals, these collective deaths can be explained by a natural drama. Indeed, it happens that, during a very long drought, a flock is unable to continue its journey to more lenient places and dies of weakness and hunger.

In other cases, quicksand is an unrelenting trap for these animals, which can reach more than five tons.

Elephants go to bed to die

In the twentieth century, thanks to the knowledge acquired on the behavior of elephants, the legend finds a rational explanation. Christian Zuber, specialist of photographic safaris and wild animals, finds that the teeth of old elephants present a dramatic wear when the animal reaches the age of 55 to 60 years, wear which generally condemns it to starve. It also happens quite often that the worn teeth of old solitaries are attacked by enormous cavities that make the animal mad with pain. But like many other big African animals (like the rhinoceros), the elephant instinctively looks for a cure for wounds and pain in muddy water. Exhausted, it can not always come out of the swamp after soaking its painful mouth for a long time and it goes to bed to die. Water points are rare in the savannah, so we find together the carcasses of many elephants in the same place. Elephants often old and, therefore, with imposing defenses ...

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Ivory, an exceptional material

Extremely mineralized tissue constituting the teeth of vertebrates, ivory is fossilized quite easily. The one used by humans comes generally from elephant tusks (whose trade is today totally banned) and mammoths.

Symbol of purity. Christians associate it with the Virgin Mary. For a long time, the defenses are attributed various magical virtues, especially when it comes to the tooth of the narwhal, a cetacean of the polar seas that can reach up to 3 meters long. Its unique horn is long confused with that of the legendary unicorn. The narwhal ivory is also known in the Middle Ages for its ability to detect poison in food.

Artistic support. During prehistory, ivory, just like bone, is used for artistic purposes. Then we find art on ivory, from Greenland to China, passing by the edge of the Mediterranean.

The real elephant cemetery

Huge ivory fossil tanks in Siberia have been supplying European markets, including London, since the 18th century.

Siberia - as well as Ukraine - is a fabulous reservoir of mammoth tusks. Not that there exist "cemeteries" in the strict sense of the term, but the basement is dotted with tusks and buried skeletons. Exploited since prehistoric times - a village 15,000 years old with houses made of bones and mammoth tusks was discovered in 1966, 150 km from Kiev, Ukraine. This ivory has been marketed for at least a thousand years. It was searched systematically from 1722, following a decision of Tsar Peter the Great.

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