WARNING: This page is not for the squeamish. The photos get a bit gross.
If you have already visited the Elephant Page, then you know how much I came to love the elephants of Africa. It was very sad to come upon a dead one in Chobe National Park in Botswana. According to our guide, the young elephant had apparently died of natural causes.
Vultures and marabou storks, scavengers, had already taken up residence in the nearby trees, but they had to wait for a larger beast (such as a lion or hyena) to tear the body open before they could feast. (These scavengers strike us as repulsive, but they are an important part of the African ecosystem and they ensure that everything gets recycled. Hyenas will even eat all but the largest bones, to the point where their droppings are white with calcium.)
As we watched, a small herd of elephants began to move through the area. One adult stopped to examine body, touching it with its trunk and giving it a nudge with its foot in the hope of getting a response. Perhaps it is too much anthropomorphizing, but I certainly felt that I saw a look of sadness in the adult's eyes. After several attempts, the elephant gave up. Meanwhile, a baby elephant had been watching the ritual. As the adult moved away, the youngster went over and repeated what he had watched his mother do.
Richard D. Estes, in his excellent book, The Safari Companion: A Guide to Watching African Mammals, talks about similar behavior. Referring to a scene where the matriarch of a herd has been killed, he writes: "The most touching proof of the cooperative nature of elephant society is attempts to raise and support a fallen group member, one on each side." (p. 126)
For a somewhat happier view of elephants, check out the photos of two groups of elephants greeting each other in the Masai Mara of Kenya.