One of the long-standing mysteries of the Indian jungle is that bodies of elephants that have died natural deaths have hardly ever been found. The carcasses found have invariably been of elephants killed by poachers, by other elephants in fights over the favors of a female, and rarely by a tiger. Elephants are also run over by trains and killed. There are also many reports of elephant deaths in mysterious circumstances, but again, hardly any bodies of elephants that died natural deaths have been found in the Indian jungles. Of course, domesticated elephants do die well-documented natural deaths, but I’m referring to natural deaths in the jungle.
I found a discussion of this question in The Call of the Man-Eater by Kenneth Andersen. Yes, it’s an old book, but I doubt new light has been shed on this problem. Here is how Anderson puts it:
No discussion about elephants would be complete without a mention of that intriguing question: where do elephants die? A wealth of superstition and conjecture has arisen over this question in all countries in which these ponderous animals exist in their wild state. In Africa, for a long time, they believed in the existence of secret elephant cemeteries, and more than one expedition has set out to find the treasure in ivory that must be there. But none succeeded.
Anderson has found elephant bones in the mud of the Cauvery river when the water level dropped abnormally during an excessively hot summer. From this, he hypothesizes that elephants, who are fond of water and are excellent swimmers, drown in rivers when, enfeebled by advancing age, they are unable to keep themselves afloat while swimming. It’s certainly as good a theory as any.
I recently read about an elephant attack in the popular Masinagudi forest reserve in Tamil Nadu: Colin Manvell Trampled to Death by Elephant. This tragedy reminded me of what Anderson wrote about elephant attacks in the aforementioned book:
Elephants are most careful when going downhill, not to trip or slip for fear of breaking a leg. They are very conscious of their weight and the injuries they may incur by falling on a decline, or by placing a foot in a hole, or by stepping into a bog or mire and becoming stuck. For this reason, if a man is chased by an elephant, he has a far better chance of escaping by running downhill, rather than uphill or on the level. Elephants cannot jump, either horizontally or vertically, for at no time will they trust themselves with all four feet off the ground. For that matter, they do not run in the accepted sense of the word, but use a fast shuffling stride which might reach a speed of a little over fifteen miles an hour. They can maintain this pace steadily for some time. A fairly good runner can outpace a pursuing elephant for a reasonable distance, but it is problematical how long he could maintain his lead, particularly when fleeing through dense or thorny jungle, among tree trunks, clumps of bushes and especially thorns. Precious time is lost in going around such obstructions , and considerable damage is done to one’s person and clothing in trying to negotiate the barrier, while the pursuing pachyderm just crashes through.
In one of his books, I remember reading about a foreign tourist and his aboriginal guide being chased by an elephant in the jungle. The aboriginal did not abandon the tourist, but urged him on. At one point, when the elephant was dangerously close and gaining on them, the aboriginal asked the tourist to throw down the white solar hat he was wearing. He did this, and the elephant stopped and tore the hat to shreds. In the meantime, the duo made good their escape. According to Anderson, the elephant hates the color white, and the elephant was probably chasing the tourist to destroy his hat — not the tourist himself. This is the reason why milestones in areas known to harbor elephants are colored yellow and black, not white and black; the authorities have discovered that elephants uproot the milestone colored white and black.
Elephants have an extraordinary sense of smell, and if the wind is blowing from you to them, they can detect your approach a couple of miles away. And this reminds me of another Anderson story I haven’t been able to trace yet, but I remember reading it as a schoolboy. This was a bullock cart driver being chased by an elephant. The elephant was gaining on him, when the resourceful man took off his head gear and threw it down. The strong human scent from the head gear infuriated the elephant, and he spent some time destroying it before resuming the chase. The man shed one item of clothing after another as delaying actions and thus made good his escape.
You must now be wondering what connection the photo that tops this post has to do with elephants. Well, Keralites love to wear white, as you can see in the photo. And Kerala abounds in domesticated elephants used for a variety of tasks, from hauling timber to temple processions. Don’t these elephants get enraged by all the white clothes they see around them? Perhaps domesticated elephants have got used to the color.
I’d better add that normal elephants are rather cowardly animals that will slip away when they spot a human being in the jungle rather than risking a confrontation. The exceptions are a rogue elephant that has taken to killing humans, an elephant in musth (sexual excitement in male elephants), a lone tusker, and a female elephant with calves.
Also, elephants can move around noiselessly in the forest if they wish to, thanks to their padded feet.
And that reminds me! I have a theory about where elephants go to die. My deduction is based on this sentence from The Call of the Man-Eater: “When an elephant collapses after being shot, the most certain indication that he is really dead is the protrusion of the penis to its fullest extent outside the sheath.”
I think elephants, being the sagacious and dignified animals they are, know when the sands of their allotted time on Earth are running out. Rather than embarrass the females in the herd by making a public spectacle of that which should be normally be tucked away discreetly between their legs, they make their way to the nearest river and drown themselves. This became a tradition among male elephants that the female elephants too began to follow in a spirit of camaraderie.
The human male, I’m sorry to report, would have no such compunction about letting it all hang out. 🙂