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What happens when an elephant dies?

Elephants boast an average lifespan of approximately 65 years or more. In Kenya, the primary cause of elephant mortality is natural, a testament to the commendable efforts of conservation organizations and the Kenya Wildlife Service. However, despite these achievements, elephants still face threats such as illegal killings for ivory and fatalities resulting from human-wildlife conflicts, a growing concern due to expanding populations and development.

This article will delve into the intricate processes that unfold when an elephant sadly passes away. It will encompass the official response from dedicated teams managing conservation areas, shed light on how fellow elephants react, and explain the substantial ecological impacts an elephant carcass has on the environment.

The official response: What happens to the tusks when an elephant dies?

After an elephant carcass is sighted, often during routine air patrols conducted over conservation areas, a ground team is promptly alerted to investigate the cause of death. The removal of the elephant’s ivory follows, with the tusks carefully transported and stored by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).

The efficiency of KWS in securely handling and storing the ivory ensures it remains out of reach from individuals seeking to traffic or sell it on the black market.

Subsequently, a comprehensive report is meticulously compiled, detailing crucial information about the carcass: its location, cause of death, the presence or absence of ivory, ivory weight, and the elephant’s gender. This valuable information aids conservationists in gaining insights into the overall health of the elephant population and serves as a useful tool for identifying trends in elephant mortality. Once conservationists have extracted all necessary information and securely stored the ivory, the natural processes, as ancient as time itself, can unfold.

Do elephants mourn?

Elephants display diverse behaviours at carcasses, including approaches, touching, and investigative responses. These behaviours occur at various stages of decay, indicating a broad interest in their dead, regardless of previous relationships. The study observed elephants “body-mounting” carcasses, walking backwards towards carcasses and touching the carcass with their feet and trunk.

The findings suggest that elephants might use these behaviours to gather information about their social context in their dynamic fission–fusion society. There is a need for further study into the apparent emotionality and inter-individual differences in elephant responses to the dead including answering questions on whether elephants culturally transmit and learn these actions.

Ecological impacts: What eats an elephant?

Elephants are significant ecosystem engineers, drastically shaping their environment through various behaviours. Their impact on the environment does not stop when the elephant dies as an elephant carcass becomes a substantial source of sustenance for a variety of animals, initiating a sequence of feeding events crucial for the ecosystem.

Usually, vultures are the first to arrive as they are able to spot the carcass from a significant distance with their powerful eyes. Unable to break the tough hide they focus on the softer areas like eyes and anus, eating any flesh they are able to access with their long necks and curved beaks.

Eventually the hyenas arrive and using their sharp, powerful teeth, and the help of high pressure building up in the elephants stomach, they will penetrate the tough elephant hide to access the belly. Now hyenas will largely dominate the feeding, while patient vultures await their turn.

Over several days, hyenas, vultures and marabou storks will feed on the carcass. As the flesh breaks down and softens, more parts of the elephant will become edible including the tough padding of the elephants feet which will be gnawed on by the visiting hyenas. Lions and leopards may investigate but often prefer fresher meals.

Large carcasses, with their abundance of meat, are especially important for vultures, whose populations have suffered due to habitat loss and poisoning. The decomposer community, such as maggots, also thrives, consuming what larger scavengers miss.

The carcass site, soaked with blood and fluids during decomposition, becomes a fertile patch, enriching the soil. The decomposing carcass attracts dung beetles and other small creatures, thanks to the contributions of visiting elephants.

Once all the meat has been stripped from the carcass, the smaller bones will be consumed by hyenas using their powerful jaws. Eventually all that is left is the large bones, skull and a highly fertile patch of ground.

In summary, the lifespan of elephants, reaching an impressive 65 years or more, reflects successful conservation efforts in Kenya, though challenges persist. The meticulous response to elephant carcasses by dedicated teams, such as KWS, ensures the prevention of illicit activities like ivory trading.

Exploring the emotional nuances in elephants’ reactions to carcasses unveils intriguing facets of their complex social dynamics and warrants further study.

Beyond individual elephants, the ecological impact of carcasses is profound, initiating vital feeding events crucial for sustaining ecosystems. Vultures, hyenas, and other scavengers converge, highlighting the interconnectedness of life and death in the natural world. The aftermath transforms the carcass site into a fertile patch, enriching the soil and attracting a diverse array of creatures, underscoring elephants’ enduring influence on the environment even after death.

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