Mourning elephant's gentle act a first
By Sheree Bega
Johann Oelofse and his team are probably the first people in the Kruger National Park to ever have witnessed it: an elephant bull removing the huge tusk of a dead elephant he was mourning and then gently laying it down.
The elephant had spent days intermittently guarding the carcass of the 55-year-old Alexander, one of the Kruger's great tuskers, from vultures after he died last Saturday, transfixing tourists and park staff alike.
Then in a chance encounter on Tuesday, Oelofse, the section ranger of Mooiplaas, and the elephant bull stumbled across each other at the roadside near the Mopani rest camp where Alexander, believed to have died of a heart attack, lay.
"As we arrived with a team of guys to remove the tusks, which is quite a job because we have to hack at the skull with axes, the bull coincidentally arrived there too.
"He had been with the carcass on and off since Monday," explains Oelofse.
"The place was covered with thousands of vultures (on Tuesday) and he really charged in among the vultures and lashed out at them with his trunk.
"He rubbed his flank against Alexander, then went to turn around and face the carcass and started wedging his tusk under Alexander's and lifting the head off the ground.
"To our amazement, he caught Alexander's tusk between his own and we heard a cracking sound as it tore from the skull and he extracted the tusk.
"Then he gently laid the tusk on the ground in front of the carcass and came walking around it."
But the bull, estimated to be in his 40s, was not finished.
"He then made a beeline for me. He's in a real grouchy mood and has been chasing the vultures. He somehow feels he must protect the carcass."
Several tourists were also eagerly watching the drama, but the bull was having none of it.
"We all had to hotfoot it down the road 50 metres. It drove us down the road, felt all over it again and stalked off into the bush. Only then would we dare go closer and remove the other tusk."
Oelofse estimates the tusk was around 2m long, but it hasn't been weighed yet.
"The elephant did the job for us (by removing the one tusk). It took us all of 45 minutes to take off the other tusk, and he pulled out the other in one languid movement."
Oelofse believes they are probably the first people in the park to witness such rare behaviour.
"I don't think anyone in the park has ever seen an elephant extracting a tusk still fresh enough to be attached to a carcass."
Elephants are known to mourn their dead.
"Even if they come across an old carcass with white bones they will fiddle with the bones and pick up pieces of bone and can even walk several hundred metres with it."
Oelofse dismisses suggestions that Alexander and the bull were old friends.
"We don't know they were friends. One thing they teach us in ecology is never to read human emotions into an animal's behaviour.
"Probably in their wanderings of this area, they spent quite a bit of time together. But the bulls are very solitary. There's no strong coalition between them. It's not like they were bosom buddies and the one was really crying out. Until we start speaking elephantese, we'll never know."
Alexander was among the biggest in the new generation of tuskers in the park, and his impressive tusks are likely to be stored in the park's ivory vault.
"We're very sad about his loss. We were very proud of him. He's specifically been in my area for a long time. We'll sorely miss the sight of him around with those magnificent tusks. It was always a thrill for us and visitors to see him."
He is also delighted that a tourist managed to photograph Alexander a mere 27 minutes before he died.
"This was an amazing coincidence. I realised this must be the closest the park has ever pinpointed the time of death of one of the tuskers to within the hour."
Park officials are awaiting the results of the postmortem.