strange behaviors

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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Watching an Elephant Die

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 5, 2014

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Filmmaker Mark Deeble has a post about the unsettling experience of seeing a bull elephant fall before his eyes in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park, a victim of the escalating war on elephants:

Recently, we went on a recce [reconnaissance] for the film. The destination was a distant waterhole. We set off early. It was a typical Tsavo waterhole – seemingly hewn out of ochre. That warm glow seemed reflected in the animals that, as we watched, came to drink. A magnificent bull elephant, encrusted with dry mud, stood beside a tamarind as if surveying his personal fiefdom. He seemed unimpressed by the flights of sand-grouse that tumbled from the sky, briefly patterning his skin with their whirling shadows. They sipped twice, sometimes thrice, and clapped their way back into the sky. As they disappeared into the expanse of the Taru desert and their whistling blended with the day’s first gentle movement of air through the acacia thorns, the bull stepped forward to drink. He drank calmly and deeply. He might have traveled thirty miles to reach the water. He wasn’t going to hurry now. He’d drink a while and then rest in the shade, and then drink again as the shadows lengthened – or so we thought. What actually happened was that he drank deeply and stepped away. He faltered briefly and then suddenly collapsed. His legs spasmed as he thrashed in the dust – and within minutes he was dead.

It was utterly shocking.

Our plans for the day changed rapidly after that. A call to KWS/ DSWT vet Jeremiah Poghon resulted in an impromptu postmortem beside the waterhole.  He removed the head of a poisoned arrow that had been embedded in the bull’s flank, and released over 100 liters of pus from the hidden infection –  the result of the bull’s encounter with a poacher months before.

We’d watched the bull through binoculars before he fell and there was no noticeable sign of injury. It chills me to think how many others there may be like him, walking around, apparently fine, until the poison or infection finally catches up with them.

Read the full blog, with interesting stuff on the methods of modern poachers, here.

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