The legend of elephant graveyards is widespread, and goes back a long way. According to stories, elephants know when they are nearing the end of their lives. When they sense that their time has come, they journey off alone to the elephant graveyard, where they die amongst the bones of all their ancestors (and are later visited by their descendants).
Part of the appeal of the story is romantic, of course, but an equally compelling reason behind the legend’s persistence (and one that leaves a bit of a bad taste in your mouth) is that the “elephant graveyard” is a little like an El Dorado to the listeners. Finding such a place would mean finding huge amounts of ivory…and therefore, huge amounts of money.
The Chagga people, who have always lived on Kili’s slopes, have their own special twist on the tale. According to their myths, there is an elephant graveyard high upon the slopes of Kili, beyond the snow line. When elephants in the region realize their time is near, they climb the mountain and fling themselves into a pit, where hundreds of their forebears have gone before.
Why such a dramatic end for Kili elephants? Because, according to the legend, these creatures want to foil the hunters and poachers that hounded them in life. By flinging themselves into this unreachable pit, they not only die among their ancestors, they get to give one last “screw you” to would-be poachers. Some versions of the legend even claim that no one who finds the graveyard can take away the tusks and live; the place isn’t just remote and forbidding, it’s cursed.
The idea of elephants flinging themselves off mountainsides might seem like fodder for a giant, wrinkly-grey soap opera, but it may not be far from the truth. Elephants have lived on Kili for thousands of years, and though populations on the mountain have dwindled, there is still evidence of herds in the forests.
Moreover, there’s some evidence for the icy-cold graveyard theory. In his introduction to the book Kilimanjaro: To The Roof Of Africa, famed photographer and filmmaker David Breashears tells of the time he heard stories of elephant bones high on Kilimanjaro… and eventually found a skeleton 15,000 feet up the mountain.
Was it cursed? Nobody knows; Breashears didn’t try to take it down with him.