With more than 40 million views, this incredible National Geographic footage of an elephant carcass decomposing gives us an up-close tutorial on how nature recycles – everything! It’s not an easy watch and is incredibly sad but the natural world turns a tragic situation into a story of survival for many other species. Take note that the content is a little gory in places and may not be something that you would want to watch as you are eating your dinner!
At the start of the footage, we see an African Elephant on the verge of death. From the shape of the ears, this looks like an African Forest Elephant, which is slightly smaller than the African savanna elephant and has more oval-shaped ears which are used both for hearing and keeping cool.
Adult African Forest Elephant males can reach 3 meters in height and their tusks can be as long as 1.5 meters. Sadly, it looks like one of these tusks has caused the injury. When we first see the bull elephant in this footage, it looks as though he has had a confrontation with a larger and older elephant and has sustained a very serious injury to his abdomen. It is so bad that some of his intestines are hanging out of the wound and the poor elephant is clearly feeling weak and is leaning against a tree.
The video cuts to the following day when the elephant has died and the others are performing a ‘mourning ceremony’ where they walk backward towards the carcass, touch it with their feet and mount it. This is an extremely touching piece of film and a very moving scene to witness. At this point, we learn that this relatively young (35 years old) and smaller bull elephant has probably been killed by an older and larger male that had become very aggressive during his ‘musth’. This is a natural condition where bull elephants become highly aggressive due to their testosterone levels increasing to six times normal levels. It makes them restless and unpredictable and it can last for two or three months.
As the elephants leave the scene, the scavengers move in and the recycling of the carcass commences. It starts with hyenas who have teeth that are sharp enough to rip open the tough skin and expose the meat inside. As the hyenas move away, their place is taken by white back vultures, who feed on the exposed flesh. The vultures rely on the hyenas to open up the skin because their beaks are not strong enough to do it.
In fascinating time-lapse footage, we see the carcass slowly disappear as many different species (including bacteria) are fed by the decaying elephant. For a short period of time, this huge body becomes an ecological habitat within the larger environment, and it is comforting to know that one death can sustain so many lives.
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