DISMANTLING AN ELEPHANT


NOTE: THIS ESSAY INCLUDES VERY GRISLY AND DISTURBING IMAGES: IT IS NOT FOR THE SQUEAMISH!

This elephant was taken in full accordance with both Namibian and US law. I have posted this account of my experience for its interest to hunters, especially those who would like to hunt Africa. If you aren't one of those, please go to some other site.



On July 14, 2013, I ticked off one of the items on my “bucket list”: I shot an elephant.  The story of the kill will be told elsewhere in detail, but briefly summarized, here it is:  I went to Namibia and hunted with Cornie Coetzee of Cornie Coetzee Safaris and and Karl Stumpfe of Ndumo Safaris.  We went to the eastern Caprivi Strip for this hunt: the Caprivi is the “tail” that comes off the northeastern corner of the country and is The Real Africa, tribal land and National Parks, quite unlike the rest of the country, which is mostly huge cattle ranges.


Americans are used to thinking of white-tailed deer and a few other North American species as “big game,” but as the picture shows, an elephant is BIG GAME, with a vengeance.  My bull, who was an elderly gent about 45 years old, weighed roughly six tons.  You don’t roll him over and unzip him the way you might a deer or even a moose.  It takes a substantial amount of effort and a couple of days’ work by a dozen people to process him; and furthermore, nothing is wasted, everything—including the viscera—is recovered and eaten. 

I’d shot him very late  in the day, an hour before sundown.  After the obligatory Hero Pictures, it was getting dark and we had to get out of the area because night-time is when the various predators are active, and it’s unwise to let them know that Toyota Land Cruisers may contain food. 

The Wrecking Crew: 11 sturdy lads from the nearest village.


The elephant wasn’t going anywhere and could be dealt with the next day.  Hyenas and jackals can’t get through the hide and buzzards know better than to try. The following morning I drove out with one of the camp staff who was to supervise the butchering.  The Wrecking Crew, about a dozen locals from the village arrived in a truck driven by the conservancy official.


The images show the process in graphic detail, but in essence the way it’s done is to cut out squares of hide about 4 feet on a side, lay them on the ground, start carving out the meat, and piling on the pieces of hide.  Processing just half of the animal took an entire day and they didn’t get into the viscera, either.  A second day was required to complete the work.

These men used the axes typical of the region—sort of like knobkerries with a home-forged triangular blade inserted into one side—to do most of the job.  The blades are mostly un-tempered and un-hardened and appeared to be duller than hoes.  The whirr-whirr-whirr sound in the video clips is someone “sharpening” his axe with a file: that had to be done every few minutes, the blades were so soft.

One of the knives used by a skinner. Like the axes these
knives are home-made, and pretty crude. They won't
hold an edge very well and have to be sharpened
every few cuts.

First they made incisions in the skin, which is perhaps an inch and a half thick and tougher than a radial tire.  This took some considerable whanging away at the body.  The cuts were enlarged, a square of hide removed, and another piece started. This isn't surgery...nothing delicate here!

Click on the image to see the start of the process

The initial incision.

The first incision opened to allow the skin
to be peeled back (below)

Peeling off the skin: note the man with the axe in the background:
he's starting on the ear, paying no attention to the guys next to him!
How everyone escaped injury is beyond me.


More or less simultaneously they cut off an ear to serve as a “platter” for meat. An elephant’s ear is the size of a dining room table.  I don’t know how much it weighed but one man couldn't’t lift it once it was hacked free of the head.

Click to watch the process of cutting the ear off.
The man in the blue coat is the conservancy ranger.

The severed ear


A piece of hide with the first chunk of meat on it. Not exactly what you
get at the supermarket.

As soon as a substantial area of meat was exposed, other crew members started to carve it out with knives, heedless of the flying axe blades and slashing of other knives.  Considering how dull the tools seemed to be perhaps there was less danger than it looked to me, but why someone didn’t lose an arm I’ll never know.  Meat started to pile up, and pile up, and pile up, mounded onto the hide squares and the ear three or four feet high.  As this was going on, bigger areas of skin were taken out and more and more meat was removed; by the end of the session there was, conservatively, at least half a ton of meat stacked up. 

More meat on the pile. An animal this size provides
at least 3 tons of meat, plus viscera and bones. Dozens
of piles, most bigger than this one, were left when they
finished the job.

The “backstraps” of an elephant this size are longer and wider than my kitchen counters and can’t be taken out in one piece, but there wasn’t any attempt to cut the beast into recognizable “cuts.”  Someone would simply hack out a chunk he could lift, throw it onto a meat pile, and wade back into the job.

The base of the trunk

Ready for the Chief's cook!

The trunk was separated from the head as well.  It seems the trunk is regarded as a real delicacy, and it’s reserved for the village Chief’s exclusive use.  The crew cut it off near its base and set it aside, but somewhere along the line some sly boots nipped off the two prehensile “lips” on the distal end and stashed them in the back of the truck.  I asked why and was told “Delicatessen!”  I wonder if the Chief was annoyed that someone had stolen his choicest tidbit?

Once the ribs had been exposed and some of the intercostal muscles severed, the stomach, distended by gases of fermenting food, started to push its way out.  By the time I left the bloated stomach wall had assumed the size of a weather balloon.  I shuddered to think what would happen if someone had punctured it inadvertently!  A spray of half-digested food would have been an unpleasant experience but mercifully it didn’t happen.

Note the stomach bulging out, distended with gas.
At this point the right side of the carcass has been flayed,
and the ribs have been removed: the head and both
ears are detached. Meat is piling up!


The head had to be removed, so that it could be fleshed out and the skull buried: burial hastens the process by which the ligaments holding the tusks in the jaw rot so the tusks can easily be withdrawn from their sockets.  Cornie wanted the skull; Karl wanted the front feet, so they were cut off too.  The cleaned skull would become a “visual aid” to hunters, after having been sawn in half to show the location of the brain.  I don’t know what Karl intended to do with the feet but these are often made into stools or wastebaskets.  Since this was an “own use, non-trophy, non-exportable” elephant, and these parts were useless to the conservancy, there was no problem in removing them.  They went into the back of the truck with the head.

The head detached. Below: one of the front feet, headed for
the wastebasket factory.

Getting the head into the truck bed required digging trenches
under the rear wheels to lower it; and about eight men
to lever it into place. It weighed about a ton.

The head of a de-trunked and de-eared elephant weighs roughly a ton: it took eight men to get it into the truck, and then only by dint of digging ditches below the rear wheels to lower the bed.  It was then stood up on the tusks, and rotated into position.  We drove away with the head “looking” out the back at following vehicles, which likely gave the drivers a bit of a start.


Now, remember, this was being done outdoors, and on what I regarded as a pretty warm day, though July is mid-winter in Namibia. Needless to say, since this was Africa, there were insects, especially flies, in abundance.

A small sample of the local fly population, settling onto the
distended stomach. The man in the background was the camp's
representative, who was there to supervise the recovery.

By the end of the first day, the process was about half finished and it was time to go home lest we be eaten by the miscellaneous carnivores during the night. The crew hopped into the conservancy truck that had brought them, leaving stupendous amounts of meat behind, uncovered. I asked if they weren't worried about scavengers such as jackals and hyenas eating it, and was told, "Oh, no. They won't eat much, and there's plenty left!" Indeed there was, they had that much and more still to do the next day, plus the entrails. In the context of African village life, meat is simply protein, and there's not much concern about its condition or whether it's "high." The meat is dried by hanging it on wires, and when hard it's packed away for later use. Cooking it involves boiling it in water to soften. A few maggots and some jackal saliva is simply added nutritive value.

The final image shows the work half done, at the end of the first day.  The crew had arrived at 9:00 AM and was there until dark, about 6:30.  I missed the second day.

Half done. The backstraps have been removed from the carcass
and the right side ribs as well. The distended structure is the
bloated stomach. The following day the rest of the meat was
recovered, and the bones (whose marrow has great nutritive
value) were collected, as were the entrails. Everything gets eaten:
by the time this essay is posted the only thing left for the scavengers
will be a large blood spot on the veld.