Investigation process

Updated on 19 November 2015

This is an introduction to the process of investigation – the minimum steps one can follow to examine cause of death, age and sex, and other information. Many, if not most, elephant skeletons and carcasses disappear before their discovery. Elephant death reports must be supported by credible and observable evidence – this checklist is only applicable when some or all of the skeleton or body is available (not necessarily at the point of death). This includes tusks and skulls stumbled upon by informants and law enforcement activities. Your final report must be based on information you were able to confirm. Do not jump to conclusions – take care to record all the evidence you find!

Finding a carcass

Recording the means a carcass was found is an important part of the data collected – in particular, it is important to distinguish between carcasses found by chance on a normal patrol and those you were specifically sent to find. There are typically four methods of finding a carcass:

  • patrol – random encounters with carcasses during the course of a patrol (aerial, ground or water);
  • intelligence – incidental, solicited or unsolicited information gathered from one or more sources that lead you to a carcass or the general area;
  • aerial surveys – information on carcasses seen during systematic surveys;
  • reports from management – problem animal control / culling or veterinary interventions.

Signs and evidence for each of the methods are highlighted in the table below.

Method Signs and evidence
Patrol A carcass may be found during a patrol from opportunistic signs: vulture’s assembly on a spot, many hyena spoor heading in one direction, gunshot(s), strong pungent smell, elephant bones, elephant skin and tissue.
Intelligence A patrol may be sent specifically to a spot due to ‘information received': incident reports, interviews, local informants.
Aerial surveys Though it can be difficult to spot carcasses from the air, aerial patrols and surveys may spot visible skeletons, vultures, or related human activities. Ground patrols should investigate the area but also search widely around the carcass for more carcasses and human sign.
Elephant management activities Control of problem animals, veterinary, euthanization, translocation, rehabilitation, research

Process of investigation

Process of investigating carcass - steps to take and data to record.The diagram to the right summarises the steps involved to collect data once a carcass has been found (click for the full version). The team may not have much time to investigate a carcass due to security problems or other limitations – there are immediate priorities of data collection, followed by further stages depending on the time and amount of evidence available.

  • The initial investigation, making immediate observations, should take less than a minute, and should happen before the team even approaches the carcass.
  • The second and third phases require more time and involve determining as much as possible about the site and the carcass.

First step


  • Location: Before approaching the carcass, the observer must immediately record its exact or approximate position on a sketch or geodetic  map, or (ideally) using a GPS. If you are interrupted or otherwise unable to do a full investigation, you can still map and report the location of the carcass, and ideally be able to return to it. This should take less than a minute.
  • Tusks: present or missing?

Secondary investigation

Secondly, make detailed initial observations for assisting with further investigation. There are three key factors to observe:carcass position, state of the tusks and signs of human interference.

Carcass position

In what position was the body when you first found it?

  • For instance, an elephant lying belly-down (‘brisket’) could indicate instant paralysis a brain shot with a powerful gun (look for entry wounds).
  • Lying on its side could mean a slower death (look later for signs of short/long term foot struggle marks and repeated falls).
  • Upside down may mean that the animal rolled on a slope or fell from a cliff. In the absence of such a physical presence, the upside down position may have resulted from a struggle by the elephant’s family to revive the dead elephant.


Belly down / brisket Side Upside down
KL_DSCN7230.jpg KL_9-May-2006_039.jpg Photo needed!


Do not assume that missing tusks necessarily implies illegal killing / poaching. Tusks may have been removed after death by passers-by, or by other law enforcement officers for safe keeping. The way in which the tusks were removed is indicative:

  • If there were not pulled out, were they hacked with a powersaw or axe?
  • Were they chopped out from the face (high up) or tusk base (immediately around tusks)? The former is indicative of having a longer amount of time to remove tusks, the latter of a quick removal (usually accompanied by ivory chips and wastage of tusk).
  • Dried blood around a cut indicates the animal was still warm fresh while removing the tusks. Lack of such signs could indicate the animal was several days old when tusks were removed. The table below highlights some of the observations to note.
Present Intact Are there differences between left and right tusks?  Check for bullet holes, especially recent.
Broken on impact
Absent Cut Chopped with axe? Check whether cut above nasal bone or below nasal bone
  Sawn off?  
Pulled out Easily from socket or removed after shaving the sides of skull to knock sideways. Further notes if different findings for either of the tusks.
Naturally absent Make further observations if conditions are different for either right or left.


KL_20 Jan 2005 003

Intact tusks


Cut made high on face


Tuskless skull


Base of tusks chopped

KL_Sony Download 030319 053

Base of tusks complete; tusks removed after decomposition.


Carcass Class

Record the MIKE carcass class which indicates the stage of decomposition – fresh, recent, old or very old.

See the page on determining carcass class.

Cause of Death

Collect as much evidence as possible to determine how the elephant died. This includes information collected above, but see the page on cause of death.