SAN DIEGO -- A postmortem examination has confirmed that Umoya, a 21-year-old elephant at San Diego Zoo Safari Park, was fatally attacked by another elephant, but other details of the death remain a mystery.
No one witnessed the attack and it is unknown which elephant or elephants in the herd were responsible for Umoya's death or what may have prompted the deadly confrontation Nov. 17.
Umoya had no visible injuries, but it was clear that the female African elephant had been hurt by what was initially termed an "aggressive interaction."
A necropsy, released Wednesday, confirmed that initial conclusion.
Although Umoya's death is the first instance of an elephant-on-elephant fatality at Safari Park, fights among elephants in the wild for dominance are not uncommon, experts say.
"Elephants are very social animals, with a matriarch that runs the herd," said Bob Wiese, chief life science officer at San Diego Zoo Global. "There's always shuffling to get to that dominant role, pushing and shoving to get to the top."
Fights in the wild can involve a male versus another male, particularly during mating season, or a female versus a female for dominance. "We've even known females to attack males," Wiese said.
For an elephant matriarch, the privileges of dominance extend to their offspring. "They're first to the food, first to the water," Wiese said.
Elephant keepers at Safari Park do not intervene when the elephants are having dominance tussles. "As much as we can, we let them work it out," Wiese said.
No changes in Safari Park's management of the elephants have been made since Umoya's death. The park uses the "protected contact" method in which keepers always have a fence between them and the jumbo-sized animals. The elephants are never struck.
Umoya, born in South Africa, was one of seven elephants brought in 2003 from Swaziland to Safari Park -- then known as the Wild Animal Park. The herd now numbers 17.
Umoya had two calves -- 18-month-old Emanti and 4-year-old Phakamile. Emanti was no longer nursing and had already moved to solid food: hay, pellets and vegetables.
Both had become friendly with other calves in the herd and are being tended by other female adults. Do they miss their mother?
"It's impossible to tell," Wiese said.
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