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During my childhood, I was told that when a sick or old elephant is going to pass away, the elephant’s family would perform a ceremony. The elephant would then await its final moment undisturbed in a secret place nobody else knows. This image has since imprinted into my mind until my recent trip to Tanzania.

During a tour of the Safari, my guide Jason laughed at my elephant story and drove us to the lakeside where there was a single elephant munching on some grass. He told us that when Europeans first arrived in Africa, they shot and killed elephants for their teeth and bones. When the locals saw this, they took the travellers to the lakeside, revealing copious numbers of elephant bones and teeth submerged under water and scattered across the field. Fascinated by this, stories and rumours spread amongst the travelling people.

Little did they know, elephants have six layers of teeth, each layer lasting 8-15 years depending on how hard the elephant’s favourite food is at the time. By the time the 5th or 6th layer is reached, the elephant can no longer eat any hard food. Wear and tear have eroded their enamel and exposed their denting, causing sensitive teeth and a limited diet, just like what happens to us. It is at this point that the elephant could no longer travel with the family and would be forced to remain at a place alone with soft grass and fresh water – such as a lakeside. Once its last layer of teeth is worn off, it would no longer be able to eat and hence approach its last moments on this earth.

So I asked the guide “If the teeth are the main reason behind an elephant’s lifespan, will they live longer if I crown all their teeth?”. He laughed again, and asked how I could possibly manage to crown all the wild elephant’s teeth – although it certainly would ensure they live much longer. I agreed – looks like I should focus my energy on my human patients.

The World Health Organisation recommended in their 8020 plan that people should have 20 teeth when they are 80 to benefit their quality of life. Please look after your teeth, come to your regular check ups, fill or crown them when they are broken, because you deserve to enjoy the plentiful food available in this world and nourish your body for your physical and mental wellbeing.

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