African Elephant

Loxodonta Africana

When the time came to choose an animal as my totem/symbol/mascot/friend, I immediately thought of the elephant. As I was born and grew up in South Africa, this means the African elephant. It was an intuitive impulse at the time but has stayed with me ever since. My closest experience of elephants was touching a free, but human-accustomed, young elephant at a game park near Harare, Zimbabwe (photo of the elephant and guide below) and being visited very closely by some elephants during an overnight on a game platform in Hwange game park, also in Zimbabwe.


A free but human-accustomed young African elephant


In my view, the finest writing on elephants is an epic poem by Heathcote Williams. This is an abridged version:


The shape of an African elephant's ear
Is the shape of Africa;
The shape of an Indian elephant's ear
Is the shape of India . . .

On the night of the birth of the Buddha
An elephant entered the dreams of Queen Mahayama, his mother . . .
And Gautama Buddha was consequently patient, strong, meek
And unforgetful.

They're not a little clumsy?
Elephants walk on the tips of their toes.
Elephant paths in the Congo Basin mountains are near vertical.
They can move in total silence without leaving a trace.
The elephant seems unembarrased by its bulk.

They move slowly to protect their vast brain,
With which they can hear subsonic sound . . .
They can sprint faster than any human, at 30 to 40 mph,
And for longer...

. . .but you wouldn't call them civilised. . .?
Though their foreplay can last eight days,
And that's very heavy petting,
They can show affection without being instantly possessed
By a desire to get their rocks off on the spot . . .
And their rocks are no Milk Duds.
(One aberrant jet of elephant sperm
Will feed a forty-foot high ant hill
For a year).

Pregnancy lasts two years -
Which suggests they've given it a thought . . .

An elephant's birth is attended by two or three midwives
In the center of a protective circle.

The baby's first site is of its placental membrane
Being tweaked into the air
And flipped away in triumphant relief
Like a giant, flailing frisbee.

The herd is a mobile creche and old people's home,
And elephants can detect fellow members of their tribe
From a distance of five miles;
Human beings from only two miles;
Which, incidentally,
Makes the human aura three miles weaker.

...they will place their trunks
Into the mouth of an injured companion.
They will altruistically remove stricken fellows
Out of the line of fire.
They will nudge and nurse the wounded to their feet.
They have been known to practise mercy killing.
They will examine corpses extensively:
Scanning the whole body,
Using the dilated tips of their trunks as organic stethoscopes
Almost as if conducting an autopsy to discover how they died . . .

...they bury their dead,
By covering them with mud earth, leaves and branches;
Then return later to draw the tusks
Removing them several miles away,
Or seizing them and shattering them against a nearby tree,
As if to cheat traders,
And have done so since Herodotus first recorded the ruse.

The Aryans of the 1st millennium called the elephant
Mrigi hastin -
The beast with a head-finger,
And with it, elephants can pick up a pin,
Uncork a bottle,
Pull up a tree by the roots,
Detect trip wires and traps,
Doodle in the sand,
Dowse for water underground,
Walk along river beds.
And sense alien presences from miles away . . .

Anyone in the second coming racket
Could do worse than choose an elephant . . .
And maybe even come back as a whole herd,
But who are we to know?

- Heathcote Williams     


The Elephant's Secret Sense Caitlin O'Connell:  The Elephant's Secret SenseThe Elephant's Secret Sense by Caitlin O'Connell: The Hidden Life of the Wild Herds of AfricaThe Elephant's Secret Sense by Caitlin O'Connell - Biography of an Endangered Species in Africa.The Elephant's Secret Sense: The Hidden Life of the Wild Herds of Africa
by Caitlin O'Connell

Sacred Elephant - the poem Heathcote Williams:  Sacred ElephantHeathcote Williams: Sacred Elephant - the poem - The poem in print and audio.

Elephant Men - Elephants respond to human destruction Jason Godesky: Elephant Men - Elephants respond to human destruction.

Biography of the African Elephant Martin Meredith:  Elephant DestinyBiography of the African Elephant - Martin Meredith - Biography of an Endangered Species in Africa.

Novel about African Elephants in southernmost Africa Dalene Matthee: Circles in A Forest. In the forest home of the world's most southerly elephants.
Feb.22, 2005 (The Witness, S Africa). Afrikaans author Dalene Matthee (66) has died in her sleep after being admitted to hospital with a heart problem. She was especially well known for her forest trilogy, of which the first, Kringe in 'n Bos (Circles in a Forest), appeared in 1984 and was reprinted 22 times. She is being described as a huge loss for the Afrikaans reading public. Matthee's books were translated into 14 languages, including French, German, Spanish, Italian and Hebrew.

More on Elephants:

Living with Elephants Foundation Living with Elephants Foundation.
Non-profit organization in Botswana which explores the relationship between the African Elephant and people, with an emphasis on research and educational programs aimed at reducing conflict between the two species.

Save the Elephants Save the Elephants
Echo and Other Elephants. DVD Review Echo and Other Elephants. DVD Review
Fred Hoogervorst. African Jumbo - Foto galleries Fred Hoogervorst. African Jumbo - Foto galleries
More about elephants Elephant BooksMore about elephants. A broad selection

African Elephant - drawing by Ayla Boode

There's a cave on the side of Mount Elgon, an extinct volcano in western Kenya, which has been mined by generations of elephants. It's estimated they have taken 5m litres of rock in the last 2m years. Access to it is tricky, but the animals are willing to risk death to get there. The bones of those who didn't make it line the trail. Once inside they dig out the soft rock with their tusks, grind it with their teeth and then swallow it. The rocks contain 100 times more sodium than they can get from the plants they normally eat, as well as being rich in potassium and calcium. Sodium is vital for all metabolic processes, especially for handling the toxins which are an inevitable part of a plant diet - an estimated 40% of plants contain some sort of defensive chemicals.
Wild Health: How Animals Keep Themselves Well and What We Can Learn From Them
by Cindy Engel

Elephants are the only animals that can't jump.


Etosha Elephant
Etosha Elephant            Photograph © Stanton Newman

How to be a Wild Elephant. CBC, September 11, 2014
SITIES is a 500 KG, three year old African Elephant who tragically lost her family at just three months old.

Elephant and bee researcher nets green prize. BBC News, November 23, 2011
They used the findings to construct barriers where beehives are woven into a fence, keeping the elephants away from places where people live and grow food.

Leakey backing for elephant cull
. BBC News, March 17, 2008
The eminent conservationist Richard Leakey has given qualified backing for South Africa's plan to cull elephants.

Trade bans are a blunt tool for saving endangered species
. The Economist, March 6, 2008 A better policy is to make wildlife more valuable to man, not less. Elephants pee to keep in touch with family. The Telegraph, December 5, 2007
Elephants keep tabs on their family members with the help of urine, according to a study led by Prof Richard Byrne of the University of St Andrews that is a testament to how the creatures not only have good memories but update them too to keep abreast of what their relatives are up to.
Etosha-based African Elephants
African Elephants, Etosha     Photograph © Stanton Newman
Elephants sense 'danger' clothes
. BBC News, October 18, 2007
The study found African elephants reacted with fear when they detected the scent of garments previously worn by men of the Maasai tribe.

Scientists map elephant evolution
. BBC News, July 24, 2007
Scientists say they have calculated the date at which the African and the Asian elephant went their separate ways.

African deal cut on ivory trade
. BBC News, June 5, 2007
Southern African nations will be permitted a further one-off sale of legally acquired ivory from stockpiles, with funds going for conservation.

US 'major illegal ivory importer'
. BBC News, June 5, 2007
While applauding the efforts of customs forces to seize consignments of ivory, it says monitoring and enforcement at the retail level is virtually non-existent.

Elephants get trunk line to crucial habitats
. The Telegraph (UK), June 3, 2007
Conservationists are to build a five-mile "elephant highway" in a dramatic new initiative to protect the African elephant.

African nations clash over elephant ivory trade
. Reuters, May 30, 2007
Debate over a proposed 20-year ivory trade ban has split African countries between those who want to protect the beloved elephant and others who say elephant populations have grown at an unsustainable rate.

Organized crime fuels illegal ivory surge in Africa
. World Wildlife Fund, May 10, 2007
Asian-run organized crime syndicates based in Africa are being implicated in the increase in illegal trade in elephant ivory.

Zambian wins 'Nobel green prize'
. BBC, April 23, 2007
A Zambian man has won a prestigious Goldman Prize for helping to curb widespread elephant poaching by setting up economic projects for villagers.


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