Love, War & Circuses: The age-old relationship between elephants and humans by Eric Scigliano

Bill Saunders enjoys a larger than life study of the species that's running out of time
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The Independent Culture

I once saw and handled a mammoth's tusk: about 14 inches long, two and a half in circumference, it had the appearance and texture of a piece of seaside rock which has been sucked all afternoon. The tusk had been turned up and tossed aside by builders on the long, straight road that runs between the Odeon Holloway and Tufnell Park tube. Perhaps even while this mammoth roamed the river meadows of London N7, but certainly within a shiver of the second hand of the evolutionary clock, the Dravidian people of India were already domesticating elephas maximus, the Asian elephant, which, contrary to the obvious assumption, is the ancestor rather than the descendant of the woolly mammoth. In spite of tusks and trunk, the African elephant, loxodonta africana, is a distant cousin on the elephant bloodline.

Yet when we think elephants we think Africa. When we depict an elephant, which we do surprisingly often (elephants appear in advertisements and greetings cards more than any other wild animal, and come third behind cats and dogs), we are 10 times more likely to show an African elephant than an Asian. We can know this so precisely thanks to the research of Wayne Hepburn of Sarastosa, Florida, who monitors the appearance of elephant images worldwide. Elephants have this effect on some people. The legendary Hindu sage Palakapya is believed to have spent 6,000 years looking into the subject. Eric Scigliano appears to have interviewed every living enthusiast available, is naturally an enthusiast himself, and has produced a book exhaustive in scope but utterly entertaining to read. He achieves this by including everything we expect from elephants: the marvellous, the spectacular, the larger than (human) life. No misconception or speculation is too wild to be considered before it is gently dismissed.

Could mammoths still exist in some remote forest, as Thomas Jefferson, another elephant nut, thought? No. Might mammoths have persisted long enough to have remained in the memory of Native American oral tradition? Very, very unlikely. Is it possible we can recreate mammoths through cloning frozen DNA? Can elephants dig tunnels, as the Siberians assumed? Yes they can, actually. They dug out the Kitum caves in Kenya, in pursuit of salt. Really. Either Scigliano's enthusiasm is infectious, or perhaps he is right to suggest that we all have an affinity with elephants buried within us.

There is a school of thought which says that elephants were the midwives of humanity, since they beat the paths across the savannah that encouraged early humans to wander in search of forage. You do not need a very highly evolved cortex cerebellum to discern which way a herd of elephants has gone. In the Serengeti the average, healthy elephant knocks down around three trees a day. This is not as disastrous for the environment as it sounds. Given adequate space to roam, elephants have a beneficial effect on the maintenance of grassland. This raises a sensitive problem. It is a general orthodoxy that the number of species of elephant thinned out due to changes in environment at the end of the ice age. Observation suggests that, due to their size, elephants have far more influence over the environment that it has over them. So what happened to the mammoth and the mastodon? Palaeologists have noticed that they began to disappear as soon as their bipedal neighbours perfected the stone spearhead. These might be the first man-made extinctions. Now only elephas and loxodonta are left, and due to our greed for ivory and our hunger for agricultural land, they might not last much longer.

Individual elephants menace us, as much we menace them collectively. They will sit on us in fits of absent-mindedness, gore and trample us during the hormone-fuelled sexual rage, known as musht, which seizes mature males periodically. But just like a human, an elephant can kill out of calculation rather than instinct, and just as they remember kindnesses - and indeed street directions - over many years, they also bear grudges. In 1929 a circus elephant named Black Diamond gored a woman to death in Texas, apparently because, when the circus had passed through town the year before, she had seduced his trainer away. Black Diamond was dissatisfied with the arrangement and knew whom he held to be responsible. This can be set against countless well-authenticated examples of elephants coming across lost children in circus crowds and lifting them up so they can find their parents.

Unlike other species, we face elephants in uneasy equality, because of their size, and their intelligence. Although they have lived and worked with humans for centuries and still do, they have never become fully domesticated. They do not breed easily in captivity, they must be found in the wild and trained. And when the wild disappears, so will they.

It is human nature, and perhaps elephant nature too, for all we know, to want things both ways. In the closing chapters of the book Scigliano travels with the conservationists in South Asia who try to balance conflicting demands, and sees farmers, who will ruthlessly pepper a stray elephant with buckshot when it raids their crops, gather to wave off the same elephant when it is captured and bound for a wildlife park.

There is no compromising with elephants. And this happy book has a sour note. "Real elephants are complicated, troublesome creatures who demand space and freedom and refuse to abide by our fond stereotypes. Like martyred saints, dead rock stars, and vanished dinosaurs, they might be loved more if they vanished from the earth, becoming safe figures of computer-generated spectacle and cosy emblems of nature's power and terror."

Will we have even that? Elephants are talismanic and mythical but we can have real relationships with them too, if we choose. Otherwise all we shall have left is yellowing billiard balls, and the occasional weathered tusk, found here and there, and quickly cast aside and forgotten.