Tuesday, April 5, 2016


"Elephants, the animal that surpasses all in wit and mind." --- Aristotle

"The word 'ivory' hung in the air, was whispered, was sighed .  You would think they were praying to it."  --- The Heart of Darkness,
Joseph Conrad      

Elephant in Ngorongoro Crater                                            Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2016

       The first time I ever came close to a live elephant was in Bethpage, Long Island, where I spent most of my childhood.  It was the day the circus came to town.  Norman Rockwellian images of horses sporting plumes, dogs doing tricks, and elephants on parade all filled my head.   I remember walking into the tent where the elephants were kept.  Eating hay, they were wearing beautiful, custom made leather head harnesses.  I did not notice the chains that kept them in place; I'd like to think that was because they were concealed in the deep sawdust footing.

       That night as the magnificent pachyderms entered the Big Top I could not help but notice that most had open sores behind their ears. These were caused by the terrible bullhook their handlers carried.  These awful instruments designed for brutal control are now banned in California.   They should be banned worldwide. 

      Fast forward sixty years from that distressing Big Top day to the present.  Yes, it has taken this long for the largest circus in the U.S., Ringling Brothers, to announce that by the end of May 2016 it would no longer feature elephants in its shows. The tide of public opinion has risen.  People now no longer wish to see a twenty-minute act of elephants performing unnatural behaviors, enforced by bullhooks and electric cattle prods. Box office receipts had started to dry up. It's always about money, isn't it?  Only when Sea World felt monetary effects of Black Fish detailing the grim reality of life as an orca in captivity did its managers decide to put a stop to their breeding programs and shows.  

        The circus elephants will return to the Ringling farm in Florida, where some of them had been born and all had been trained.  However, while the elephants' suffering will be reduced, it will not have ended.  Elephants at the farm spend more than twelve hours a day chained to a concrete floor.  All suffer from resultant leg ailments or injuries.  One baby was found with two of its legs broken due to these chains. Another baby drowned in a pond in an attempt to flee his bullhook toting "trainer."  These elephants will now serve as lab animals in the study of pediatric cancer.  It seem elephants rarely get cancer due to a gene they carry.

       In Tanzania I was so lucky to see elephants in their natural habitat, and so tolerant of our proximity, too.  They seemed to know that those people in Land Rovers and Jeeps meant them no harm.
      Here a herd of mothers and babies is on the move.  Though at a considerable distance it was breathtaking:

       It wouldn't be long before we had numerous opportunities to get up close and almost too personal with them.  A few days later our three Land Rovers stopped so we could watch a mother with her three babies cross the savannah:

                                                 Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2016 

                                                                                                                     Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2016 

        She soon changed course and headed directly toward us.  Only two of her offspring are visible in the shot below.  The third is somewhere in that tall grass.  The cow's flaring ears indicate that she's displeased by our presence.

                                                                                                                    Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2016 

       She continued unafraid and resolute as she approached the Land Rover:

        Crossing   directly in front of the vehicle, she turned her head, flaring her ears and flinging her trunk in our direction. 

        Here's further evidence of just how unafraid they were.  This little fellow, eldest of his siblings, continued his meal no more than fifteen feet away, and a good thirty feet behind his mother and siblings:

       The next day our friends in one of the other Rovers had an even closer visit from a curious adolescent.  It required the guide to back up carefully:

       Freddie, our guide that day, later showed me a dent in our vehicle caused by a young elephant who simply enjoyed rocking it back and fourth on its chassis until the driver could safely back away.

      Elephants can be mischievous.  This cow is amusing herself by sending a Grant's gazelle packing:

       Poaching, as I wrote in an earlier entry, is a terrible problem in Africa, particularly Tanzania, which holds one quarter of Africa's elephants. One hundred thousand elephants have been killed in the past three years on the African continent. Poachers are armed with deadly force.  In spring 2016 a poacher shot and killed a British national on an anti-poaching mission.  Circling his helicopter to get a look at an elephant that had just been killed, poachers hiding in the brush shot him. He died shortly after landing.   Those involved, including the man who fired the gun, have been arrested and will serve from thirty years to life.  

       You'd think that the prospect of stiff sentences would deter these nefarious people.  However, on the black market a single pound of ivory sells for fifteen hundred dollars.  The average annual salary in Tanzania is five hundred and seventy dollars. Bribery of nearby villagers, as well as of officials who inspect cargo and luggage, is rampant.  The thugs who lace waterholes with cyanide, or inject it into pumpkins, a favorite treat of elephants, are highly trained, heavily armed, and usually part of a large criminal network.  They target elephants with the largest tusks, the older bulls and matriarchs, robbing herds of their leaders and its corporate memory, leaving each herd with traumatized orphans. It has been proven that elephants who go on rampages in circuses and zoos have, in almost all cases, witnessed their mothers, aunts, or others in their family group ruthlessly massacred, their bodies plundered. 

       Al Shabab, the Al Qaida offshoot operating out of Somalia, raises 600,000 dollars annually in its ivory operations.  The other major income source is selling and enslaving the children they have kidnapped, children who, like the elephants, have witnessed the murder of their parents.  Human slavery, environmental damage, and the exploitation of mothers and children, human and in the wild, are often connected in a dirty nexus of crime and illicit trade.

       The market for ivory is primarily the economically ascendant and burgeoning middle class in China, a class eager to demonstrate wealth and status.  Chinese diplomats visiting Tanzania shipped thousands of kilos of ivory tusks illegally back to China. Their rank as diplomats allows them to pass through Tanzanian customs without having their luggage inspected. 
         Elephant Graveyards, Do They Exist?

        The notion of an elephant graveyard has been called a myth but, like most myths, there is a nugget of truth in its origin.  Our guide Freddie told me that elephants whose teeth have worn down with years of chewing seek out areas with the softest grass.  And so it is, that when they finally die of starvation for failure to chew the food, or the ravages of old age, or at the hand of poachers, it is often in the soft grass that they die. This photo is of an elephant femur which was one among many bones on this soft patch.  You can see the grass is fine and soft.  Our guide told us that elephants often visit these sites and will spend time there, mostly near skulls belonging to former friends and close relatives.


       Not far from these bones was this grand and ancient fellow, below.  He reminded me of wise old Cornelius in the Babar books.  What tusks! This location will probably be his final resting place, but  I hope not for a long while. 

Stories of Elephant Altrusim, Empathy, Grief, and Love 

     A baby, together with his mother and aunt, wandered too close to a strange herd.  To demonstrate their ire at this intrusion the herd kidnapped the baby, preventing his return to his mother and aunt with their tusks and trunks. Though his two relatives tried to get him back, they were no match for the herd.  They finally left, giving up the distraught baby.  Or so it seemed. Within an hour, mother and aunt returned with their herd, charged the kidnappers, and rescued the baby.

       The matriarch of a herd charged a farm hand in Kenya and knocked him to the ground.  Leg broken and in a great deal of pain, he could not stand.  The elephant determined she'd caused him enough damage, turned, and left him to suffer in the hot sun.  When he failed to return to the farm that evening, a search party was sent out.  It wasn't until the next day that they spotted him lying under a tree, a female elephant standing by.  When they tried to get close the elephant charged their vehicle.  The men resorted to firing shots over her head, which finally frightened her off.  The farm hand told his rescuers that the elephant had come across him the previous afternoon, picked him up in her tusks, placed him under the shade of the tree, and stood guard over him through the night and into the next day.  

      In another instance, a female elephant spotted a baby rhino stuck in the mud.  Though the rhino's mother repeatedly charged, the elephant did not leave until she'd lifted the small rhino to safety.

       In Kenya George Adamson, husband of Joy Adamson, the author of Born Free, after exhausting all other options, had to shoot a bull elephant because of its destructive and dangerous behavior.  The elephant's meat was distributed to local villagers.  Adamson dragged the carcass a half mile away.  The next day those remains, covered in dirt and branches, were found in exactly the same place that the elephant had been shot.  A herd had returned and given the bull a proper elephant burial.

       Elephants can communicate with each other at distances up to fifty miles, and it is also thought that they can feel and evaluate earth's seismic behavior.  A full hour before the 2004 tsumami hit, elephants in Thailand broke from their chains and headed inland away from the beach.  Four year-old Ning Nong escaped her handler moments before the tsunami struck, taking off with her eight-year-old passenger Heather Mason. Here is a link to a re-creation of the event:             

       This is another YouTube you might like.  A herd of elephants are rescuing a baby from a muddy waterhole:

       While this link contains information about how elephants https://

     While this youtube gives you audio sounds:  XXXX

       Several years ago I'd read in some book (I'm sorry I cannot remember its name) the story of a mahout trainer and his elephant in India. At the end of their workday of moving logs, the mahout would ride his elephant to a local outdoor bar and drink himself into oblivion.  When he fell off his stool, which he invariably did, the elephant would gently scoop him up in his tusks and carry him to his home placing him at his front door.

       By far the most extraordinary tale I've read about a human's relationship with elephants was in of a book by Lawrence Anthony entitled The Elephant Whisperer.  Mr. Anthony adopted a small herd of unwanted "rogue" elephants that no one wanted and that were slated to be shot.  Here is a short YouTube XXXXXX narrated by his wife:

               In his book, Anthony describes the extraordinary sixth sense demonstrated by the elephants he saved.  He occasionally traveled by plane from his Thula Thula Game Preserve outside of Durban.  Once he was at the airport about to return, the herd started for his home in order to greet him.  One time, however, at the exact moment Mr. Anthony learned that his flight was canceled, the elephants stopped their trek towards his house and returned to where they had been grazing.

       Sadly, a few years ago Mr. Anthony died unexpectedly of a heart attack while standing in his garden.  He was in his early sixties.  Incredibly,
the elephants, who now formed two herds, started walking towards Mr. Anthony's house shortly after his death.  They had not been there for well over a year.  People who saw it described the marches as two somber and resolute processions.  It took the elephants over twelve hours.  When they arrived they went to the garden, to the exact spot their savior and friend fell.  They remained in the garden for two days grieving.  

      How did they know?  There were no elephants near the house the day of Mr. Anthony's death, so there could not have been any inter-elephant low frequency rumbling.  Perhaps someday the biologists and behaviorists will find the scientific answer to extraordinary events such as this. Perhaps they  never will.  Maybe, just maybe, we will have to be satisfied the wisdom of seventeenth century French poet and mathematician Blaise Pascal:  "Le coeur as ses raisons que la raison ne connais pas." ("The heart has its reasons which reason does not know.")

    Thank you for reading The Windflower Weekly--