During this admonition, and blessing, the oldest elephant sadly leaves the assembly, and walks away to the great, secret, elephant cemetery, and dies there. Agee imagined subsequent scenes based on real events in American elephantine history, beginning with Old Bet, the centerpiece of an exotic traveling menagerie, who was reportedly shot by a Maine farmer in , believing her to be the unholy behemoth of old. As a proxy for more traditional, less newsworthy lynchings, this ill-starred elephant seems to be the nonpareil.
All these accounts, in their way, are trying to say something of the clash between what turn out to be two inverse evils: the bigoted, airtight provincialism of the town proper, and the gaudy, sordid disassociation of traveling circus life — that is, being someone entirely because you are from somewhere, or being from nowhere at all.
Mary happened to be so unfortunate as to drop into this unneighborly maw. The greatest choreographer of his time, George Balanchine, instructs the greatest elephant corps of any time, in ballet. The elephants are embarrassed, but dutiful. The big night comes. They dance to music by Stravinsky, in pink tutus. They do very nicely; hardly a mistake. But all through the performance, people roar with joy at their clumsiness, and their dutifulness.
The elephants are deeply shamed. Later that night, the wisest of them, extending his trunk, licks up a dying cigar-butt, and drops it in fresh straw. All 36 elephants die in the fire.
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Their huge souls, light as clouds, settle like doves, in the great cemetery back in Africa. However, in other circumstances, distressed elephants have been known to kill themselves in ways that certainly seem intentional — not only by refusing food and water, but by stepping on their trunks to suffocate, or deliberately tightening chains hung around their throats.
Under the circumstances, these actions seem much closer to despair than to fatal stupidity. Other perverse behaviors, such as the way cows giving birth sometimes turn on their newborns, are never seen anywhere but in captivity. Catching an elephant from the wild is a tumultuous process that often involves the deaths of several more in the melee. Less brutally, but rather creepily, it may also entail the complicity of other elephants, who are trained to entice their wild kin into a compromising situation where they can be caught.
Another way of catching elephants, employed less now than it used to be, is to save the babies from a cull and market them.
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Because of the psychological problems caused by having their entire families slaughtered around them, culling experts now recommend just killing the babies with everybody else. In transit, captive elephants are subject to extreme discomfort and often die from overheating, freezing, stifling, dehydration, or infection. To avoid these problems, many zoos and other institutions seeking elephants have attempted captive breeding programs, which they bill as a conservation effort to increase the numbers of an endangered species.
The anthology Elephants and Ethics , an outgrowth of a Disney Animal Kingdom-funded conference, is a detailed guidebook to this and the many other ins and outs of elephant captivity. A few chapters deal with global issues such as poaching and culling, but overall it is a very Western-oriented handbook, as the vast bulk is concerned with the small minority of elephants held in zoos and circuses.
The book gets deep in the weeds of this stuff with some weird dilemmas. Breeders correctly sense that sex-selective abortion would be a nonstarter with the public; would in vitro fertilization with screened embryos be any better? Would it be possible? A step or two back from this thicket, the primary question becomes whether it is morally defensible to keep elephants captive at all.
Most zoos are having a harder time letting go, a struggle exemplified by the attempt of Alaska Zoo officials to hang on to Maggie, the sole elephant in the state. Eventually they gave in, and in she was relocated to a sanctuary in California. The point is not that elephants are treated cruelly by their handlers. While there is no shortage of examples of harsh or negligent treatment, many — probably most — zookeepers and circus trainers have close relationships with their elephants and may even love them intensely.
But the contexts that bring them together are fundamentally inhumane. I know they love elephants. What I have had to learn to understand is you can love someone in a very dysfunctional way. Certainly zoo standards have been evolving for the better, and most institutions strive to create the best possible habitat for their animals within the limits of their resources. And the key point they emphasize in their defense is the educational value and the resulting benefits to all elephants everywhere. As Ringling Bros. Elephants remain a major attraction of the circus industry in the United States and around the world.
Here, an audience watches elephants perform in a French circus in People remember the first time they visited a circus and saw a live elephant.
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How many people remember and talk about the first time they read about an elephant in a book or saw an elephant on TV? By falling in love with the one elephant they have seen, the argument goes, people will be inspired and informed to go out and help elephants generally. Whatever may be the instrumental value of these involuntary ambassadors, it is a diminished kind of love that keeps its object confined and unhappy. Freedom is the hardest, greatest gift, returning nothing to the giver but the selfless fact of having given it. From a strictly human point of view, it would be a more impoverished world that did not offer these opportunities to connect with our most intriguing fellow creatures — but it would perhaps be a better one.
In that instant, in too short a time, one would have thought, even for the bullet to get there, a mysterious, terrible change had come over the elephant. He neither stirred nor fell, but every line of his body had altered. He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old Avocational safari hunters such as Teddy Roosevelt and his friend Henry Fairfield Osborn, major figures in the early conservation movement, loved the elephant in all its wildness and compiled a great deal of information on its behavior and natural history.
The very awe of its magnificence and power was what made the elephant such desirable game. The hunter, in tracking and conquering his prey, seeks in some way to seize for himself that glorious force of life the animal displays. The catch is that, as soon as you have shot the animal, that force of life is gone — the instant it is at your touch it has already eluded you, belonging to no one anymore.
Famous photographs of Roosevelt towering athwart felled giants exude an eerie combination of tremendous manly pride generally, the sex that brings life into the world seems content with that primal connection to it, and is less interested in taking it back out and utter negation; the deanimated lump no longer conveys anything but the material presence of piercing loss.
To have taken so many years and eaten so many trees, to have become so big; to have roamed the earth as King of Beasts and then to have collapsed in a piece of rotting flesh is tragic and so seemingly wasteful of life.
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Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons. Adult elephants have no predator other than man. Babies may sometimes be preyed upon by lions and the like; to protect them, the moms and aunts circle around the small ones, facing outwards to give any interested comers the evil eye. This proves sufficiently intimidating. They are occasionally hunted by some African tribes for meat or as a rite of passage, but not to these ends in great numbers.
Meanwhile, opportunities now exist at certain game reserves for those aspiring to the masculinity of Teddy Roosevelt to pay great sums of money to chase the animals around a large pen in a jeep, that is, a confined hunting zone where there is no real test of strength or match of wits and they are ultimately guaranteed a kill. When with a heavy heart, Mr. Choudhury finally corners him in the forest and shoots,. His trunk whipped back in the air. His mouth opened wide, revealing his writhing black tongue.
He reared up on his hind legs, kicking out defiantly. Then the fight went out of him. His ears fell to his sides. His trunk flagged. His head slumped as if he was overcome with fatigue. Like a disgraced child who only now understood that he had misbehaved, the rogue tried to turn and walk away, almost apologetically. Then, in one violent movement, he reared up once again, his trunk reaching for the sky as if he was trying to clutch at his departing soul. He let out a tortured, rasping noise.
Then his legs buckled. His body slumped forward. And he dropped to the ground with a thud, his tusks driving into the soft earth. Within hours, hundreds of people have materialized to mourn the passing of a hathi , so upset that the hunting party, reluctant as they were, even fear for their own safety. N ow picture scaling this up — to a hundred elephants, a hundred thousand, a million. That is the upshot of the poaching explosion of recent history. And while safari hunting at least represents, however perversely, an appreciation for the total majesty of the animal, this massacre implies a different valuation of elephants altogether, one where their whole worth is in the ivory they grow.
In , there were 26 million elephants roaming Africa alone; in less than two centuries, the population dropped by 98 percent. These animals died for our music. Spectacular photos of these pieces sit in contrast to gruesome ones of slaughtered elephants and sordid heaps of dirty tusks — but also to some of live elephants, unperturbed and minding their own business, dirty tusks still on them, just as nature intended.
Few other accounts show all these things together, and the combination is startling: here is raw nature, here is the exquisite potential in it that only civilization — human artists — can fulfill, and here is the bloody price of that fulfillment. And, strictly speaking, it is not civilization but its breakdown that is responsible for these artifacts, since killing elephants for ivory has been illegal for decades. The s saw the population of African elephants drop by more than half, from 1.
Bottom: ElephantVoices, Joyce Poole. Leading up to the CITES conference, rumors abounded that the African elephant was going to be placed on the protected list, as indeed it was, making all international trade in new ivory illegal. In the interim, however, poaching increased even more and countries with ivory were encouraged to sell it off while they still could.
Meanwhile, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe argued that their elephant populations were plentiful enough to hunt from and an important natural resource for their economies, which they should not be penalized for making use of just because other countries mismanaged their own. In and again in , these countries were permitted to sell their stockpiles, purportedly accrued from natural deaths and confiscations from poachers. The trouble with legalizing ivory within certain limits is that once it enters the market, it is virtually impossible to tell where it came from, and poached tusks can easily be laundered through countries where selling them is legal.
Also, now that the global market has come to expect that there will periodically be sell-off opportunities in exception to CITES, ivory can just be hoarded until the next one is announced. Today, upwards of 25, elephants are poached every year, and even countries such as Kenya, which has been politically out front in promoting conservation and anti-poaching efforts, are experiencing steep drops in their elephant populations.
But it is hard to say what chance this message has of getting through to China, by far the biggest market for the material — a country whose attitude toward human life leaves much to be desired, not to mention animals. And at the source in Africa, a region of the world that faces every possible kind of difficult reality, the financial potential of a pair of tusks is a far more potent factor than global opprobrium or sentiment for elephants.
In the big picture, this is what it looks like when an unstoppable force meets an all too moveable object. At the CITES conference, held in Bangkok in March , trade sanctions were threatened for several countries involved in ivory poaching, smuggling, and sale, but none were actually imposed.