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Historical Elephant Abuse

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Historical Elephant Abuse

By Mike Jaynes
September 2008

Humanity has a long history of using elephants for various purposes from war to entertainment. Teaching humanities, students are often shocked about the usage of war elephants in Persia, Rome, and other places. The most famous is likely Hannibal's crossing of the Alps with them during the second Punic War between Rome and his Carthage in 218 BC. Students are shocked to learn that the Romans discovered they could cover pigs' backs with tar, set them on fire, and send them squealing toward the elephants. This would frighten the elephants, and in their panic their massive bulk and power would be useless and often work to Roman advantage as they crushed Carthaginian troops in their terror. The nervous laughter dies down when students then learn the Romans also discovered they could take swords and axes and hack away at the war elephants' feet and tendons and bring them down in sheer agony.

Apparently, when Hannibal arrived at his destination, only one of his elephants remained alive.

Artist renderings of war elephants being brought down during ancient wars often horrify students. However, they often fail to make the connection between that particular usage and the contemporary ivory trade and the use of performing elephants in circuses, zoos, magic shows, children's ride events and the like. It could be argued the contemporary uses are comparable in some manners.

Historically, elephants have played a large role in various human cultures, religions, and economies (see Bagheera). Some cultures have used the elephant from everything from trinkets to symbols of royalty to even deities. The largest land mammal has lumbered across this Earth for millions of years, and it seems humans have been fascinated with it from their first introduction. Once roaming the entire African continent, the now endangered African elephant has been reduced to a mere fraction of its past numbers. The smaller-eared Asian elephant once freely ranged from Northern China to Syria and the Indonesian Islands.

Presently, these once magnificent populations are loosely scattered in Sub Saharan areas and other small areas in Africa, Southeast Asia, India, and Sri Lanka. In fact, elephants face many threats in the wild, but humans are by far their chief concern, encroaching on their natural territory and poaching them for ivory. As for African elephants, in 1930 there were up to an estimated 10 million wild individuals. About 600,000 remain; less than one percent of their one time population. As for the rarer Asian elephant, in 1900 there were around 200,000 and now there are only around 40,000 left. Many of them are worked mercilessly in illegal logging operations or used as street elephants to assist their impoverished mahouts in begging. If we don't decide to drastically change our view toward elephants, they may soon be gone. They will be lost to us forever and perhaps a skeleton or two will remain ala Wooly Mammoth in museums at which our grandchildren can gape and express dismay that such a huge peaceful creature ever lumbered over the Earth.

Captive circus elephants often begin swaying back and forth in confusion and boredom; this behavior is never observed in the wild, according to many elephant experts including Joyce Poole.

They often live alone as the solitary elephant in smaller circus outfits.


The only elephant still used in any circus in the UK, Anne. At 54 years of age she lives without any other elephants.

They are intelligent (number three on the list behind primates and cetaceans), curious, long-lived, beautiful, and they often die well short of their life expectancy in the wild. All animals used in performance deserve support and help, but it seems these huge elephants might suffer more keenly at some times. To have natural habitat reduced from hundreds of miles to a tiny fraction of that seems problematic at best.

But elephant treatment is not simply a circus issue; it spans the globe.

 

Most of the Indian public only sees these temple elephants during state festivals. According to Ghosh's "Gods in Chains," some of these temple elephants' existences are much different, and much worse, than the Indian public assumes.

Similar to elephants in Thailand, some Indian elephants are employed by the illegal logging trade. Thailand outlawed logging in 1989 and India followed suit in 1996; both countries feared their natural forests were being too quickly dispersed. As a result, illegal logging still brings heavy profits in both countries. Despite the availability of pulleys, chains, and other mechanical devices, elephants are forced to suffer the difficult work of moving felled trees for Indian and Thai loggers. In Thailand, elephants are often forced to work at dark in hopes of evading authorities and as a result, elephants often fall down steep embankments to their death or crippling disability. According to several sources these abuses occur.

The ivory trade presents a disturbing ivory. Ivory is banned in the United States; however, entities such as EBAY continue to trade in "pre-ban" ivory. And, as of late, most items on EBAY are listed as "bone" and not ivory. Never buy any bone Asian or African artifact that might possibly be ivory. Tusks developed for defense and protection to fight off other male elephants and animals. Now elephants are disappearing because they are often killed for their tusks. More elephants are being born in the wild tusk-less. Historically, a small percentage of elephants are always born without tusks, and female Asian elephants apparently never have tusks. However, as of late, the number of tusk-less African elephants has exploded exponentially. Matthew Scully in his book, Dominion: The Suffering of Animals, The Power of Man, and the Call to Mercy, does a thorough job of examining this biological facet of evolution.

The tusks that evolved as means or protection for elephants is now evolving out of existence for the very same reason: survival. It is getting rare for male elephants to live to their 65-year life expectancy due to poaching and ivory hunting in the wild. Now the tusks are disappearing because it is often only the tusk-less ones who live to procreate.

Elephant captivity in the United States is a complex issue. It is not black or white. Each individual, if possible, should take the time to inform oneself regarding elephant captivity in order to make informed decisions regarding one's support of it. Sources from all sides of the debate abound and are acquired easily. Elephant-human interaction is a complex issue, and elephants are complex marvelous creatures.

Thanks to Rhea Ghosh, the Visakha SPCA India, Elephantvoices.com, Gary Francione, The Elephant Sanctuary, Bagheera, and BornFree, and everyone everywhere who cares about elephants.


Mike Jaynes is an American writer living in the Southeast. He has published on various animal ethics issues including elephant captivity and issues facing sharks.