The elephants are in the room

Elephants together in the wild

A newborn of the Kenyan Mountains family crosses the Ewaso Ngiro River, sheltered under the legs of family members. Samburu National Reserve, Kenya, 2007 from Earth to Sky, photographs by Michael Nichols (Aperture, 2013)
Copyright © Michael Nichols, National Geographic

Elephants are with many of us from our earliest story times.  We know they’re strange and wondrous, we sculpt them and paint them until our fingers are sore, but perhaps we’ve forgotten they’re real.

Perhaps it’s too easy to ignore their intelligence, their compassion and love of family. Perhaps we’ve chosen to forget their vast memories, huge strength and deliberate gentleness – all qualities we admire.  It’s easier to forget …

Or is it?  The research and the science are now increasingly insistent that the wild-born African elephant should be protected from the traumas of indiscriminate massacre and that it should never be sold into isolated captivity.

This short piece links to articles that reference the findings of some of those who have really come to know the elephant.

Elephants growing up within the family

Surrounded and protected by the adult females, younger elephants of the Virtues family play and mock-fight. Samburu National Reserve, Kenya, 2007 from Earth to Sky, photographs by Michael Nichols (Aperture, 2013)
Copyright © Michael Nichols, National Geographic

Charles Siebert, poet, journalist and essayist, in his article “An Elephant Crackup?” in the New York Times (8.10.06) says the following:

“Studies of established herds have shown that young elephants stay within 15 feet of their mothers for nearly all of their first eight years of life, after which young females are socialized into the matriarchal network, while young males go off for a time into an all-male social group before coming back into the fold as mature adults.”

This bonding, for the first eight years primarily through the mother and then through older members of the herd, is a well-documented part of elephant life.

Now, increasingly understood is what happens to an elephant’s development when its traditional support groups are shattered.   Research and first hand experience by such as The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust have reinforced initial observations that such trauma results in behavior similar to that seen so often in young humans who have been exposed to violence and then left without family and community support to help mental healing – aggression, anxiety and mistrust take root.

Young elephant males test their strength

Young bulls constantly grapple and test each other, learning valuable skills they will need in their adulthood. Samburu National Reserve, Kenya, 2007 from Earth to Sky, photographs by Michael Nichols (Aperture, 2013)
Copyright © Michael Nichols, National Geographic

Perhaps not surprisingly a Ugandan researcher, herself involved at the edges of decades of violence in her own country, was amongst the first to spot the similarities.  Dr Eve Lawino Abe, now a London-based animal ethologist and wildlife management consultant, alongside other neuroscientists and psychologists including Dr Allan Schore of the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), believes that there is real and sufficient evidence to show the effect of trauma on elephants.  It seems their brains and ours are remarkably similar … the difficulty with elephants is that recovery requires considerably more space.

Charles Siebert in “An Elephant Crackup?” is blunt about the future facing the elephant:

It has long been apparent that every large, land-based animal on this planet is ultimately fighting a losing battle with humankind. And yet entirely befitting of an animal with such a highly developed sensibility, a deep-rooted sense of family and, yes, such a good long-term memory, the elephant is not going out quietly. It is not leaving without making some kind of statement, one to which scientists from a variety of disciplines, including human psychology, are now beginning to pay close attention.”

I set up a camera trap near these elephant bones, just to see if anyone would visit. Gabon, 2005 from Earth to Sky, photographs by Michael Nichols (Aperture, 2013) Copyright © Michael Nichols, National Geographic

I set up a camera trap near these elephant bones, just to see if anyone would visit. Gabon, 2005 from Earth to Sky, photographs by Michael Nichols (Aperture, 2013)
Copyright © Michael Nichols, National Geographic

So here we are, crashing into each other on the same planet, humankind with its restless brain and growing numbers, and the elephant – naturally gentle, intelligent and vulnerable.

What is the point of the elephant?  Perhaps this is the point of the elephant – to show us, written large and silent, the awful consequences of our foolish violence and greed.

This largest of all the Earth’s terrestrial animals deserves better than slaughter, than condemnation to a life behind bars.

Here is a link to some of the tireless few trying to repair the damage.

Virginia McKenna OBE runs a charity Born Free (Keep Wildlife in the Wild).  They have set up an appeal to raise funds for a sanctuary to save those elephants living in terrible conditions in captivity in Europe.  Please click on this link to be taken to their site.

Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2017

Sources used for this article include the following:

Aperture’s book:  Earth to Sky by Michael Nichols

Here are links to two of Charles Siebert’s articles about elephants, both are fascinating:

An Elephant Crackup? (New York Times Magazine)

Orphan Elephants (National Geographic)

The following will take you to a recent article on the accumulating evidence regarding the intelligence of elephants:

Elephants are even smarter than we realized (Scientific American)

7 thoughts on “The elephants are in the room

  1. What a beautifully written piece Georgie – feeling it! I am full of hope for the elephants because I know deep down that we all are compassionate beings. Some have just forgotten our roots and thanks to beautiful souls like yourself, Mark Deeble and other like-minded souls who are helping us remember. We have to have hope, belief in our kinship and oneness. Thank you for caring so much, deeply moved and full of appreciation, love and peace Marghanita x Here is a link to my small step in helping to raise awareness…http://www.elephantjournal.com/2014/05/let-us-not-forget-the-elephants-marghanita-hughes/

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  2. Wow! Finally I’ve found the < two minutes necessary to sign up to this. And all because I wanted to say …'Great reading from The Phraser, and looking forward to having my say more frequently!' But as far as the plight of African elephants goes, I think we've been warned about this since I was in my teens – a VERY long time ago, obviously – and we seem to be further from success, in terms of numbers, than we were then. A very shaming world for humans to have had a hand in.

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    • Hello! Fantastic to have your company and thanks for your comment. You’re right when you say the problem has been known about for a while. The trouble is that there are now even more of us and our problems and priorities increasingly impact on wild animals, particularly the poor elephant with his need for space. Just hope we don’t turn our backs before a solution is found.

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