Dear Devoted Friend – Reply to: “Dear Elephant, Sir”

Wild elephant

The elephant – “a symbol of purity, a dream of paradise lost” (words of Romain Gary in Dear Elephant, Sir)

In 1967 Romain Gary wrote an article that LIFE magazine described as “a love letter to an old companion”.  The piece was entitled “Dear Elephant, Sir”.  Almost half a century later I, with great nervousness, have attempted a reply on behalf of the elephant.  Romain Gary signed off his letter to the elephant with the words “Your very devoted friend” and then his name.


Dear Devoted Friend,

Should you ever read this letter you may wonder what took me so long to reply.  I trust that you did not think that I would forget.

The reason for my letter is of course self-preservation.  I, like you, know that our destinies are linked.

Baby elephant

“Your gray, rocklike mass has the very color and texture of Mother Earth herself” (Words of Romain Gary in Dear Elephant, Sir)

Dear devoted friend, your bold and individual heart gave me great hope.  It reminded me that all is never lost however towering the threat.

It’s now clear to me that us elephants, quiet and with big needs, are always going to be vulnerable.  We can do little to resist fire, or drought, or man with his sudden fanatical whims.

I was touched to read that I was a symbol of purity for you, of paradise lost.  I wish I could return the compliment but I can’t.  I have to say that to me your people are a tiny, trunkless complication – less predictable even than the crocodile.  You used to be quiet, barefoot hunters, but you, for instance, fell from the sky.

Not that I blame any of this change on you personally.  No, this mess has evolved over the life of at least six grand elephants.  Quite a time perhaps but looking back it all happened so quickly – the noise, the roads, the vehicles, the buildings, the fences, the killings.  Possibly the change frustrated all of you as much as us because the great matriarchs tell us that the more crowded it’s got the more bad-tempered you’ve become.

Maya, the matriarch of the Poetics herd, and her daughter greet Boone, an elderly bull that spends most of his time east of the reserve. Samburu National Reserve, Kenya, 2007 from Earth to Sky, photographs by Michael Nichols (Aperture, 2013) Copyright ©MichaelNichols, National Geographic

Maya, the matriarch of the Poetics herd, and her daughter greet Boone,
an elderly bull that spends most of his time east of the reserve. Samburu National Reserve, Kenya, 2007 from Earth to Sky, photographs by Michael Nichols (Aperture, 2013)
Copyright ©MichaelNichols, National Geographic

First the violence was only at a distance, an occasional incident such as your plane crash.  Most of us just got whiffs of such news on the wind … and then we began to feel it more often.  It came in the air, through the ground, and then in the bones that we touched with our trunks as we paid our respects.

Today the trauma is even closer, it’s all around – we see it, like your kind do, in our stressed and fractured families.

You described me in your letter as “life in its hugest and most cumbersome form”.  At first when I read this I thought: “Huh!” … but now I take it as a celebration of our genius for camouflage and silence, of our care for our own.

Wild African elephant

Elephant – life in its “hugest most cumbersome form” (words of Romain Gary in Dear Elephant, Sir)

I grant that our size, our need for space, food and fellow elephants, makes us vulnerable and a touch hard to live alongside, but, incredibly, we’re still here and I think that’s what you liked about us – that our huge strangeness is still here in amongst all that is manmade and modern.

I am flattered that you put it so strongly:

“your presence among us carries a resonance that cannot be accounted for in terms of science or reason, but only in terms of awe, wonder and reverence.”

I’m not complacent though – the odds are steep.  How can we, huge and cumbersome as you pointed out, survive your weaponry and appetites?

Dear devoted friend, with your spindly limbs and toenails for ears, in your letter you wrote of the suffering of man in concentration camps during wars and you mentioned the brutality of totalitarian regimes.  You said that you personally were helped in your captivity by dreams of the freedom of elephants – is there any way now, that in your freedom, you might help us?

Man alone of the species has the power to keep us free.  We cannot match you for intellect but we know love of family, respect for the dead, and have at least some sense of self.

A baby elephant and family

“you represent to perfection everything that is threatened today with extinction in the name of progress” (Words of Romain Gary in Dear Elephant, Sir)

I don’t consider you discourteous for having written that “my size, strength and craving for unrestricted existence” make me “quite obviously anachronistic” for it’s true but, as I also know, it’s because we’re so wrong that there’s hope.  You yourself said as much:

“your colossal presence and the fact of your survival against all odds, acts as a God-sent reassurance”.

I’ll always hold on to that.

Thank you for your words dear, very devoted friend.  Friendship like yours remains our truest hope.

May you rest in peace.

Your very vulnerable companion



Here is a link to the original article “Dear Elephant, Sir” and here is a short biography of the author Romain Gary, decorated war hero and twice honored slippery giant of French literature.

To complete the picture here are some details on the elephant.

Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2018

8 thoughts on “Dear Devoted Friend – Reply to: “Dear Elephant, Sir”

    • Thanks for looking in and for taking the time to make a comment. I did have a look at your review of The Outsider – you have some very interesting reviews on your blog. I think both the elephant and Romain Gary would consider themselves ‘outsiders’.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I found this letter quite heart-rending. I’m not sure why we can’t get this issue sorted out. Perhaps there should be a campaign of writing to various ambassadors of the People’s Republic of China to voice our displeasure.


    • Thanks for taking such an interest in the elephant. I know that there is a good deal of agitation on social media about elephants right now and I know that letters have been written and petitions signed – I just hope they are being read because they deserve to be. I think a key thing that can be done as well is to get as much information as possible out into the wider world about the needs of elephants. I grew up next to elephants in Zimbabwe, not amongst them, but thanks to Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamilton’s book published in the ’70s Among the Elephants developed a real fascination and respect for them. I was one of the lucky ones able to see elephants where they belong and I know that’s where they should stay. The more people understand elephants the less likely they will be to agree to their captivity and careless killing. I think the key is knowledge – I never want to believe that anyone who knows elephants would ever consent to holding them in cages or isolation.


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