Elephant Tales: Coming of Age with Elephants

March 16, 2010

“To spend an afternoon in close company with elephants is awe-inspiring, but to watch elephants in the company of someone who knows each individual by name and can describe the meaning of each vocalization can, I have been told, be a very powerful and moving experience.”

Joyce Poole is such a person, and her book “Coming to Age with Elephants” describes her life with the elephants from childhood growing up in Kenya right through to the fight to get in place the ban on ivory. Her studies into the bull elephants, in particular musth as well as studies into communication between elephants has been groundbreaking and she has become one of the most renowned elephant experts in the world.

“It takes a very callous person to witness these animals and not be led to some fundamental questions about humanity and our place in the world.”

This book was in a word fascinating. There is so much knowledge to be gained, from the lives that bull elephant live, the communication between elephants and to me especially, the sense of self she believes elephants have. Stories she shares of elephants mourning lost ones like Tonie’s vigil over her stillborn baby for days, Vladimir, who caught a disease that almost crippled him, being looked after by several males, Albert accompanying the slow elephant to the swamp. There is a story of an elephant tusking a human and then looking after him, “knowing” he was injured and needed to be protected. The list of these stories goes on and I still revel in the fascination of them now.

“If we acknowledge  that elephants have fantasies and an imagination, it suggests that they, too, may have comparable moments of self awareness”

Poignant was that the day I finished the book, I got an email asking to sign a petition to stop the downgrading of elephants on the CITES list and overturning the ban on ivory. I had just read about the fight Joyce Poole and other defenders of elephants had fought to get the ban in place. Although almost twenty years have passed since that ban was put into place, it was fresh in my memory and the blow hit hard. The fight begins anew.

This quote heads one of the dark chapters on the fight against ivory and I highlighted it with one of my sticky-notes. At this stage in the book, and being on the side of the elephants, you understand the sarcastic bitterness that comes forth from it. You begin to wonder, humanity can only push so far, before the world starts to push back. Actions are not without consequences. What will we face in return of all the damage that we do the world?

“Thirty thousand elephants, three hundred tons of ivory, if that. And as the aim of good government is to increase production, I’m sure that this year we shall do better. With a little good will, we shall certainly manage, taking Africa as a whole, to kill a hundred thousand elephants a year, and so on till the ceiling is reached, if I may put it that way. It will then be necessary to pass on to other species. Ours, I suggest.”
– Romain Gary, The Roots of Heaven

The library copy will need to be returned and I will soon be finding a copy of my own, where the sticky notes do not need to be removed at the end of the three week loan and can be referred to at any time as I continue to soak up the knowledge. 

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