The Complicated History of the Human and Elephant Relationship


Bianca Sánchez, Smithsonian.Com

Date Published

See link for illustrations & photos.

In summer of 1930, Mathieu de Brunhoff, age 4, of Paris, France, suffered a headache. To distract Mathieu from the pain, and her older son Laurent from his brother’s whining, Cécile de Brunhoff, thought up a bedtime story. 

Cécile told her boys of a grieving elephant, bemoaned by the sudden death of his mother at the hand of hunters. The poor elephant retreats from his jungle home, finding temporary solace in an unknown city. 
By happenstance, the elephant comes upon an abandoned purse—the contents of which he uses to buy a fancy new outfit before happily returning to the jungle.

Captivated by the little elephant’s story, Mathieu and Laurent shared it the following day with their father, Jean, a painter. To amuse his children, Jean produced a watercolor portrait of the elephant, complete with a green formal suit and black bowler hat. The elephant’s name? Babar.

Jean de Brunhoff released the first Babar book, Histoire de Babar a year later, and went on to publish four more before his death two years later. He left two other Babar stories unfinished. Laurent, then 13, completed his father’s proofs and has since illustrated and published more than 50 Babar books. 

At age 92, in 2017, Laurent published Babar’s last adventure, Babar’s Guide to Paris. “I had my life with Babar,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “He made me happy.”

Babar has similarly delighted more than 10 million worldwide readers—though critics point to Brunhoff’s story as a cloaked endorsement of French colonialism. Nevertheless, several prominent creators followed Brunhoff’s lead and granted human characteristics to other fictional and cordial elephants. In 1940, Dr. Seuss’s Horton hatched the egg, and the next year Dumbo showed the world “the very things that hold you down are going to lift you up.”

These sympathetic mid-century portrayals mark a distinct moment of redirection in the evolution of human-elephant relations. Currently on exhibition at the National Museum of Natural History, not far from the famous Fenykovi elephant in the museum’s rotunda, Smithsonian Libraries has organized “Game Change: Elephants from Prey to Preservation,” a show that tracks this historic negotiation. 

The show includes rare books, children’s stories like Babar, photographs, manuscripts, artworks and artifacts including an elephant radio collar. The offerings are primary sources for the telling of a rich story of a negotiation over time, one in which generations determined whether to loathe or love, hunt or preserve the great land whale.

“To see [elephants] as the ecologically important beasts that they are, means they are not Babar,” says Marshall Jones of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, who spoke recently at a panel discussion on the occasion of the show’s opening. “There is still another evolutionary step we have to go through in our own understanding,”

While the cartoons Babar, Horton and Dumbo, are childlike, playful and fun, global human-elephant relations are serious fare. 

African elephants face a poaching crisis. 
Asian elephants, numbering just a mere 40,000—a tenth of the African elephant population—are fending off encroaching extinction. In communities across Asia, elephants regularly destroy homes, crops and livelihoods. In Sri Lanka alone, a country close to the size of West Virginia with 20 million people and 5,000 elephants, roughly 70 people and 250 elephants are killed annually due to the human-elephant conflict.

“Could you imagine us tolerating, in West Virginia, 5,000 of an animal that . . . kills people?” Jones asks. “We wouldn’t tolerate that in this country, and yet [the people of Sri Lanka] do and they’re trying to achieve that balance.”

The search for balance in the human understanding of elephants dates back millenniums. While initially hunted for food and ivory, elephants later became a “living tank” for ancient militaries. 

The elephants were tamed then trained as war machines. However, following the proliferation of artillery combat, elephants in the 18th and 19th centuries were relegated as beasts of burden, hauling supplies and assisting with building projects.

At that time, elephants were hunted for ivory or for sport by big game European and American hunters. Still big game hunters aided future conservation efforts in an unlikely way. They were among the first to recognize, and draw concern to, the decline in the elephant population.

The “first conservation president,” according to Mark Madison of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was President Theodore Roosevelt. During his presidency, Roosevelt protected close to 230 million acres of public land and founded the modern U.S. Forest Service. 

He established 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves and five national parks. In 1910 Roosevelt wrote for Scribner’s Magazine, noting that “it would be a veritable and most tragic calamity if the lordly elephants, the giant among existing four-footed creatures, should be permitted to vanish from the face of the earth.”

In 1909, in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution, Roosevelt embarked on a year-long African hunting expedition with his 19-year-old son Hermit. 

The expedition brought back 23,000 specimens for the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Mammal specimens numbered more than 5,000, along with nearly 4,500 birds and over 2,000 reptiles. On his expedition to Africa, Roosevelt and his son collectively shot 11 elephants.

“It wasn’t seen as a conflict,” Madison says of Roosevelt’s hunting. Many conservationists of the time were also avid hunters. By 1913, the African elephant population, which once held at 26 million had dropped below ten million.

Just as the big game hunters of the 19th century engaged in unconvincing conservationist crusades, elephants began appearing in local American and European zoos and circus shows. Everyday folk were given the chance to observe elephants, outside the folklore found in books or spread by old war tales.

Perhaps the most famous of elephants introduced to 19th-century American audiences was Barnum and Bailey’s Jumbo. This 11-and-a-half-foot, six-and-a half-ton African elephant had previously stunned onlookers at London’s National Zoo. For roughly $2,000, a steal at the deals time, P.T. Barnum bought the strapping elephant who soon became the greatest act in Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth.

Elephants like Jumbo fascinated children from both the nations. The Brits began to liken anything excessively large as “Jumbo.” Perceptions of the creatures as gentle giants took shape as zoo-goers and circus-crowds encountered a tamed, genial and domesticated giant.

Throughout the mid-20th century, as mothers and fathers like Cecile de Brunhoff began to incorporate elephants into bedtime stories, followed by Dr. Seuss and Disney, generation after generation fell in love with the creatures.

Truly, these artistic representations had their finger on the pulse of changing conservationist attitudes. Humans in these texts were most often portrayed as the reason for the elephants’ pain. Cruel circus handlers imprisoned Mrs. Jumbo for protecting her son, Dumbo. Babar’s mother was killed by hunters. Horton was both nearly shot by hunters and caged by circus handlers.

Conservationists began to push for the preservation of biodiversity in the 1960s as conservation biology emerged as a leading scientific field. In 1973 the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was signed into law. 

Three years later, the Asian elephant was listed as endangered, with the African elephant following suite in 1978. However, while the Asian elephant ivory trade was entirely banned, the African ivory trade was allowed to continue until 1990. 
By that time, the African elephant population had dropped to 600,000. Poaching continues today threatening the remaining population of about 400,000 African elephants.

Asian elephants only number a tenth of the African elephant group. These 40,000 Asian elephants reside in difficult terrains and dense habitats, like Sri Lanka, that lend themselves to tenser human-elephant conflict. 

“We know the people don’t actually want to kill elephants,” says Melissa Songer of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. “But they also can’t afford to have elephants stomping half of their crops in one night, and destroying their homes.”

The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Conservation Ecology Center partners with regional and local experts across Asia to track elephant movement and changes in human land-use. With this data, CEC and the regional experts are working to devise new land-use strategies to protect both humans and elephants.

These conservation biologists are not protecting elephants because of how caring and cuddly Babar and Dumbo appear on the watercolor pages of children’s stories. Neither are they solely motivated by the nightmarish prediction that their great-grandchildren will never see an elephant with their own eyes. 

Elephants are a necessary member of the global ecosystem and are known to express self-awareness, have memories and communicate, and like Babar, they play, express grief and altruism, and play and learn. But as Jones says, there is still another necessary step toward a more holistic human understanding of these important beasts—a step even beyond Babar.

“Game Change: Elephants from Prey to Preservation,” featuring selections from the Russell E. Train Africana Collection, is on view at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. through February 1, 2020.