The Worth of An Elephant


by Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker

Date Published
We have known the elephants, the greatest land mammal of them all—highly sensitive, intelligent, family-oriented, big-toothed creatures—for a very long time, and they have known us. It has been a tortuous relationship, and one that is still evolving. We have revered elephants as gods; killed them for their ivory; captured and enslaved them to be our beasts of burden in work and war, and for our entertainment.
Earlier this month, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced that it had decided to phase elephants out of its public spectacles, retiring its remaining forty-three working elephants to a park it owns in Florida, where twenty-nine elephants already live. The decision follows years of pressure from animal-rights groups, and is part of a trend that has been gathering strength for years. Most other circuses in the United States and Western Europe have stopped using the animals because the routine use of prods, cages, and chains, both to transport elephants and to force their obedience, has come to be seen by growing numbers of people, including circusgoers, as cruel.
The Ringling news is striking. In our gradual awakening to the idea that we must protect the elephant from enslavement and cruelty, it may be possible to hear echoes of other dawnings of conscience. As someone born at a time of widespread consensus that human slavery was one of history’s most despicable and shameful practices, I’ve always been intrigued by the realization that, during the life of my great-great-grandfather, there were a significant number of otherwise intelligent and sensitive white Americans and Europeans who apparently did not see it that way.
And then I recall the excitement that I felt at going to the circus as a child. There were at least flashes of discomfort when I watched as trainers used prods to make elephants hold each other’s tails with their trunks and sway back and forth to music, or shouted commands for them to kneel, to put their bottoms in the air. But, in the end, the spectacle, the noisy euphoria of the crowds, and the presence of grownups all telegraphed an acceptance of things as they were, and one’s awareness of the elephants’ humiliation became somehow less acute. As an adult, it has been easier to perceive the treatment of circus elephants for what it is: cruel.
I lived in Liberia for a year as an adolescent boy, in the early nineteen-seventies, and keenly sought out opportunities to get into the country’s remote interior in the hopes of seeing wildlife. I once hiked into an area of extremely remote bush for the purpose of seeing that country’s forest elephants, which, even then, were exceedingly rare. We found some old spoor but saw no live elephants.
That same year, on a trip to East Africa, I met a Canadian missionary who invited me to join him on an elephant-hunting trip into the jungle of southwestern Uganda, near its frontiers with Rwanda and Congo. For a boy of fourteen, the invitation seemed a ticket to adventure, and I quickly agreed. For a week we prowled the deep bush, coming across all kinds of wild animals, and the missionary shot a couple of antelope, but there were no elephants to be found. Meanwhile, I began to have qualms about the idea of killing an elephant. It troubled me that the missionary said he was a man of God but told me that he wanted to kill an elephant with tusks big enough to be placed in Rowland Ward’s “Records of Big Game,” which measured and ranked hunters’ animal trophies. When I asked if he planned to use any part of the elephant besides its tusks, he thought for a moment and said, “Its feet, for umbrella stands. And its tail, for a fly swatter.”
Then came the afternoon when, on a hilltop, we spotted a group of elephants, including a pair of big tuskers, about a half mile away. They were coming out of the jungle and had begun to move slowly across a large clearing. The missionary became excited and very tense. He pointed and explained: in one direction lay the protective boundaries of a Ugandan national park; in the other direction lay wilderness where the elephants could legally be shot. For several minutes more, the elephants made their way, and finally opted for the safety of the national park. The missionary was irate, but I was immensely relieved. It was a before-and-after moment for me with the elephant. After that safari, as exciting as it was, I was never comfortable again with the idea of trophy hunting, especially not in Africa.
There has been, in recent years, a parallel public awakening with regard to several other creatures kept captive for human entertainment, such as tigers and lions, dolphins and orcas. Conscience evolves unevenly, though, even now, with the elephant. In 2012, the Spanish monarch, Juan Carlos I, a previously revered public figure, was revealed to have gone to Botswana on a secret safari that was paid for by a Saudi businessman, on which he was accompanied by a woman other than his queen. A photograph was published showing Juan Carlos posing with a gun next to the body of a dead elephant. After the scandal broke, Juan Carlos made a public apology, though he expressed no specific remorse for his elephant killing. Juan Carlos’s reputation never recovered, and he abdicated, in 2014, in favor of his son Felipe.
When, in February, the Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe, celebrated his ninety-first birthday, he made headlines with the news that the menu at the banquet thrown in his honor included a freshly shot baby elephant (as well as two buffalo, two sable and five impala antelopes, and ninety-one cows). For an act of equivalent crassness, one must conjure a scenario in which Queen Elizabeth, say, would insist on her regal rights by dining on koala, with perhaps a few swans thrown in.
Last July, in The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert wrote about the highly precarious situation faced by Africa’s rapidly dwindling population of wild elephants. She also detailed the horrific recent death, at the hands of poachers, of Satao, one of Kenya’s last true great bull elephants. Satao had tusks so large that they literally reached the ground, weighing probably two hundred pounds apiece. Apparently Satao was intelligent enough to comprehend the dangers he faced, and habitually sought to stand behind brush when humans were around so as to conceal his large tusks from view.
Last week, a Kenyan judge granted bail to a man believed to be one of East Africa’s main illegal-ivory kingpins, Feisal Mohamed Ali, who was among the top ten suspects on Interpol’s most-wanted list for crimes against the environment. He is accused of complicity in poaching from Kenya’s wildlife parks. (He has pleaded not guilty.) “The world is a global village. You can run, but you cannot hide,” the judge said. He then released Ali, who had previously dodged arrest by fleeing to Tanzania, on a bond that was the equivalent of just over a hundred thousand dollars. The amount of ivory in the case, two tons of elephant tusks, was, in contrast, worth approximately four and a half million dollars on the Asian ivory market. They would also have cost the lives of a hundred and fourteen elephants.