Saturday, February 2, 2013


Elephants with their huge size are scary, but really they are gentle giants,vegans and very social.  I read last year that elephants share at least one human emotion, that of grief.  We humans like to think we are unique, certainly from the animal kingdom.  The emotional life of animals is becoming more studied and as part of my interest read two books focusing on elephants.

Lawrence Anthony grew up in Africa and decided he wanted to develop a wild game reserve.  He didn't originally envision elephants, but was given a call about a troubled wild herd.  Part of the herd had been killed and a trophy hunter wanted to buy the survivors.  Conservationists wanted to provide a sanctuary for them.  Lawrence, having no experience with elephants agreed to help out.

At first the elephants were traumatized and were determined to escape.  On their first attempt Lawrence learned a few things.  They are clever and figured out some of the aspects of the electric fence and were able to neutralize it.  He took steps to solidify containment, but also decided to get to know them better.  He was quite impressed how they knew their way back hundreds of miles; could be separated, but find each other again.

Lawrence experienced fear and anger from the elephants, but gradually they came to trust him.  The leaders actually became protective of him. At one point he witnessed how they tried to revive a dying infant elephant.

The herd is controlled by females.  In this particular herd there were no adult males and the one adolescent male was ostracized.  When Lawrence won over the dominant female gradually the others were managed.  They were left in a very vast area.

After they developed a friendship with Lawrence they seemed to know when he was returning from long business trips.  They seemed to have a way of communicating.  He mentions stomach rumbles.

A myth he discarded was the common one of an elephant grave yard that they seek when they realize they are dying.  As elephants age their teeth decline and they seek out softer food to eat.  This often puts them in wetlands where they will usually die.

"The White Bone" is a fictional story of elephants where the Canadian  author, Barbara Gowdy, has attempted to get inside their minds.  It seems like a complicated family with a few oddities.  Smells seem much more dominant.  Females and males lead separate but overlapping lives.  Dung and urine are objects not only of medicinal value, but also nutritional value and indicators both natural and non natural.

They are in conflict with humans who they call hind leggers (from an animal viewpoint we walk on our hind legs) and desire to avoid.  Drought is also a problem the elephants contend with as most of the book they are seeking shelter from the disasters of men and of drought.

There is a glossary at the front which translates elephant words into more familiar human words. After finishing the book I discovered a Wikipedia article that gives a list of characters and their role. The book can be confusing because of similar names and often you realize a word used doesn't make sense until you check it against the glossary.

After reading both of these books I felt in need of some fact checking.  Google is wonderful in helping track down the most obscure information.  Elephants snort, trumpet, and croak that our ears can detect.  There is such a thing as infrasonic rumbling which comes from their abdomens.  Studies are new and not as detailed as they likely will become.  Elephant infrasonic rumbling can communicate through the air and through the ground as much as 10 kilometers.   The information communicated regards such things as location, food, friendliness and sex.  Read more here:

We are still learning about life forms that are closer to us than we have acknowledged.

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