Sunday, May 10, 2020

The noble elephant

Elephants are the largest land mammal, but in reality they are sentient social beings.  This is my third book on elephants and have sharpened my appreciation of what noble animals they are.  They are intelligent and have  an elaborate social network.   They communicate with the grunts, but are able to send messages through infrasound which is like inner rumblings.  Their unique trunks can manipulate almost like human hands.  Their nose can detect smells far better than we can. Unique among animals they understand death.

Billy Williams had fought on different fronts in the First World War many involving animals  After the war he turned down jobs in England looked for something more interesting.  He took a job working with elephants in remote jungles of Burma.  Job turnover was very high. and his boss was very harsh and had very low expectations.  After a brief training period he was sent into the wilderness with little supervision.

Teak is one of the hardest woods and is impervious to insects.  It has not been cultivated and is available in remote areas randomly. 

One of his first charges died and Billy  decided to open it up and do an autopsy to better understand the cause.  Later killed a wild elephant to see what healthy elephants were like.  With this comparison was able to argue with his boss that the death was not his fault.  His boss was impressed, but forbade any more killing of wild elephants.  Over a period of time developed a healthy relation with the boss.

In his quest to better understand elephants he discovered Po Toke, a gifted handler and Bandoola his favorite elephant..  The uzi (elephant handlers) realized that Bandoola was very special.  Tradition dictated that training elephants before age 20 was a waste, but at 20 the methods were brutal.  Po Toke thought and Williams agreed that it could start younger--Williams got permission from his boss to start "gentling" at age 5.  Bandoola was raised differently and it was thought he had a wild bull for a father.  Bandoola had good size and impressed uzi Po Teke that he would copy his mother when given commands  and picked up new commands readily at young age.

New management system initiated by Williams and encouraged by Po Teke started younger and used  gentling methods. 

Musht is a condition that male elephants go through musht at about age 20.  They become more aggressive and their reproductive hormones.   It can be very disorienting and Williams was very concerned about Bandoola's musht period.  The process is described in detail.   Williams was fortunate to witness Bandoola's first mating.

Learning the habits of elephants is important to work with them.  One challenge (learning experience) occurs when they are forced to cross deep rivers  One observation that is also relevant to human behaviour is that "dominance is not leadership."  Crossing a challenging river  it is often  a female that gets going inspiring confidence in those to follow.  Confidence more critical than bravado

World War II hit Williams when the Japanese attacked Burma.   many colonial subjects saw war as chance for independence M0,000 Indians fought on the Japanese side.  Williams with his wife and son were part of about 600,000 Indians, Burmese and Brits fled to India in what was to that date, the greatest migration in history.

Williams was ready to use his elephant expertise to help the allied cause.  Often they were used as pack animals, but one of their most critical uses was to help transport teak and other materials to build bridges.  The Japanese were also trying to use elephants, but they did not have the expertise provided by Williams and his loyal uzis.

Hannibal took a train of elephants through the Alps to attack Rome which must have been very challenging.  Williams found he had to get over 50 elephant to climb a mountainous ledge that was more like a ladder and with a view of a long drop back to the jungle.  The key was to build confidence in the elephants which they did with bated breath. They were successful

After this war Billy moved back to England with his wife and two children.  He wrote about his life with elephants.   His son Treve became a veterinarian in Tasmania and provided much of the information for this book.

Earlier I read two books concerning elephants in Africa that opened my views.  One was about a game warden in Africa and the other a fictional narrative illustrating their social concerns.  Check out a review:

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