Animal Studies Bibliography

Wylie, Dan. 2008. Elephant. Reaktion Books.
(Summarized by Ryan Gunderson, Animal Studies Program, Michigan State University)

Dan Wylie provides a short but systematic overview of the magnificent animal that he considers to have “populate[d] the global consciousness more deeply and emotively than perhaps any other species, bar dogs and cats”: the elephant (p. 7). Below I adopt Wylie’s five broad organizing categories to summarize his book. “Proboscidae” (Chapter 1), details the elephant’s complex and scientifically contentious ancestry. Chapter 2, entitled “An Astounding Physiology” outlines the unique physiological features which have shaped the lives of elephants in human culture and institutions. “Representing Elephants” (Chapter 3) examines the symbolic place of elephants in humanity’s lifeworld. Wylie assesses the ways elephants have been, often brutally, utilized for human ends in Chapter 4, “Using Elephants.” Wylie’s final chapter, “Conservation,” depicts the history and struggles of conserving the now endangered (Asian elephant) and threatened (African elephant) species.
In Chapter 1, Wylie outlines the long, complex, and scientifically contentious natural history of the elephant. The order Proboscidae has a long history with the earliest fossil dating back to 40 million B.C. The most popular ancestor of the elephant today, belonging to its family Elephantidae, is the mammoth. In traditional Chinese and Siberian mythology, frozen mammoth fossils were said to be giant, cursed mole-rat-type creatures that could bring bad luck to their communities if exhumed. Explanations abound as to why the mammoth went extinct, including, climatic reason, lack of vegetation, human overhunting, and disease. Although Proboscidae flourished in the Miocene period, only three species exist today: the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis), the African savanna (or bush) elephant (Loxodonta africana), and the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus). Scientists have taxonomic debates on whether to create subspecies within the existing species categories. For instance, the Asian elephant was once subdivided between Sri Lankan elephants and the mainland species (a classification no longer in use). Currently scientists are deciding whether or not to create subspecies categories for the Sumatran and Malaysian Asian elephants. The distinction between savanna and forest African elephants is complicated by the fact they sometimes interbreed and there may be up to five distinct populations.
Wylie provides an overview of the elephant’s “Astounding Physiology” in Chapter 2. The elephant’s size, tusks, trunk, and intelligence have fascinated humans for years: both in forms of appreciation and domination. The massive size of elephants (an average African male is 5.5 tons) has attracted a diverse crowd of human enthusiasts, including, warlords, children, hunters, zoo-goers, and tourists. Their massive body requires a lot of food (up to 300 kg a day) and creates a lot of waste that is essential for ecosystem health (100 kg a day). Their ivory tusks, which display tree-ring-like histories of climate and diet, have ironically led to countless elephant deaths through hunting and poaching (an adaptation that developed for defense). The elephant’s dental structure not only can lead to its demise via poaching, but the erosion of their “brick-sized” molars leads to starvation when they are around sixty-years-old. The elephant’s
trunk is strong enough to physically deter predators and delicate enough to pick up a coin. “Fingers” are attached to the tip of the elephant’s trunk (Africans have two and Asians have one) that contain unique nerve endings also found in the female elephant’s clitoris. Elephant intelligence is either measured by brain to body weight ratios or by behavior. Elephant display many behaviors that lead to theories of high intelligence: altruism, (possible) self-awareness, tool use, complex communication systems (including “rumbling” that is inaudible to humans that can be heard up to 1 km away), and awareness of death. The latter assertion is deduced from elephant behavior, such as the attempt to revive dying family members and visiting the corpses and bones of dead elephants.
Wylie’s most detailed chapter, “Elephant Representations” (Chapter 3), examines the long and diverse history of elephant representations in human culture. The earliest elephant and mammoth representations are found in many rock art sites throughout the world. As Wylie put it, “[p]eople have been depicting elephants ever sense they could depict anything” (p. 63). Africa continues its long tradition of elephant art today, a fact which Wylie feels is underemphasized in most modern accounts of elephants in human art and culture. Elephants have a long tradition as religious symbols and gods in the East; the most well-known being the Hindu pantheon, Ganesh. As Wylie shows, Ganesh’s myth did not develop until late in Hinduism’s history (seventh century A.D.), but elephants were an important component of Hindu mythology early on. In Buddhism, two important myths include elephants as central figures. (1) Buddha’s mother is said to have been immaculately impregnated by a visiting elephant and (2) Buddha is said to have been later incarnated as a white elephant who was deeply devoted to his parents. European portrayals of the elephant before the Renaissance were mostly (unintentionally) inaccurate and almost comical, with oversized heads and trumpet-like trunks. Human literature often incorporates the elephant in proverbs, stories, and poems. While much of the literature that features the elephant attempts to gain wisdom through elephant parables, Wylie considers the European “sportsman” literature of the 19th and early 20th century to be “murderous” (p. 91). In the West, children’s stories are the most common source of elephant stories: from Dumbo to Babar to Dr. Seuss’ Horton. Wylie concludes the chapter with concern that the commodification of elephant symbolism will strip meaning from our long cultural history of elephant representations.
Chapter 4, “Using Elephants,” analyses the use of elephants in human history for war, prestige, labor, and entertainment. Elephants were tamed as early as 3000 B.C. in Egypt and 2000 B.C. in Egypt. Humans have used many means to catch elephants from the wild, including, pitfalls, lassoing, enclosures, tranquilizers, and stealing babies from mothers. Until recently, elephant tamers used brutal means to tame elephants but now humans have realized it is more effective to be “gentle.” Although only covered briefly by Wylie, most tamed elephants were tamed so they could labor: to move heavy objects (particularly timber) and to break trails. More sensationally, emperors and kings have used tamed elephants for years in wars; mainly to show power and to awe the enemy. This phenomenon was not restricted to the East as elephants were incorporated into Alexandra the Great’s and Hannibal’s armies. Elephants have been used in the
West for entertainment as early as the Roman games. Today, zoos and circuses continue to flourish despite many criticisms of their cruelty. Elephants in circuses are forced to perform painful and humiliating “tricks” and travel long hours while boxed up. Even zoo managers are starting to confess that zoos cannot meet the needs of elephants and the conservation argument is undercut when studying the startling low successful elephant birth rates in zoos. Although elephants are esteemed in much of human culture, they have had a painful history within human societies.
Wylie’s final chapter, “Conservation,” provides a brief history of the ivory trade and the sometimes contradictory attempts at elephant conservation. There are an estimated 40,000 to 52,000 Asian elephants and 472,000 African elephants remaining today. These low numbers are due to desire for ivory and loss of habitat. The ivory trade has existed for a long time, “trade in ivory is almost as old as trade itself” (p. 153). Ivory is perfect for carving, has long been considered beautiful, and in the West is an ideal material for piano keys and billiard balls. The ivory trade is intimately tied to human slavery where ivory was carried out of Africa “literally on the back[s] of slaves” (p. 156). Although an international ivory trade ban started in 1989, this may have just pushed the market underground. In addition to lust for ivory, Indian and Nepalese farmers kill many elephants every year in order to protect their crops. Ironically, thousands of elephants are killed every year in South Africa’s Kruger National Park (and other areas) to allegedly protect biodiversity; a fact that Wylie refers to as the “saddest paradox in all conservation history” (p. 179).


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