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15 november 2011

Dan Wylie recounts how, when he began to write Elephant, he was suddenly at the receiving end of a flood of elephant memorabilia. The barrage of elephants was apparently somewhat cool but somewhat unnerving. Why should elephants so inundate the shelves of collectors? What fiercely filial relation does humanity have to this large land animal that so few of us have seen in its native habitat? Wylie's excellent book is an attempt to address this question, as well as inform the reader about elephant physiology, ecology, and conservation.

Elephants are among the most familiar of all animals, despite their relegation, in most of the world, to the abject conditions of circuses and zoos. Elephant, however, is notable for making the big creatures uncanny again. Wylie reproduces a photograph (by Steve Bloom) of an elephant swimming. It's weird enough to think of an elephant swimming, but Bloom caught the scene from below the elephant, shooting straight up into the the blue. Elephants are apparently excellent swimmers, at home in the medium as much as humans or tigers. We know from circuses that they are famously nimble. Wylie brings home how silent elephants are in the bargain. They are intelligent. There's some evidence that they recognize themselves in mirrors; they certainly recognize a high degree of individuality in one another, and form complex, long-lasting social groups. Elephants "alloparent" – they share child-care duties – a feature seen only in a few other big-brained species like humans and whales. They can paint: elephant paintings tend to be repetitive collections of brushswipes, but again, the list of species that can make even abstract paintings is pretty short: humans, apes, and elephants. (And maybe dolphins, but it looks to me like dolphins just jab at the canvas, which come to think of it is pretty impressive all the same.)

Elephants, like all large animals, are endangered. Their habitats are dwindling. They have a better purchase on life in Africa, where there are still large tracts of officially protected wilderness, than in Asia, where human population growth and economic developments haven't left many areas large enough to sustain elephant groups. Just a few decades ago, elephants were crucial to many Asian economies; they are excellent beasts for extreme burdens. Tragically, Asian elephants were pressed into helping clear their own forest habitats. And with the advent of motorization in agriculture and forestry, the elephants have found themselves redundant.

And then there's ivory hunting, another example of the tragedy of the commons that has driven many species with some commodifiable body part to the brink of extinction, as the whale with its oil and the shark with its fins. Can conservation ever outweigh exploitation on a global scale?

The elephant must wonder what it has walked into. It's been minding its own business, cautious and alert, hungry and sociable, for millenia. Now its world has collapsed thanks to the appetites of swarming, puny apes. What have we wrought?

Wylie, Dan. Elephant. London: Reaktion, 2008.