Africa's Elephant

Meredith, Martin



FT WEEKEND - BOOKS: 'Nature's great master-peece'

By Ludovic Hunter Tilney

Financial Times; Jun 15, 2002

If elephants never forget then they must harbour a long list of grievances against humankind. They've been hunted for fun and slaughtered for profit; captured to entertain people in circuses and to terrify them in warfare. The luckless creature has had its feet turned into wastepaper baskets and its tusks transformed into anything from billiard balls to piano keys. And all this despite being routinely lauded as a noble, sensitive animal - "Nature's great master-peece, an Elephant", as the poet John Donne put it in 1601.

The centuries of elephantine persecution chronicled by Martin Meredith in Africa's Elephant(Sceptre 7.99, 244 pages) should make your blood boil. Should - but probably won't, for the book, informative and accessible though it is, lacks the imaginative spark to be truly engaging.

Still, you do learn an awful lot about African elephants. How they learned to tightrope walk in Roman times, for instance. Or that the first elephant arrived in England in 1254 as a present for Henry III: it was kept in the Tower of London and may have died from drinking too much red wine. And I for one never knew that the males make such beasts of themselves when amorous: "They carry themselves differently, their heads held high, striding out purposefully, waving their ears, all the while dribbling urine and secreting a dark viscous fluid from their temporal glands." The result? "Females of all ages . . . show great excitement." Result!

The Roman historian Pliny believed that, "[o]wing to their modesty, elephants never mate except in secret". Nonsense: it's more like "mating pandemonium", as a modern expert has described it, with the cow's family on hand (or trunk) as cheerleaders. Yet we tend to see elephants, like Pliny, through the lens of anthropomorphism. Often characterised as virtuous and intelligent (thence the legendarily good memory), it helps that they do indeed share some recognisably human traits: mourning and burying their dead, for example, or maintaining strong familial bonds. They communicate with each other, live into their 60s and even get drunk (on certain fruits which ferment in their stomachs).

But ultimately they've been prized mainly for their tusks. The ivory trade became most destructive of elephant populations in the 19th century, when global appetite for ivory products was voracious. The slave trade was a connected evil, leading one British missionary to comment bitterly: "Ivory! Always ivory! What a curse the elephant has been to Africans." Better substitute "Europeans" for "elephant", however, since the mass killing of elephants - as many as 65,000 annually in the late 19th century - was symptomatic of European looting of Africa: it's no coincidence that Kurtz in Joseph Conrad' s The Heart of Darkness is an ivory trader in that rapacious colony, Leopold II's Congo Free State.

You finish the book with a sense of how complex a creature the African elephant is. But none of these impressions comes across particularly vividly, since Meredith's style calls to mind Joe Friday's catchphrase in Dragnet: "Just the facts, ma'am".

Ludovic Hunter-Tilney

Book ID 626