13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Godfrey T. Degamo
- Published on Amazon.com
The subtitle is slightly misleading. This book is definitely a biography of the African elephant, but not from the point of view of the elephant, but of man's relationship with the African elephant. So note. This means that the science of the elephant is not the main thrust of this book, in fact, the biology, zoology, and ecology of the elephant is maybe a fourth of this book. So if you are looking solely for science, this book will disappoint you.
Bottom line first: If you are a fan of the elephant, or if this is your first book on the elephant, than this is a good book. If you know a lot about the science of the elephant, and want to know more about the culture of the elephant, this is a good start. Those wanting more science or more about the craft of ivory art, look else where.
Now, that is it, but read on for more details, if you like. This book is -rather- the history of man's relationship with the African elephant. It's quite romantic, tragic, and greedy at the same time. Meredith presents us with many facets of the elephant. From it's mythology in the ancient world, symbolizing both wisdom, and power. To the greed of the ivory trade which has happened several times in the past and has almost lead to the extinction of the elephant each time. There are plenty of color pictures showing the elephant as well as some nice illustrations peppered throughout the book.
So it starts right away with ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. And just how the elephants were used in these societies. Mostly for war, and for ivory. So, we see the history of elephant use in wars, from Alexanders first encounter with them, to Carthage's valiant attempt to overthrow Rome.
Meredith has almost captured the romance and the allure of Africa, from a colonial European viewpoint. Here, we are introduced to fabled lands of Punt, of Zanzibar. He even shows us the ties between the elephant and the Arabian nights. There are plenty of stories of the hunt, and of legendary hunters and their big adventures which included not only hunting elephants, but discovering such places as the source of the Nile.
There are some exciting passages of just how the elephant was hunted. From hunters that would to hang by an elephant tail, and bring it down, to spear hunters, to eventually gunmen.
Now, I say, from a colonial European viewpoint, because the ivory trade is intimately tied to both gold and slavery, and Meredith isn't shy to report these things too. The terrible greed is presented with some really vivid stories. One of them is about Arab merchants killing women's babeis to help the women better carry the ivory.
Throughout all the mayhem, Meredith shows the elephant as a very intelligent, gentle, and dare I say wise being. The stories are quite heartbreaking. Hunters doing mortal wound experiments finally notices the down elephant tearing, and puts it out of its misery. A calf cries in help after being stuck in a hunters trap. It's family tries to pull it out, but is scared away by hunters. Later, another troop comes, and the calf is adopted. Siblings knotting their tusks in intimate family bonding. In some ways, elephant families are more intimate than human ones.
Later chapters, present the science of the elephant. And since I'm a science fan, I found these chapters the most interesting. Meredith points out the differences between African savannah and forest elephants, and that of Indian elephants. He also writes about how elephants communicate, and their mating behaviors. But, by far the most interesting chapter in the entire book had to do with death. It is speculated that elephants 'know' of death, just as much as we do. They seem to grieve. They bury their dead. The look after the bones of their ancestors. In one story, an elephant breaks into a compound, retrieves the bones of a downed elephant, and places them back at the site where the downed elephant was shot.
Now let's get on with the negatives. Meredith focuses too much on the destruction of the elephant. Instead of having one chapter about how elephants were decimated by colonial europeans, we have several chapters each focusing on a particular region of Africa. And for each chapter, the story is much the same: an explorer finds a route into a region, a trade route is established, tusks, slaves, gold, rubber come out of the region.
It is a sad tale, and the story deserves it space, but I would rather they had focused on other things. For instance, he could have discussed more about the luxury of ivory. What makes it so alluring for people. We could have pictures of some of the items he talks about, like the chyrselephantine that are statues made of ivory and gold. With people more sympathetic to the elephant, it is hardly understandable today why anyone would want to kill an elephant to make a trinket.
Also, there are many questions unanswered that I wish Meredith will address in his next edition. What was man's pre-historical relationship with the elephant? Native Africans seemed to have lived with the elephant peacefully, it was the outsiders and ancient cultures that had a thirst for elephants. Meredith please speculate! Also, Elephants can have a powerful influence on the environment, turning jungles into savannahs. Could it be that the elephant had some influence on the expanding Sahara desert?
This is the biography of the African elephant, but I would have loved to have known the fate of Indian elephants. What about the species of elephants that lived on Greece which were only 3 feet high?
Finally, the illustrations, and pictures were a nice edition, but some key photos/drawings should be added to the next edition. In particular, is the comparison of the African savannah elephant to the African forest elephant to the Indian elephant, comparing the visible differences between these three species.
So, in summary, this book is a broad look at man's relationship with the African elephant. There are some parts that are too detailed, but Meredith overall does a fine job. He shows us just how atrocious, cruel, and mean Man's behavior has been, in stark contrast to the wise, compassionate, and graceful behavior of the Elephant.
Tim F. Martin
- Published on Amazon.com
_Elephant Destiny_ by Martin Meredith is a well-written and fast-reading account of the human and natural history of the African elephant. Roughly two-thirds of the book is an account of human interaction with this species, what impact it has had on art, culture, and its uses in human warfare, its role in providing an impetus to the exploration of Africa and most importantly of all the ivory trade. The other third provides interesting information on its biology, particularly its behavior and interaction within elephant herds.
Elephants were long sought after by various ancient civilizations. As early as 3000 BC the Egyptians had developed different hieroglyphs to distinguish between wild elephants and trained ones, and when elephants disappeared from Egypt they organized a number of expeditions southwards to Nubia and beyond (the land they called Punt) in large part to acquire ivory, which was used in everything from combs to gaming boards to especially goods to fill the graves of the pharaohs. In ancient Israel ivory was so revered that in 1000 BC King Solomon ordered the construction of a great ivory throne, overlaid with gold. The Greeks in the fifth century BC even developed a type of statuary known as chryselephantine in which ivory represented the flesh of a figure while gold stood in for clothing and hair. To help fill the insistent Greek demand for ivory local specialized Ethiopian elephant fighters known as Elephantomachoi arose. Two rival dynasties arising from the death of Alexander the Great both used war elephants, though while the Seleucids were able to obtain new elephants from India, the Ptolomies had to undertaken epic supply trips to get African elephants. Later the Carthaginians, particularly under Hannibal, were big advocates of war elephants, something that was at first successful against their Roman adversaries but later was countered by new Roman tactics. Though the Romans did not use African elephants in warfare they were fond of their use in entertainment, either trained elephants to be put on display or combatants to fight other animals or gladiators. The Romans also had an insatiable demand for ivory, particularly as insignia of office, to decorate temples and palaces, and in a wide range of luxury goods.
Much of the human history portions of the book are accounts of the discovery of new elephant herds in different parts of Africa, of how perhaps the natives did not know the value in overseas markets of the ivory in their vast elephant herds, and the "ivory rushes" that occurred as European and Arab hunters, traders, and others flooded in to take advantage of the new resource, be it the veldt of southern Africa, the jungles of Central Africa, or the game plains of East Africa. Though well-written and one cannot discount the bravery of many of the ivory hunters (Meredith provided many contemporary, first-hand accounts of the great difficulty in hunting elephants, often on foot as horses could not survive in much of Africa), it was somewhat depressing to see such magnificent animals suffer (even some of the hunters seem to realize this, if only for a moment) as well as to see the many associated unsavory aspects of the ivory trade. One observer, a British mariner by the name of Alfred Swann, wrote after encountering a huge caravan of slaves bearing ivory "Ivory! Always ivory! What a curse the elephant has been to Africans! By himself the slave did not pay to transport but plus ivory he was a paying game!" Sometimes it seems the slave trade would not have existed had there been no ivory in the region, slaves were often used primarily to transport ivory from the interior to the coast, and even in areas where the Africans were not enslaved any ivory they possessed was outright stolen and they were often forced to fulfill quotas of ivory (and punished severely if they failed).
Nevertheless the European, Arab, and Asian demand for ivory was impossible to satisfy. African ivory was prized above Indian ivory, as it was finer-grained, richer in tone, and larger. East African ivory was known as "soft" ivory and was white, opaque, gently curved, smooth, and easy to work. West African ivory was "hard" ivory and was less intensely white but glossier and more translucent. As Europe and the United States entered the industrial revolution not only did rising prosperity increase demand for such items as ivory combs, cutlery handles, and ornaments, the invention of new machinery made possible completely new mass-produced products such as piano keys and billiard balls (both required vast amounts of ivory, as each keyboard needed a pound and a half of ivory while billiard balls, in order for them to roll properly, had to be cut from the dead center of the tusk and thus a tusk could produce at most five balls). No other material responded so well to the industrial machinery of the Victorian era, as ivory could easily be cut, sawed, or etched, was quite flexible, and could be sliced into transparent paper-thin sheets; "[i]vory was in many ways the plastic of the era." Even shavings and scraps were used; boiled down to make gelatin, burned to make Indian ink, or used in fertilizer and in hair dye.
Of course the entire book is not just the ivory trade. Surprisingly the first scientific African elephant dissection did not occur until the 1940s! There was so little research on the species that scientists were surprised to find that elephant herds are organized into family units of closed related cows and their offspring (first suggested by researcher Irven Buss), not lead by "herd" or "sire" bulls and that elephants use long-distance calls made with sounds well below the range of human hearing to coordinate their movements.
The closing chapters of the book chronicle the ivory wars of the latter part of the 20th century and the ongoing and contentious debate over whether culling is needed in national parks and whether ivory is a sustainable resource or not.