- Paperback: 244 pages
- Publisher: HarperCollins Canada / Public Affairs (June 29 2004)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 9781586482336
- ISBN-13: 978-1586482336
- ASIN: 1586482335
- Product Dimensions: 14 x 1.5 x 21.6 cm
- Shipping Weight: 318 g
- Average Customer Review: Be the first to review this item
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #1,020,019 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Elephant Destiny: Biography of an Endangered Species in Africa Paperback – Jun 29 2004
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The book is short (despite its 200 pages) and could have spent more time focused on the elephants themselves rather than just their history with man. There is some fascinating research regarding elephant intelligence, society, and communication, but these are given short shrift (some of that is covered in the more recent book The Elephant's Secret Sense: The Hidden Life of the Wild Herds of Africa). On the other hand, the anecdotes about elephants and death (in the chapter "Death") is great. I also loved the anecdote of an elephant grabbing a crocodile with its trunk and swinging it around.
I would also have liked to have read more about elephant evolution - their descendants, their roots in Africa, and why other species went extinct. There is a short chapter on this, but not nearly enough. However, that might be beyond the scope of this book (which why the next book I'm reading is Evolving Eden: An Illustrated Guide to the Evolution of the African Large Mammal Fauna).
This book doesn't have many pictures of elephants (although it does have a small inset). If you want more of a picture book, I recommend: Elephant Reflections by Karl Ammann.
And a great DVD documentary on elephants in Amboseli National Park: Echo and Other Elephants
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.