I have always had this love affair with elephants, these gray, wrinkled, lumbering mastodons, survivors of a primordial past, trunks swaying, gentle creatures, yet fearsome when provoked.
Among animals, they're probably the most attached to one another. What surprises many is the social sophistication of their matriarchal society characterized by close relationships with all herd members, many of them related. Herds, sometimes numbering up to a hundred, are headed by the oldest female and calves are raised and protected by the entire matriarchal herd. (Males generally leave the herd at about 15 years and live apart.)
Elephants are found in Africa and Asia and it's easy to tell them apart, as the Asian species is smaller. When I see the large ears, I know at once it's an African elephant.
Both male and female African elephants have tusks, to their own undoing. In contrast, only the Asian male has them.
Highly intelligent, elephants can communicate messages over long distances with their feet.
They are also endowed with prodigious memory, as I think most of us know.
Elephants have the longest noses of any animal, for that's what their trunks really are. Some sport trunks up to seven feet in length, yet they never get in the way, as they're used to grasp as well as feed. With this tool, they've been known to assist calves to stand or pull them up over an embankment.
Their ivory tusks are actually teeth that never stop growing.
Lesser known is the elephant's capacity to mourn their dead.
Population growth has reduced its habitat inexorably, resulting in elephants invading villages in search for food, in turn, leading to hunting parties. Immense poverty has triggered poachers to seek quick Asian money for ivory. Even reserves, dedicated to wildlife safety, are violated and any elephant, mother or calf, is gunned down for its tusks. African governments lack the financial resources needed to upgrade security. Reserves themselves are a last ditch effort to provide sanctuary but, unfortunately, often conspire against elephant interests, blocking off migration routes when they need to mate or find new food resources.
Just over a century ago, several million elephants roamed Western and Central Africa's savannahs and dense jungles; today, about 300,000 remain. In Asia, their numbers have dwindled from 100,000 to 35,000, all of them domesticated.
Often weighing up to seven tons, their sole predator is Man. In Cameroon, 300 elephants were recently slaughtered, their bodies left to rot. Such slaughters are likely to define their future, given the nature of Man's capacity for ruthlessness for the sake of coin.
To fully appreciate elephants, I highly recommend Jeffrey Moussaleff Masson's moving book, When Elephants Weep, an exploration of their capacity, along with other animals, for emotion.
Conrad had it right about the ignominy of Man, his ruthless capacity, hidden behind his civilized veneer, for retrogression to a latent savagery taking many hues.
When elephants weep, I weep with them. I weep for a vanishing legacy that our grandchildren may never know: the cry of elephants, the thunder of their feet, the mystery of their dark eyes.
I weep most for a declining vestige of a once garden world distanced from Man's malevolence, a fall from grace into the heart of darkness.