What comes to mind when you think of elephants? For me, it’s lovable characters from my childhood. Jean de Brunhoff’s Babar, Disney’s Dumbo and Seuss’s Horton taught me about wisdom, individuality and courage through their reactions and choices. For this, I’ll never forget them. In some ways, that simple statement makes me like them. After all, an elephant never forgets. But what happens if we forget elephants?
The largest land animals on Earth, elephants seem too large to forget. At one point there were over 300 species of elephants, but today only two remain: African and Asian. Asian elephants are slightly smaller than their African counterparts and are distinguishable from African elephants by their ears. African elephants’ ears slightly resemble the African continent, whereas Asian elephants’ ears are smaller and rounder. Asian elephants are more easily domesticated than African elephants. They play a vital role in Asian culture, playing important roles in religious festivals. Ivory, the material that elephant tusks are composed of, is particularly venerated in Asian culture.
History has written lots of stories about elephants, but the most important story is the one we’re currently writing. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) lists the African elephant as threatened and the Asian elephant as endangered. Elephants are threatened by climate change and habitat loss. Sadly, they’re mostly threatened by man. The desire for ivory has notoriously threatened elephants for the past 200 years, and despite an ivory ban in 1990, elephants are still hunted legally and illegally for their tusks. Poaching is currently having a devastating effect on African elephant populations including the elephants that survive attacks.
An elephant never forgets, and African elephants are altering their behavior because of the threats that humans, like poachers, are presenting. This video explains how elephants on the Selous Game Reserve in the south of Tanzania in Africa are acting differently because of the threat that poaching holds over their lives. Knowing this, I wonder: Would our stories about elephants be different, now that they behave differently around humans? What kinds of stories would we write about them now? Rather than Horton, who stood his ground to do the right thing, would we write about the elephant who ran away? Babar, the orphaned elephant who’s educated by humans in the city, returns to… whom? Similarly, would Dumbo, the circus-oddity, be considered strange not because of his uncanny ability to fly but because he’s the only elephant left?
I believe that people connect with elephants because it’s easy to anthropomorphize them—to project human personality onto their behavior. Elephants are extremely intelligent and have incredible memories. We can see grief, joy, anger and play in their actions.
This connection led human cultures to revere elephants. This connection is what makes declining elephant populations hard to imagine.
It’s time to have the wisdom, individuality and courage demonstrated by Babar, Dumbo and Horton. It’s time for us to battle for the elephants. If we don’t, we risk that the the only elephants we have are those that live on the pages of books.
Written by Samantha Zuhlke, National Geographic Education Programs