The Life and Lore of the Elephant, by Robert Delort

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Robert Delort’s examination of the elephant and its complex relationship with humans over the centuries is small in size but broad in scope, and as may be expected from Thames and Hudson – it is published in the ‘New Horizons’ series – is beautifully illustrated with images of the animal in paintings, engravings and photographs.  Delort begins with a tour of the species including extinct ones, particularly the mammoth.  The differences between African and Asian elephants are explored, their physiology, how they live and breed, and how significant variations in human attitudes determined the relationship with people: in Africa exploited as a natural resource, particularly for ivory; in Asia more firmly integrated into the social life of communities as workers and often objects of veneration, notably sacred white elephants in Siam and as Ganesh in the Hindu pantheon.

Delort considers the way the elephant has been depicted in fable and by novelists and how it has symbolised such positive traits as faithfulness, wisdom (though sometimes naivety), piety, devotion and dignity as well as justice, ‘never forgetting’ bad treatment.  Methods of capture and domestication are described and there is a lengthy account of their, not particularly successful, use as weapons of war.  The history of the elephant’s exploitation in the west as entertainment, from the Roman amphitheatre to the modern circus, is touched on before discussing the pressures on African numbers by indiscriminate slaughter firstly by big-game hunters and latterly by poaching and human population increases, which are having such a detrimental effect on numbers.

The second part of the book consists of a miscellany of extracts from documents showing the ways in which the elephant has been viewed by naturalists, travellers, journalists, novelists, and in traditional legends from antiquity, through the nineteenth century and to the end of the twentieth.  The concluding articles deal with the catastrophic decline of African elephant populations towards extinction; conservation for revenue generation; the supposed ban on ivory sales and growth of the market for mammoth ivory as a substitute; and the argument for regulated and sustainable culling of ivory to help to protect the remaining herds.  The situation was dire in 1990, when the book was first published, and it has only become worse in the succeeding quarter of a century.

The text was translated from French so naturally there is an emphasis on French sources.  Curiously there is no introduction.  The author’s clear anguish over the massacre of elephants is heartfelt, not only on their own behalf but as an index of society’s health.  Included is an extract from Romain Gary’s classic The Roots of Heaven, a novel about saving the  elephant yet possessing a subtext with wider implications for humanity, and Delort concludes his own section of the book with:  ‘Once they were the pillars of Brahma’s universe; today, for a consumer society run amok, elephants are truly the timeless ‘roots of heaven’.  The implication is clear – if we lose the elephants, we lose something of ourselves in the failure to preserve them.

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