The capture and use of the African elephant

The capture and taming of elephants is associated, for good reasons, with the Asian continent. Around the time Elephas was being first tamed in the Indian subcontinent, it is distinctly possible that a now-extinct population of Loxo-donta in northern Africa was also being exploited.

The pharaohs of dynastic Egypt hunted, and maybe even captured, elephants in the Nile River valley. Rock drawings of the early third millennium b.c. in Upper Egypt depict elephants, sometimes being hunted, but one cannot conclude that these were also captured and tamed for use. The evidence for capture is thus very circumstantial; the elephant does not figure in ancient Egyptian monuments or its mythology.

Until the early third millennium b.c., the African elephant was widespread in the north, including substantial areas of a moister and greener Sahara. The onset of arid conditions in northern Africa then seems to have resulted in the retreat of the elephants into the region of the Atlas Mountains, comprising present-day Morocco, Algeria, and possibly Tunisia.

The expeditions of Egyptian rulers during the second millennium b.c. again seem to have been mainly to hunt elephants for their ivory. At the same time, ivory was also being obtained from Asia. Thutmose I (1525-1512 b.c.) and his grandson Thutmose III (1504-1450 b.c.) hunted elephants, but interestingly, they hunted the Asian elephant in the Euphrates basin. One of the Syrian elephants seems to have been taken alive to the Egyptian Thebes, where Thutmose III maintained a collection of plants and animals he encountered during his expeditions.

It is only after the fifth century b.c., by which time the use of the elephant as a military weapon had already been well established in Asia, that the elephant in Africa was clearly sought alive for use in war. By this time, the Asian elephant had disappeared from West Asia, probably as a result of its exploitation by the Assyrian rulers. The Mediterranean basin became a cauldron for the struggles of several kingdoms—the Greeks, the Romans, the Syrians, the Carthaginians, and the Ptolemaic Egyptians—along its Eurasian and North African fringe.

In the meantime, an elephant culture seems to have flourished around 400 b.c. in the kingdom of Meroe, around Aswan in the upper Nile, beyond the influence of Ptolemaic Egypt. The elephant is portrayed in several sculptures and reliefs. One relief at Musaw-warat es-Sofra shows a king riding an elephant while an attendant is kneeling and holding the end of the trunk. The excavations here suggest that some of the large enclosures may have been built to hold elephants.

H. H. Scullard provides a detailed account of the use of the elephant in the Mediterranean region during the second half of the first millennium b.c. Salient features of this account are given here. During the latter part of the fifth century b.c. the Greek writer Herodotus, who had visited Egypt but had never actually seen an elephant, gave an account of several wild beasts, including elephants, in the westward parts (of Libya) and further observed that the Ethiopians sent a tribute of "twenty great elephant tusks" every third year to the Persian court. The Greeks, however, seemed to have first learned about the use of elephants in war from the writer Ctesias, who was the court physician to the Persian king Artaxerxes II from 405 until at least 387 b.c. In one of his accounts, he relates how the elder Cyrus of Persia was defeated (in 530 b.c.) by Amoraius, king of the Derbikes, who used elephants from India (the Indians may have actually commanded the elephants). Another curious tale is about the semimythical Semiramis, who built dummy elephants in her battle against an Indian king's elephant army, which eventually prevailed against her (some historians believe this may refer to the historical figure of Sammuramat, an Assyrian queen who ascended the throne during 810-805 b.c. after her husband's death).

Plato makes a brief mention of the elephant ("a very large and voracious animal") on an island in the Mediterranean or the Atlantic; this was undoubtedly the African elephant, which was known from the Atlas region of North Africa. Aristotle (384-322 b.c.) had an intimate knowledge of the elephant, as seen from his descriptions in works such as De Partibus Animalium and Historia Animalium. He recognized that elephants existed in North Africa and India, but emphasized similarity rather than differences. It is said that Aristotle briefly tutored the young Alexander, son of Philip of Macedonia, and that Alexander later supported Aristotle's pursuit of natural history.

The Greeks probably first encountered war elephants at the battle of Gaugamela in 331 b.c., when Alexander of Macedonia overcame Darius III of Persia, who had the backing of about 15 elephants fielded by his Indian supporters. Alexander captured these and eventually went on to acquire more elephants during his eastward thrust, including 86 from the ruler of Taksha-shila (Taxila), for a total of 126 elephants by the time he confronted King Porus across the Jhelum (Hydaspes) in 326 b.c. Interestingly, Alexander did not field any of his more than 125 elephants against Porus' 200-strong elephant army. Perhaps he did not have sufficient faith in his elephant force; Scullard believes that he did not have sufficient time to coordinate the various arms of his forces, including the cavalry, into a cohesive unit and thus did not wish to experiment with his elephants. Alexander's victory and the subsequent outcome were discussed above. In the words of eminent historian Romila Tha-par (1966), the two-year Greek campaign "made no impression historically or politically on India, and not even a mention of Alexander is to be found in any older Indian sources. It seems that the Greeks departed as fast as they came" (p. 59).

The encounter with Indian elephants at the Jhelum, however, seemed to have made a lasting impression on the Greeks. After Alexander's death at Babylon, shortly after his retreat, his embalmed body was carried on a magnificent vehicle that was richly decorated, including a painting of war elephants led by their Indian mahouts and followed by armed Macedonians. Alexander's death triggered a complex struggle among his successors, a galaxy of generals, soldiers, and governors, for control of his vast empire. The chief players were Perdiccas, his second in command; Ptolemy of Egypt; Lysimachus, one of his bodyguards; Seleucus, who controlled the east and seemed to appreciate the military importance of elephants the most; Eumenes, head of the imperial chancery; Craterus of Cilicia; Antigonus of Phrygia; and Antipater, the governor of Macedon. Strangely, it was his successors who began to use elephants in a distinctly offensive role in the course of several battles, major and minor, they fought. Elephants were frequently deployed in the internecine struggles, as well as in battles with other neighbors, like Pyrrhus of Epirus, who deployed elephants against them, the Romans, and in Sicily.

Seleucus, who had been operating rather independently along the Indian frontier, made peace with Chandragupta Maurya after ceding him some territories in exchange for a large number of elephants, variously estimated to be between 130 and 500, for use in his western campaign. In one decisive battle, Seleucus's superior elephant force defeated and killed Antigonus, who deployed 75 elephants. After the death of Seleucus (he was killed by Ptolemy Ceranus, one of Ptolemy's sons), his son Antiochus effectively used elephants to beat back the invasions of the Gallic tribes. Glorious in victory and hailed by the Macedonians, Antiochus is reputed to have wept, "shame, my men, whose salvation came through these 16 beasts [i.e., elephants]."

In 312 b.c., Ptolemy I had captured some 43 Indian elephants from Demetrius (son of Antigonus) in a battle at Gaza. These were paraded at Alexandria by his son Ptolemy II Philadelphus in a grand show of splendor and wealth. The Ptolemies now began to consolidate their elephant stocks. They were aware of the elephants at Meroe. Philadelphus organized expeditions along the African coast of the Red Sea in the region around Eritrea in search of elephants. A papyrus of about 255 b.c. speaks of an elephant expedition, while an inscription records that a certain Eumedes "caught elephants in great numbers for the king, and he brought them as marvels for the king." The elephants were transported by sea to Alexandria. The Ptolemies thus built up a sizable elephant force incorporating both the African and the Asian species.

During the second half of the third century b.c., the Seleucids and the Ptolemies were involved in a series of wars for the control of Syria. In 219 b.c., Ptolemy IV Philopator's mixed force of 73 elephants faced the superior Seleu-cid force of 102 Indian elephants fielded by Antiochus III in the battle of Raphia. The African elephants in Ptolemy's left wing were afraid to join battle with the larger Indian elephants of Antiochus, and this wing of Ptolemy retreated. Ptolemy's right wing, however, held its ground, and this helped him overcome Antiochus. The role of the elephants here is unclear, but Scullard speculates that Ptolemy's Indian elephants, facing their equals, may have helped. Antiochus retreated for the present, but consolidated his forces with more Indian elephants and regained southern Syria from Ptolemy V in 200 b.c.

We now need to go further back in time and further west in the Mediterranean region to the Carthaginian Empire, based in North Africa and controlling Spain and several island territories, and trace its struggles against the emerging Roman Empire. The Carthaginians were familiar, since at least the early fifth century b.c., with the existence of African elephants in the region between the Atlas Mountains and the Mediterranean. An early Carthaginian explorer, Hanno, writing before 480 b.c. in Punic language, described elephants in a lagoon overgrown with cane.

Unlike the Seleucids and the Ptolemies, who had to obtain their elephants from afar, the Carthaginians could exploit a population nearer home. It is not clear when and how they began training elephants for use in war. The earliest documented use of elephants in war by the Carthaginians was during a battle against Rome in Sicily in 264 b.c. The Roman legions had already faced Pyrrhus's Indian elephants earlier in Italy and were able to beat back the Carthaginians, capturing most of the surviving African elephants. The Roman commander Regulus took the battle into Africa itself and gained Tunis in 246 b.c., but the defeat of the Carthaginians was due to a tactical error of fielding their approximately 100 elephants in the hills rather than in the plains. Reorganizing their forces under a professional commander, Xanthippus from Sparta, they effectively used their elephants eventually to rout the Romans.

After crushing a rebellion by their mercenary troops with the help of their elephants, the Carthaginians decided to regain control over Spain and to use this as the launching pad against the Romans. This was a struggle of fluctuating fortunes, revolving around the military strategy of the famous Hannibal, although his brothers Hasdrubal and Mago also played important roles.

As a young boy, Hannibal had accompanied his father, Hamilcar Barca, to Spain in 237 b.c. with a force of 100 elephants and thus had personal knowledge of the use of these animals in warfare. Hannibal's audacious campaign against Rome by crossing the Alps in 319 b.c. with an elephant army is one of the most celebrated tales of history. Overcoming the Gauls at the Rhone, he transported his elephants safely across the river on rafts, but only after some of them panicked and slid into the river, drowning their mahouts. Going across the Alps, he faced hostile tribes, but in the words of ancient historian Polybius, "The elephants were of the greatest service to him; the enemy never dared to approach that part of the column where they were placed, being terrified at the strangeness of their appearance" (quoted in Scullard 1974, pp. 158-159). In addition, there was a very difficult descent because of a landslide, but miraculously Hannibal managed to get all his 37 exhausted elephants to the plains of Italy, although losing many of his men.

The Romans tried to seize this opportunity to repulse a vulnerable Hannibal, but Hannibal's strategy repulsed the Romans. Hannibal was eventually to lose all but one of his elephants, seemingly not in battle, but due to exposure to severe cold. Undaunted by the loss of his elephants, men, horses, and even the sight of one eye, Hannibal rode the sole surviving elephant (quite possibly an Indian animal obtained from the Ptolemies) across treacherous terrain to notch up significant victories.

There were several twists and turns to Hannibal's campaign. He received reinforcements of elephants and even reached the gates of Rome, but was forced to retreat. The power of the Carthaginians, however, steadily declined.

In a final showdown in 204 b.c., Hannibal, with 80 elephants, faced the brilliant Roman general Publius Scipio at Zama in North Africa. Scipio's strategy carried the day. Of Hannibal's elephants, 11 were killed, while the rest were presumably captured. The Carthaginians were forced to surrender all their elephants and to agree to discontinue training any in the future.

The Roman passion (or the lack of it) for elephants had quite a different purpose from that of the Seleucids, Ptolemies, and Carthaginians. When Cu-rius captured a number of Indian elephants from Pyrrhus in 275 b.c., he displayed these to the Roman people, who probably saw these animals for the first time. Metellus likewise displayed in the circus the African elephants he took from the Carthaginians in the battle of Panormus.

The Romans did use elephants intermittently in their wars with Greece and opponents further east, as well as in the west against several tribes. Although their elephant forces were typically small, these made useful contributions to several of their victories. Julius Caesar is reputed to have used one large elephant during his second invasion of Britain in 54 b.c. to suppress the troublesome Gauls. He had no faith in the efficacy of elephants; his elephant-less army finally overcame Pompey's forces with the support of Juba of Numi-dia (in North Africa), who fielded a considerable number of elephants at the battle of Thapsus in 46 b.c. This was the last battle fought by the Romans with elephants for about 300 years.

The use of elephants by the Romans, however, was overwhelmingly as a public spectacle in processions, as a circus animal, and as an object of torment. Pliny the Elder reports that elephants first fought in the circus in the year 99 b.c. Animal fights, much like the battle of the gladiators, had become popular in Rome. Elephants were pitted against men armed with javelins at the infamous Games of 55 b.c., a lavish but bloodthirsty spectacle organized by Pompey. After Caesar's victory over Pompey, a considerable number of the 64 elephants captured were again on display in 46 b.c. in Rome. Although the show included men fighting from the backs of the elephants, this does not seem to have drawn blood to the extent that Pompey's games did a decade earlier.

Imperial Rome had to demonstrate its power and prosperity both to its citizens and to the outside world. The elephant was a very convenient vehicle to realize this objective from several viewpoints. The parading of elephants in victory triumphs demonstrated that Rome had the wealth and skills to transport these large animals over long distances. When elephants were made to perform stunts in the circus arena or were slaughtered with javelins, the Roman spectators did not necessarily make a distinction between these categories of amusement. Since the Roman territories did not have wild elephants, the elephant was identified with their enemies, such as the Carthaginians. In the words of Jo-Ann Shelton, "The torment of elephants in Roman arenas represented a victory over the defeated enemy, and it enabled the spectators to participate in the process of imposing Roman justice on a barbarian world . . . their enormous size and strength made them appear menacing, but their lumbering gait and strange appearance meant that they could be easily ridiculed."

We now turn to an aspect of ancient Mediterranean warfare that has been much discussed—the role of Asian versus African elephants. Ancient writers were unanimous in their observations that Indian elephants were larger than their African counterparts and were more effective in battle. Describing the battle of Raphia between Ptolemy's predominantly African elephant force versus Antiochus's Asian elephants, Polybius wrote that "most of Ptolemy's elephants were afraid to join battle, as is the habit of African elephants; for unable to stand the smell and the trumpeting of the Indian elephants, and terrified, I suppose, also by their great size and strength, they immediately run away from them." Pliny, in his writings of the Roman Empire, states that "African elephants fear Indian, because the Indian is bigger," but he also wrote that "Ethiopia produces elephants that rival those of India," a statement dismissed by scholars because an exaggerated height of 30 feet was ascribed to the former. The depiction of an African elephant with its rider in relief from Meroe also suggests that it was relatively small.

Such observations have led several scholars to conclude that the African elephant captured and used in war during ancient times was the smaller forest elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis). Now there are some problems with this interpretation. It is, of course, possible that the cyclotis elephants extended into North Africa from their present range in West Africa through the Atlantic coastal belt. These would have been the elephants exploited by the Carthaginians. On the other hand, it is highly unlikely that cyclotis was present along the Red Sea in the region of East Africa, the source of the Ptolemies' elephants.

Other explanations are possible for the smaller size of the African elephants vis-a-vis the Asian elephants used in war. The African animals could simply have been younger animals. The Ptolemies or even the Carthaginians may not have had the skills to capture and train adult African elephants (this ability is restricted even today in parts of Asia). There may have been insufficient time for the young elephants to become full grown before deploying them in battle. The elephants sourced from India were adults given the longer tradition of capture and training.

These African elephants could have been a smaller variety of the savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana africana). Even today, there is wide variation in the adult body sizes of the African savanna elephant across the continent, with some (like those in Kenya's Shimba Hills) being intermediate between the typical savanna elephant and the forest elephant in size (see appendix 2). The recent genetic evidence from African elephant populations (see chapter 1) also suggests another possibility: the elephants of North Africa were a distinct variety or subspecies, now extinct, as suggested in 1971 by W.F.H. Ansell.

The efficacy of the elephant, African or Asian, in the Mediterranean wars can again be questioned, as with its role in the Indian subcontinent. The greater reliance placed by the Seleucids, the Ptolemies, and the Carthaginians, compared to other powers, on the elephant may be a reflection of the relative proximity of elephant populations or ability to source them. Astute commanders, however, realized that elephants were merely weapons of fear, most effective the first time they were used against an enemy unfamiliar with these animals. With increasing familiarity, a combination of proper weapons and tactics could nullify an elephant force. There is no doubt that the elephant was instrumental in influencing the course of several battles, but by the dawn of the Christian era, the elephant had practically died out as a war machine. During the first three centuries of the first millenium a.d., a few battles were fought with the help of elephants, but these cannot be compared in scale to their deployment over the preceding three centuries in the Mediterranean region. By contrast, the elephant war machine rolled on for a long time further east in Asia, even if its relevance can be disputed.

The crucial question, then, is why did the elephant culture die out, or to state more appropriately, why did the elephant culture remain at the totemic level in Africa while it continued to flourish supremely in Asia? By elephant culture, I mean the entire gamut of elephant-human relationships, including its expression in art and in oral traditions, its symbolic function, its practical use by humans in war and in peace, and its deification. I must emphasize here that the representation of the elephant in native African sculpture, masquerade, dance, and song is common and rich across the continent. A 1992 volume edited by Doran Ross amply demonstrates the importance of elephant symbolism to the lives of modern African peoples (indeed, such documentation has not been put together for the Asian continent). It is but natural or even inevitable that native African peoples relate the largest land mammals to their social lives and the environment in conspicuous symbolism and complex metaphor. At the same time, the actual physical relationship with the elephant has been largely that between adversaries. There are many similarities with Asia in this fundamental relationship of humans and elephants. At a certain stage in Asian history, however, the culture of capturing the elephant for putting it to human use intensified, and ultimately the animal's status was raised to that of a major deity.

What could be the reasons for the early collapse of the culture of capturing and taming elephants in Africa? The culture of organized capturing of elephants is distinctly associated with the rise of major republics, kingdoms, or empires in both the continents. In Africa, this was not backed by the advantage of biogeography. It is true that the supply of elephants to the Carthaginian army does suggest that reasonable numbers were present in North Africa. However, neither there nor along the Red Sea, where the Ptolemies sourced their elephants, is there evidence for populations that could be harvested sustainably for any length of time. The Carthaginians and the Ptolemies did not have access to Africa's large sub-Saharan elephant populations; their influence just did not extend that far. Crucially, however, no major republic or kingdom arose in sub-Saharan Africa at that period of history, when elephant cultures were on the ascent. Even the Assyrians did not have a sizable population of Asian elephants to exploit in the Tigris-Euphrates basin. The elephant had only a tenuous existence in West Asia. The Indian rulers, on the other hand, had the advantage of large elephant populations they could regularly exploit for much longer periods of time. The same is true for the later kingdoms further east from Burma to Indochina.

In more recent times, the only concerted effort to tame African elephants was of the smaller forest elephant in the erstwhile Belgian Congo. Two training camps operated during the first half of the twentieth century, with up to 100 elephants at a time, but this declined to a few animals by the last decade. Asian methods, especially Sri Lankan and Burmese, were used in their capture, training, and management. Although elephants were successfully trained, the camps were never sustained because there was no real use for the elephants here. The African elephant is thus as tractable as its Asian cousin. Why, then, did its taming not catch on in the continent even during the colonial times? It is possible that colonial prejudice in other matters equally extended to the elephants of Africa. The African elephant was valued for its extractable resource—the ivory trade even partially funded the imperial expansion in its early phase in parts of the continent. Protection of the elephant in Africa came at a much later time, prompted by a fear of ivory shortage. So, the African elephant was more valuable dead for its ivory, while the Asian had reasons to be left alive as a source of captive stock.

As a final thought, human societies that had a more primitive relationship with the elephant, perhaps hunting them occasionally for meat and hide, expressing their art through masquerade, or carving tusks and absorbing the symbolic elephant in their social lives, are also the ones that permitted the elephant to survive in their midst. Exceptions to this can, no doubt, be found. Paul Martin makes the pertinent observation that humans who dispersed further away from the cradle of elephant and human evolution, Africa, are also those who have exploited the proboscideans the most. Finally, it was the advanced hunting tribes of North America who may have speared the mammoth to extinction, the great kingdoms and empires of Asia that wiped out elephants locally through capture, and the foreign traders who coveted Africa's white gold for prosperous societies in Europe, America, and in more recent times, East Asia, slaughtered the animal wholesale. It remains to be seen if the charismatic flagship roles of the African and the Asian elephant are powerful enough to meet the exponentially growing challenges of conservation in the two continents during the twenty-first century.

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