‘I meant what I said
And I said what I meant…
An elephant’s faithful
One hundred per cent!’
— from Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr Seuss
The first time I touched an elephant was exactly 20 years ago on the first feature film I worked on, Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love. The story was set in 16th century India where, as per the film’s director and co-writer Mira Nair, public executions were carried out using elephants. For the story’s climax, an elephant kills the prisoner by crushing him underfoot.
For budgetary reasons, the elephant hired for the role was young, still in training to spend a lifetime entertaining humans. The scene required 800 people as background extras for the execution. When the mahout indicated to the elephant to raise his leg, the crowds played their part by shouting and cheering.
The young elephant – thinking he was being applauded for his new balancing act – basked in the adoration, and waved his head and grinned at the crowds, refusing to put down his leg as long as they cheered. We were only able to complete filming the scene by having the crowd motion with their arms and pretend to shout while staying entirely silent.
I walked over during a break in the filming. I’d never been this close to an elephant before. His skin felt cool to the touch, the wrinkles softer than I expected. For all his youthful joviality, his eyes appeared startlingly wise. I felt both a little intimidated and a little in love.
Of myths and dreams
Elephants are abundant in mythology. One of the most prominent Hindu deities is Ganesh, who has the head of an elephant. Stories vary as to how he acquired it. One version has the goddess Parvati creating Ganesh as her bodyguard, who is then beheaded by lord Shiva, which enrages Parvati into wanting to destroy all creations. Parvati refrains on the condition that Ganesh is preserved. Shiva appeases her by placing an elephant’s head on Ganesh and declaring him leader of all beings: Ganpati. Ganesh represents wisdom and learning, the remover of obstacles, and the god of beginnings and good fortunes.
There’s my favourite parable that is likely Sufi in origin though used across many cultures and faiths, about four men who in darkness touch different parts of an elephant and form inevitably limited verdicts. One touches the trunk and believes it’s a water pipe. One feels the ear and claims it’s a fan. One finds a leg and says it’s a temple column. One touches the tusk and thinks it’s a sword. The 13th century Sufi poet Rumi ends his retelling of The Elephant in the Dark with: ‘If each of us held a candle and went in together, the differences would disappear.’
Modern day pop psychology believes seeing elephants in dreams represents our strength. When we run away from them, we are running away from our own power and greatness.
Of stories and legends
I grew up hearing of elephants’ loyalty, gentleness and long memories. My father, who was raised in Sylhet, an area that traditionally had elephants, told me stories that had taken place around him. There’s one I loved in particular of an elephant whose mahout had died and taken back to his village to be buried. The elephant travelled for miles until it reached the mahout’s unmarked grave, then stood there for several days as he shed tears.
I was mesmerised by these elephant stories. So much so, I wrote one of my own – of a young girl who saves a wild elephant from falling into a tiger trap, and whose own life is saved decades later by the same elephant, who never forgot the kindness.
Over the years I continued to work on films that involved elephants for the simple reason that when foreign filmmakers went to India, they found it almost obligatory to show one. (Even Jason Bourne was at one point supposed to overtake an elephant on the streets of Goa…) Every time my path crossed with an elephant, I took my few moments to walk over, rest my head against him or her, and give my thanks. Amidst of the chaos of filming, it provided a welcome sensation somewhere between peace and euphoria.
My film friends began to seek out elephant-related gifts for me. I wore elephant-shaped pendants around my neck and wrists, carried an embroidered elephant keychain, and kept a stuffed fabric elephant on the corner of my production desk as a good luck talisman (and also as a reminder to be gentle and kind).
A fellow elephant-phile
Having sworn off filmmaking (or, rather, filmmakers) for a spell, I was almost lured back into it at a meeting with Mark Shand. His co-producer Robert contacted me to discuss my line producing their film. I knew Shand by name and through mutual friends. Meeting him in person, I was embraced by a whirlwind of energy, charm and exceptional intelligence.
He regaled me with stories of his travels to Bangladesh. Of seeing the ship-breakers in Chittagong, of the Sunderbon jungles off the Bay of Bengal, of timing his attempt to cross a street in the commercial district of Dhaka (a tip that his friend Michael Palin would adapt with fine comic touch in his BBC documentary, showing a clock on the corner of the screen as he too crossed the same street).
We met at Shand’s new office overlooking Bloomsbury Square Gardens. He was unpacking boxes when I arrived. Everywhere I looked, there were elephants. There were sculptures made of stone, wood, clay and papier-mâché that ranged in size from tennis ball to throne. There were piles of books about elephants on different surfaces, and framed images of elephants peeping out of half-opened boxes. There were objets d’art, wall hangings and bookends all depicting our favourite friend. Perhaps I’m imagining it, but I think even some of the light fixtures had some sort of elephant motif.
Here was a fellow elephant-phile. Except in Shand’s case, an imaginary conversation with an elephant every few years did not suffice. He had gone to India, seen their plight and became active in preserving them. He planned to turn his wonderful memoir, Travels on My Elephant, into a feature film.
The thought of working alongside elephants for a whole year was thrilling. I would learn about them, travel and live with them in close quarters. But my father had just died, I was going through a divorce and my resolve to stop working on other people’s films steeled me against committing to the project at the time. Over the years, I hoped it would one day circle back in my direction as films sometimes do.
The film may yet happen one day but Shand, tragically, died from a fall in 2014 after a fundraising event for his charity, Elephant Family.
No pink elephants
My awe, admiration and adoration of elephants continue. The internet may be full of cute cat videos, but nothing tugs at my heartstrings like photos of baby elephants. I collect them on Pinterest, on a board I call ‘happiness’. I pass other people’s TVs without pausing but if it’s a programme on elephants, I’ll pull up a chair, collapsing in love. Even stories I’ve heard countless times involving elephants can still move me to tears.
Our human capacity for cruelty torments me, and never more so than when it comes to our fellow creatures. As we do with much of the planet and its inhabitants, we abuse elephants for our whims and throwaway pleasures. We take over their land, we isolate and entrap them, we train them to perform for us, we poach and kill them to steal their ivory to make trinkets.
I understand our human need to investigate, explore and understand that which is not familiar. But I cannot fathom our desire and ceaseless greed to conquer and furthermore own everything. We treat nature like it belongs to us, yet we belong to nature. We are nevertheless in a powerful position. This means we need to take our responsibilities seriously.
Did you know
Much as people are right- or left-handed, elephants are right- or left-tusked, resulting in that one being smaller through more wear and tear.
Elephants are the largest living terrestrial mammals. Asian elephants, at 3 metres (9.8 feet), are smaller than their African counterparts (4 metres, or 13 feet) and have ears that are straighter-edged rather than fan-shaped (sometimes called “the map of Africa”). Babies are in gestation for 22 months before being born at 91 kilos, or 200 lbs.
An elephant’s trunk is used to smell and breathe as well as drink water. It also functions as an extra hand to carry, hold, point, gather and dig. Trunks are used to trumpet warnings and greet each other. Elephants will intertwine their trunks with one another to show affection. A baby elephant can suck on the end of the trunk for comfort, much like a human baby sucks on a thumb.
Elephants use their feet to sense vibrations of movement far away. Despite the common perception that elephants thunder as they walk, they are able to tread silently as well.
Elephants are matriarchal and female elephants jointly raise the young together. They are also communal and travel in herds.
Elephants share common traits with (some) humans, including forging strong emotional bonds, being protective over their young, and showing empathy towards their fellow beings. They display sorrow and distress when losing a member of their tribe. Following the death of a fellow elephant, they will dig a grave and bury him in it, all the while mourning.
Elephants – like many of nature’s large strong beasts such as rhinos, hippos and chimpanzees – are herbivores and don’t eat other animals. Because of their substantial daily requirements, they live close to water and green vegetation. Humans’ population expansion and insatiable demand for more resources have resulted in our destroying elephants’ habitat.
It’s no wonder their famed gentleness is challenged. Just as we lash out when threatened, elephants too can respond to our stealing their land, resources and relatives with violence.
Having decimated too many of the planet’s creatures through hunting and habitat destruction, we need to honour and preserve what’s left. Elephants in Africa are considered threatened while those in Asia – numbering only about 50,000 – are considered endangered by wildlife preservation groups.
Elephants are most visible now in zoos and circus acts. We should never support keeping them in captivity where they are frequently denied all that are important to them, and often disciplined using brutal shock treatments. Any payment on our part – unless to witness them without interference in their own habitat – only encourages and continues their cruel and unnecessary commercial exploitation. Needless to say, we should never, ever consider purchasing any products made of ivory.
The charity Elephant Family welcomes donations and volunteers to help conserve Asian elephants.
‘I’m right there in the room, and no one even acknowledges me.’ — caption in a New Yorker cartoon by Leo Cullum, showing an elephant talking to his therapist.
I have no idea how they filmed – in 1954, without today’s CGI capabilities – the climax scene of stampeding elephants with Elizabeth Taylor running inches around them. Elephant Walk, directed by William Dieterle, has Taylor as the wife of a tea-plantation owner in Colombo. When their construction blocks the elephants’ migratory path, the elephants take their revenge. If only we would learn our lesson.
My favourite essay by George Orwell is Shooting an Elephant and tells the (likely biographical) story of a young policeman in Burma who kills a rampaging elephant even after he calms down, to establish the white man’s status to the locals who despise him. Using the incident as a metaphor for British imperialism, which he was against, Orwell ends the essay with the line: ‘I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking like a fool.’
Elephants appear in children’s stories and films almost always as cheerful and helpful friends. In books, there’s Jean de Brunhoff’s Babar and Dr Seuss’s Horton. In animation, there’s Disney’s Dumbo and Colonel Hathi’s family in The Jungle Book. Though only mentioned (with trepidation) and never seen, ‘heffalumps’ (as misspoken by Piglet) appear in AA Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh.
Though not directly about elephants, a recent episode of the WNYC radio show and podcast Radiolab looks at hunters who shoot endangered species (the episode was prepared before the public outcry against American dentist Walter Palmer who killed Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe). Many hunters justify their killing by claiming their permit fees are used towards conservation of the same animals. Famed Kenyan anthropologist Richard Leakey says on the programme: ‘It is utterly ridiculous. If a father can’t afford to pay school fees for his children, does he say to somebody, “you can rape my daughter so I can get the money to pay for the school fees?” You have to set some standards in life. Killing wild animals so they can be looked after absolutely sends the wrong message.’
I rarely get misty-eyed over TED talks, but this is one of those rare ones. I won’t spoil the experience by giving away any part of this inspiring story, but will say that elephants (and Mark Shand) are mentioned in Caroline Casey’s talk about Looking Past Limits.