There’s a charming myth that the 18th-century poet Alexander Pope said, “The proper study of mankind is man, but when one regards the elephant, one wonders.”
One wonders particularly after reading an extraordinary essay by Caitrin Nicol in the journal The New Atlantis. She makes a powerful case for the moral status of elephants, a case that is especially poignant when the creatures are faced with the prospect of utter destruction. Only 500,000 or so still roam the Earth, and poachers slaughter tens of thousands a year.
Elephants aren’t just gentle giants, but complex and intelligent ones. They are intensely social, with bands of females staying together for life and assisting one another in giving birth and raising their young. They communicate vocally — including with sounds inaudible to humans — and seismically through the ground. They weep.
The phrase “an elephant never forgets” is such a cliché that we neglect its foundation in the creature’s truly astonishing memory. “This is attested to,” Nicol writes, “by outward indicators ranging from the practical — a matriarch’s recollection of a locale, critical to leading her family to food and water — to the passionate — grudges that are held against specific people or types of people for decades or even generations, or fierce affection for a long-lost friend.”
Nicol notes an essay by the philosopher of biology Hans Jonas discussing three uniquely human qualities, and sets out how elephants arguably share each one.
They make and use tools. Elephants clean their ears with clumps of grass. In Asia, when collared by bells, they can plug the bells with mud to stealthily steal bananas. In one recorded instance, when confronted with an electric fence, elephants followed the current around to the generator, destroyed it, and made their escape.
They make images. Elephants will draw and, given the materials, paint. The drawings of an elephant named Siri in the Syracuse, N.Y., zoo were collected into a book in the 1980s, and Willem de Kooning praised them.
They commemorate the dead. When an elephant dies, other elephants bury it and stay with the body, mourning. The conservationist Cynthia Moss writes, “Even the bare, bleached old elephant bones will stop a group if they have not seen them before.”
The title of Nicol’s essay is “Do Elephants Have Souls?” We don’t have to answer that question to realize the special respect owed these fascinating, awe-inspiring, mysterious creatures. Cooping them up in zoos is wrong, and holding them in captivity to force them to perform for our amusement — in other words, a key part of the Ringling Bros. business model — is in the same moral category as bear baiting.
All of this is nothing, of course, compared with the savagery of the poachers. In an eloquent jeremiad in The Atlantic, Matthew Scully flays the vast, far-flung industry devoted to ivory that begins with fear and death. He quotes a National Geographic writer describing the scene in Cameroon from the air: “The scattered bodies present a senseless crime scene — you can see which animals fled, which mothers tried to protect their young, how one terrified herd of 50 went down together.”
Poachers will kill one elephant and then kill more when they come to mourn. They will cut out tusks before the creatures have even died. They will kill them with poisoned pumpkins or watermelons. Then, when their bloody work is done, the tusks are fed into the greedy maw of an underworld of criminals and sundry other lowlifes who sate the appetite for ivory in China and other parts of Asia.
Scully argues for devoting greater material and diplomatic resources to disrupting this trade. Nicol ends her essay with a plea for an enhanced sense of fellow feeling: “Listen with your ears, your eyes, your heart, your mind, your soul for the message from these kin as improbable as life itself, different and yet the same. We are not alone.” Although on the current trajectory, we will be soon enough.