African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) with calf

African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) with calf

Today is World Elephant Day—a one-year old holiday dedicated to the preservation of the world’s two remaining species of proboscideans (a great and ancient order of mammals which over tens of millions of years has included 161 different species that we know of including elephants, mammoths, mastodons, stegodons, deinotheres, moeritheriums, and all sorts of other amazing animals–which we will talk about later).   To mark this day and do my part for elephants (which are quickly vanishing from Earth due to insatiable Chinese lust for ivory) , I have spent hours and hours writing the beginnings of various essays about elephant cognition, their importance as a keystone species wherever they live, and their history and attributes.

I have abandoned each of these essays because they have lacked visceral power which I want to bring to the subject of my favorite animal.  Instead of providing a laundry list of astonishing things which elephants share with humankind (things like altruism, awareness of death, grieving, knowledge of medicine, tool-use, comprehension of music and the arts, and the ability to mine salt and clay) I have decided to instead present an anecdote about actual elephants which I have taken from Cynthia Moss, a researcher who has spent her life observing elephants and researching their family structure.

Since 1973, Moss has watched the family of one matriarch, Echo, an elephant living in Kenya. The story of Echo’s extended family reads like Russian literature in complexity and richness (although the reading is much sadder since elephants seem to be living through the agonizing death of all their kind).  Elephants live human-length lives and have intricate social bonds in their own herds and with the herds they encounter.  They bond deeply with their families over the decades they share together and they help each other out even at the risk of death or terrible injury.

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One day a group of poachers ambushed Echo’s herd.  After killing several elephants outright (including a cow who charged straight into the guns in an attempt to save her calf), the gunmen shot a 13-year old cow named Tina in the lung.  Tina’s mother Teresia and her sisters helped her escape, but she was mortally injured.  Moss describes Tina’s death in the book “Elephant Memories: Thirteen Years in the Life of an Elephant Family”

[Tina’s] knees started to buckle and she began to go down, but Teresia got on one side of her and Trista on the other and they both leaned in and held her up.  Soon, however, she had no strength and she slipped beneath them and fell onto her side.  More blood gushed from her mouth and with a shudder she died.

Teresia and Trista became frantic and knelt down and tried to lift her up.  They worked their tusks under her back and under her head.  At one point they succeeded in lifting her into a sitting position but her body flopped back down.  Her family tried everything to rouse her…and Tallulah even went off and collected a trunkful of grass and tried to stuff it in her mouth.  Finally Teresia got around behind her again, knelt down, and worked her tusks in under her shoulder and then, straining with all her strength, she began to lift her.  When she got to a standing position with the full weight of Tina’s head and front quarters on her tusk, there was a sharp cracking sound and Teresia dropped the carcass as her right tusk fell to the ground.  She had broken it a few inches from the lip and well into the nerve cavity…

Elephant use their tusks for everything (and tusks certainly do not grow back).  Just as most people tend to favor one arm,  elephants favor one tusk over the other–usually the right.  Moss goes on to describe how Teresia and Tina’s sisters spent the night with Tina’s body, tenderly covering their fallen family member with sticks and dirt.  In the morning the other elephants reluctantly left, but Teresia was unwilling to depart and kept gently touching her daughter’s body with her foot.  Only when the other elephants repeatedly rumbled to her did she finally move on.

You can find the entirety of Moss’ book online here, but be warned, it is tremendously sad—like an elephant version of “The Road” except with more likeable characters.

Elephant Mother & Calf (photo by Douglas Aja)

Elephant Mother & Calf (photo by Douglas Aja)