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A Brief History of Elephants

Updated on February 28, 2018

"Gentle Giants"

Is there a more fascinating animal on earth than the African elephant? Both parts intelligent and majestic, they hold the crown as the largest land animals in the world. Always on the move, an African Elephant typically only sleeps around 2-3 hours a day, tirelessly traversing the plains and grasslands of Sub-Saharan Africa (that’s a lot of Red-Bull). Rather than throwing their weight around, elephants are gentle-giant herbivores who eat about 500 lbs of veggies a day! Why anyone would want to poach such a gift of nature is beyond me, but the fact is...they do. Not only are they slaughtered for their sought after ivory tusks, many fall prey to the cowardly tradition of, “trophy hunting”(hunting for sport). Although elephants have no natural predators, due to their titanic size, human beings are their biggest threat. Had anti-poaching laws not been enacted in 1989, scientists estimated that they’d have gone extinct by 1995.


What compelled me to write this story, was a recent photo I stumbled across of a tuskless and lifeless photo of one of these beautiful animals. It was almost as if his big soft eyes, that were once so full of life, were asking why? Why’d you let me down and why did you steal my life away? I couldn’t help but focus on his eyes because I was lucky enough to see a similar pair up close in person. During a trip to the Smithsonian National Zoo in DC, I witnessed the most captivating animal ‘these’ eyes have ever seen. It’s hard to quantify the immensity of an elephant unless you’ve seen one up close. The astronomical measurables you’ll find with a quick Google search—13 ft tall & 23,000 lbs—don’t do it justice. My first reaction was something like, “It doesn’t even look real”, but was soon reminded that on top of being very real, they share striking similarities to human behavior. With my chin towards the sky, I looked up at this fully grown adult male elephant and remembered thinking, “It should be a crime to cage these majestic animals.” We made eye-contact, and the look he gave me was warm and comforting, like a big brother in a way. What was truly fascinating is the idea that it could squash me and everyone in that zoo if it wanted to, yet his gentleness was palpable. When I did more research on the elephant, my feelings about sharing a common bond with the most unlikely of creatures, was reinforced.


Elephants are just like me and you. It sounds crazy doesn’t it? What if I told you that elephants use their own version of sunscreen(sand & mud) to prevent their soft skin from being burned? Or how about the fact that elephants are the only mammals besides humans that have chins.Still don’t believe me? How about the fact that elephants can distinguish human languages, genders, and ages. Elephants mourn, exhibit behavioral patterns similar to depression & P.T.S.D, discipline their young, and even prefer one tusk to the other in the same way people favor their left or right hand! The striking similarities are too numerous to list, but I hope you see the point. It’s imperative that we protect the elephants, because I have a feeling that we haven’t learned all that there is to know about them.

Instruments of War?

Now, let's explore an interesting part of elephant history—their usage in key battles of antiquity. I know this contradicts my feelings about protecting them, but I think it highlights the formidable aspects of these mammals. Can you imagine the terror of coming face to face with a battalion of 22,000 lb ornery elephants, with giant swords outfitting their already giant tusks?On a side note, Armies would almost exclusively select males (bulls) due to their aggression and the fact that females (cows) will run away from their male counterparts in battle. Elephant warriors were specifically trained to snatch an enemy combatant with that great powerful tusk and toss them to the soldier riding it or to pin the soldiers to the ground and impale them. In addition, they were often sent to stampede and break enemy lines and fortifications. The Indians and Persians used war elephants extensively, and were effective enough to force Alexander the Great to study and train his soldiers on ways to defeat them. The advent of firearms rendered them practically useless and concurrently retired them from the battlefield. That being said, elephants were still used for logistics, carrying supplies for numerous armies all the way up until the first World War!


Elephants come from good stock, with ancestors including the Wooly Mammoth and the Mastodon. One would assume that these prehistoric ancestors must have been much bigger and more ferocious than their modern descendants; It’s actually not the case. Wooly Mammoths and Mastodons—in fact—don’t stack up to the size of the modern African elephant. This is surprising because normally it’s the other way around (Oxygen levels were more abundant in prehistoric times which created an environment of super-sized creatures.) The Wooly Mammoth was more hirsute (hence the name) and Mastodons had different teeth with longer curved tusks. Beyond that, however, the look of the African elephant is strikingly similar to that of their ancestors; trunks and tusks being the shared physical traits. The large size of elephants was an evolutionary reaction to having to survive on veggies with low nutritional value.(that’d make a good Jeopardy question)


The treatment of elephants throughout history has been poor at best. Beyond working them to the bone or using them in battle, they have been historically paraded in front of crowds at zoos and circuses around the world. Wether this was humane or not was the question many people have asked themselves and others since the very beginning. Well, after years and years of public pressure, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey announced that they were going to retire all elephants from their shows by 2018! Furthermore, the famed circus company has also created an elephant sanctuary in Polk City, FL where they can live the rest of their days away from the spotlight. The need to do something was exigent, as it became increasingly clear that the living conditions of many circus/zoo elephants were deplorable. Many facts were uncovered: trainers using bullhooks, electric prods, and ropes; spending the majority of their life in chains; beaten for the slightest disobedience...The true saviors of the elephants are the great men and women who argued their case to court, and decisively swayed the public opinion on elephants in captivity.

Topsy the Elephant

The worst single case of elephant mistreatment, however, happened fairly recently and involved one of the most heralded inventors of our time. In what is viewed by many as the most famous animal execution ever, Topsy the Elephant was electrocuted to feed Thomas Edison’s ego! In an effort to prove that Tesla’s alternating current(AC) was far more dangerous than his direct current(DC), a publicity stunt of tasteless and epic proportions was concocted. Topsy was ordered to be put down by her captors after killing a spectator who burnt the tip of her trunk with a lit cigar. She was publicly executed at a park in Coney Island, after being fed carrots laced with 450 mg of cyanide and having 6.600 volts of electricity sent through specially made copper sandals placed on her feet. Video of the event exists to this day, if you can bear to watch it. Although this stunt was unusually cruel, it’s yet another example of how little people cared about the lives of elephants. That being said, I feel attitudes are changing and people are working hard to prevent these animals from being used and abused; we’ve come along way from elephant fights at the Roman Coliseum and the Topsy incident, but we’re not totally there yet.

Closing Statement

It probably sounds as if I’m totally opposed to elephants being held in captivity; I’m not but I do require a very specific caveat: “Sanctuaries”. Zoos that house elephants don’t have the space, the proper staff, or the amenities these large animals demand. Circuses are transient in the fact that they have to quickly pack up and move on to the next destination. That being the case, they are also unequipped to handle elephants, with the extra attention they deserve. An elephant sanctuary, however, is a free roaming environment cared for by teams of professionals who are not out for personal gain and profit. They truly care about the animals and I wouldn’t mind seeing these pop up more and more across the country. This is going to be wordy, but elephants are the epitome of an anachronism. It’s as if they belong in a period of years past and we should be so lucky to be living among these symbols of antiquity. “You know, they say an elephant never forgets. What they don’t tell you is, you never forget an elephant”---Bill Murray

Sources: 1.






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