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The water Elephant and other Odd Elephants

Updated on May 2, 2012

In previous elephant relevant hubs I looked at the amazing social intelligence of Elephants and their occasional wars on humans, suggesting they have a level of communication close to that of human language, and speculated on the evolution of the elephant's trunk, which as all know, it packed before running away to join the circus. But there is more to the elephant than that, and here I look at a couple of Elephantine Enigmas and an odd case of elephant human interaction.


Early in the 20th century reports emerged from Africa of a peculiar type of elephant known as the water elephant. A french explorer reported seeing a group of elephant like creatures in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. The five creatures stood 2- 2.5m at the shoulder with an elongated neck, a curved back, skin like a Hippopotamus, small elephant like ears and a head like that of a tuskless elephant ( a bit like the head of a giant tapir). The natives told the explorer that the animal is not common, spends the entire day in deep water, and emerges at night to graze. In 2005 aviators flying over Lake Tumba claimed to have seen a herd of odd looking elephants fitting the earlier description. I am aware of no further cases

This is intriguing because one of the earliest ancestors of the elephant, which looked like a pigmy hippopotamus according to one reconstruction, is believed to have been partly aquatic. Elephants enjoy swimming and it is possible that this animal, if it exists, is a relic of the earliest elephants that grew in size over the last few millions of years. This is not impossible, the Coelacanth being perhaps the most famous example of such living fossils. We can only wait till a specimen is captured or photographed. And take comfort that without tusks it will at least not be exterminated by Ivory poachers.


In December 1915 the Curiosities section of the Strand Magazine published a letter by the delightfully named Frank Molyneux Wagstaff stating that there was a very small species of water elephant in the Salween river in Burma. It is a miniature elephant no more than three inches high, and normal elephants will not enter the river if the miniature elephant is about as it drives its tiny tusks into the elephant's leg and poisons it. Apparently one was killed and photographed but the corpse was then stolen. This is most likely a hoax, but by whom will probably never be known.


Elephants are vegetarian but occasional reports arise of elephants that eat humans. The Portsmouth Daily Express of 10th Jan 1986 cited the United News Agency as saying there was a reward on offer of 2,000 Rupees, a large sum even in the UK at that time, for a rogue elephant that had killed and eaten five people in the north- eastern Indian state of Meghalaya. The notoriously unreliable Weekly World News on 11th February 1986 reported an anonymous Interior Department official as saying the elephant had been seen eating one of its victims and that the partially eaten remains of 12 other people had been found scattered among the footprints of a single elephant.

In Berlin during the Second World War a woman office worker would pop along to the zoo in her lunch hour to feed the remains of her sandwiches to the elephant. The elephant fell ill and she begged to stay overnight to nurse him. Her request was granted, and the next morning only parts of her remained. This I feel has the air of an urban legend and I would like to see any original documents confirming this case. However it is not impossible that an elephant could eat a human by mistake, and regret that later. According to the Daily Star of 26 Jan 1983. Circus hand William Beggars tripped while walking past 15 elephants at the Circus Vargas in Los Angeles. One animal tried to stuff him in its mouth. Failing to eat him. it then shook him around and tossed him over its head. He was hospitalised with a seriously injured back.


Some decades ago Fortean Times reported a case of a 60 year old Thai man convicted of having sex with an elephant. He claimed the elephant was the reincarnation of his dead wife and that he recognised her by the twinkle in her eye. If you are not a believer in reincarnation this only goes to show that no matter how many mysteries there are in the world, there are even more in human behaviours.

There is also the report on the Darwin Awards site of the death of a zookeeper who, having fed a constipated elephant with animal laxative then decided to work behind the elephant.....


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