Books

back to issue

WILDLIFE AND PEOPLE: The Zimbabwean Success by Graham Child. Wisdom Foundation, Harare and New York, 1995.

Perhaps, when the African does have his belly full, perhaps then he too will take an interest in the beauty of the elephant.

– Romain Gary in The Roots of Heaven.

IT is not often that we hear good news about Zimbabwe (Rhodesia). But as far as wildlife conservation is concerned, Zimbabwe is a country that has pioneered the sustainable utilization of wildlife with great success. Conservation of wildlife grew out of a concern, especially among the big game hunters themselves, that animals were being over-exploited. Initially, game reserves were established to maintain wildlife for hunting, and it was only later that some of them were developed as national parks for conserving the species. Of all the books that I have read on wildlife conservation, Graham Child’s book, Wildlife and People: The Zimbabwean Success, is perhaps the most persuasive, pragmatic and provocative. The book about the philosophies that guide successful nature conservation, deals with the relationships between wildlife and people, especially outside the protected areas set aside as bastions for its protection. The book is a must read for anyone who is even remotely concerned with reconciling the conservation and management of large animals with the plight of the poor people who share the land with them.

Wildlife and People is especially aimed at the professional. The author draws on his years of experience as Director of National Parks and Wildlife Management in Zimbabwe to provide a lucid assessment of the issues that define the sustainable utilization of wildlife and explains in simple, clear and unambiguous language how the conflict between large animals and people became progress for both in Zimbabwe. He outlines not only the successes but also failures from which we can learn. Reading his book will certainly change our approach to wildlife conservation – if we have an open mind.

Today, the concept of sustainable use of wildlife resources has become an issue of lively debate among wildlife managers, conservationists and animal rights activists. Conservation philosophy is moving away from the traditional ‘guns and guards’ approach to ensure absolute protection to wildlife, and is being replaced by more people-friendly, realistic and innovative strategies. The ‘so called’ purists among us are either unable or unwilling to distinguish between wildlife conservation and wildlife protection. For them wildlife conservation is synonymous with total protection of the rich biological diversity of the country. Given a chance, they would be happy to enforce a total ban on the utilization of all wildlife resources. In their universe, all wildlife must remain totally protected, cherished, untouched, and unutilized. As the one time Director General of IUCN, Martin Holdgate argues, they may however grudgingly allow for some discreet non-invasive tourism in which the visitor is allowed a peek into the protected area to marvel and move on. Others, especially conservationists with a conscience, believe that to succeed in conservation, we need to take into consideration the needs of the people who share their land with the wildlife species. It is only through allowing those people who live in and around areas frequented by wildlife to derive some economic benefit from the renewable wildlife resources that we can ensure their support for wildlife conservation. The World Conservation Strategy of the IUCN in fact supports all forms of wildlife exploitation as long as they are carried out in a sustainable manner.

Both arguments, as Martin Holdgate points out, have their place. In the case of rare, endangered or endemic species, there is a need for total protection until they and their habitats are reasonably secure. No one should dispute such an approach. But in areas where wildlife is still numerous, and large potentially destructive animals may pose a danger to the lives, crops, goods and chattel of the people, management is essential. In situations where an animal poses a serious threat to people then, as a last resort, it must be either removed and relocated and, if this is not possible, then killed. If the poor who live in and around wildlife can benefit from the animals and their habitat, it will increase support for conservation in general. Thus, if wildlife is to be conserved, it must pay its way.

On reading Graham Child’s remarkable book it becomes abundantly clear that the only guiding principle behind his conservation philosophy is that if wildlife and protected areas are to survive, they must be socio-politically acceptable, economically viable, and ecologically sustainable. Furthermore, where land and renewable resources are scarce, as in much of Africa, nature conservation must economically compete with agriculture and forestry for space. Land is a contentious issue in Zimbabwe where about 80% is semi-arid receiving less than 800 mm of rainfall annually. At independence in 1980, about 6,000 White farmers owned 46% of the land – often the best for agriculture. 700,000 Black farmers were squeezed into the remaining, often marginal land. In such a situation, where land for the natives is scarce, they have a right to demand that areas set aside for wildlife conservation become most beneficial to them as well. Otherwise, in times of crisis, as Holdgate points out, the people will turn wildlife habitats into pastures, and replace antelopes and elephants with cattle and goats. Today, about 6% of all Zimbabweans directly benefit from wildlife.

Graham Child owes his success in wildlife conservation in Zimbabwe to his uncanny ability to unite the public and private sectors into a strong partnership. In the final analysis, good management of wildlife and habitats can come about only if we work with human societies and cultures that influence them. Truly natural conditions no longer exist in Zimbabwe where man’s footprint has been known for thousands of years. Man induced habitat changes have altered the composition and overall biomass of indigenous wildlife. Although extinction of species is often blamed on hunting, Child provides evidence that more often it was due to the loss of essential habitats. The white rhino is the only species that had disappeared in Zimbabwe within historical times. Nevertheless, the species has since been successfully reintroduced, bred and redistributed in the country.

Zimbabwe can be justly proud of its conservation success. It recognizes that conserving biodiversity is not an academic luxury but an important ingredient in sustainable development. It has managed to build management structures from the ground up – from the village to the district, and the country. The area set aside for wildlife conservation totals over 30% of the country, of which half is protected by the state. Nevertheless, when dealing with conservation of large, highly mobile species of wildlife, the network of protected areas alone can never be large enough to support them. Zimbabwe was able to extend these areas beyond the borders only because the owners of the land were prepared to tolerate animals and preserve their habitats. Zimbabwe’s Communal Areas’ Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (CAMFIRE) was developed to ensure that local communities are fully involved in the management of wildlife on their land. Local people are thus able to earn money directly from their wildlife resources. A well informed public is crucial to the success of conservation.

An entire chapter in the book is devoted to elephant management. In 1900, there were about 4,000 elephants in Zimbabwe. Today, the country has a large elephant population which is estimated to be about 110,000 by WWF, well above the optimum capacity of between 45,000 and 50,000. If it takes 4 sq. km to support an elephant without upsetting the natural relationship between the animals and the woodland habitat, to be sustainable even a population of 76,000 elephants will require the exclusive use of between 40 and 80% of Zimbabwe! Economists Erwin H. Bulte and G. Cornelis van Kooten estimated that ‘one elephant annually consumes as much forage as required to bring 4.7 cows to full maturity.’ We can understand why some farmers have committed suicide in defence of their crops. Elephants are incompatible with peasant agriculture unless the damage they cause can be compensated. People are more important than elephants. We cannot preserve elephants at the expense of people. As Richard Leakey once commented, ‘Unless we can make wildlife conservation profitable for all peoples, we cannot save our elephants for the future.’

The book also deals with game ranching or the commercial use of wildlife and game farming in game-fenced enclosures. The Nile crocodile, native to Zimbabwe and once considered a noxious animal, is now contributing to human welfare. Crocodile farming is an expanding industry in Africa and Asia. In a chapter on wildlife and tourism Child points out that the historical marriage between protected areas and tourism was not always harmonious. Yet today, wildlife tourism in Zimbabwe is a multimillion-dollar industry.

The best chapter is the last one in which the author discusses the future of wildlife in Zimbabwe. Given that Africa itself is no longer sparsely populated, the conservation of its magnificent macrofauna is inextricably linked to the welfare of the people who share the land with animals. Most of these people are poor and struggling to survive. As Romain Gary wrote in The Roots of Heaven, ‘Africa will never awaken to her destiny until she has stopped being the world’s zoo.’ Legislation alone cannot protect species if it is not enforceable. Zimbabwe is an agricultural country with a rapidly growing population. Nevertheless, wildlife is thriving and protected areas are secure largely because of the foresight of the government which manages them as though people matter. There is a symbiotic but delicate balance between man and wildlife in Zimbabwe and the threat to profitable commercial use of wildlife comes mainly from the western, urban, animal rights movement, which as Child points out, ‘is a form of arrogance that is a disservice to Zimbabwe, its people, its wildlife and its environment.’ Some of these groups are surprisingly violent in achieving their so-called nonviolent goals. Animal rights and animal liberation movements are mostly class based and involve mainly the educated, prosperous elite who live in cities far away from farms and villages. They are relatively absent from rural communities where agriculture or hunting is a way of life. Much of the external advice to Zimbabwe has come from people who are pompous, petulant and prosperous, having decimated their own indigenous wildlife. They, unlike the indigenous poor, share none of the risks in living with wildlife. As Graham Child concludes, the Zimbabwean experience suggests that if wildlife is permitted to contribute meaningfully to their welfare, people will develop a strong stake in its survival. One way out is to give wildlife a value so that local people will want to conserve it.

Charles Santiapillai

 

THE GREAT INDIAN ELEPHANT BOOK: An Anthology of Writing on Elephants in the Raj edited by Dhriti K. Lahiri-Choudhury. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1999.

IT is said that being published by the Oxford University Press (OUP) is like being married to a duchess; the honour is greater than the pleasure. But on reading Lahiri-Choudhury’s book it appears that the former Professor of English at Calcutta’s Rabindra Bharati University and one of the founder members of the IUCN’s Asian Elephant Specialist Group (AsESG) clearly derived enormous pleasure in compiling the collection of excerpts on the changing perceptions about the Indian elephant and the sportsman’s way with it under the British Raj. In the introduction, which is the best section of the book, Dhriti Lahiri-Choudhury provides a fascinating analysis of the use and abuse of the elephant in war and peace in the 19th century by the British colonial rulers even as they were hunting it across its range in the Indian subcontinent. He is, by the way, well placed to comment on both the hunter and the hunted, as he too had brought down a couple of magnificent rogues with his rifle (although not for sport, but in response to growing conflict between man and beast in north-central India).

Lahiri-Choudhury’s book deals with the period that began in 1773 when British rule was first imposed in India, and where the elephant itself subsequently became the emblem of imperial power. The book also covers Ceylon (Sri Lanka) given its geo-cultural and historical links with India. In his book, the author discusses two aspects of the elephant: the changing perceptions about the elephant and the sportsman’s response. When the British took control of the Indian subcontinent, the elephant and other wildlife was so numerous that people were encouraged to hunt and eliminate it in vast numbers. Sport was an abiding passion for the British – hunting and polo for the upper classes, a bit of football for the lower orders. As Ann Morrow points out in her book, The Maharajas of India, sport was thought an important way of ‘sweating the sex’ out of the upper ranks.

The British upper classes loved big game hunting wherever they went, blood sports being a closely guarded privilege of the top drawers. But not everyone who was sent to rule India during the British Raj came from the ruling class. Hunting was not just a sport, but a symbol of status as well, the criterion being the number of animals one shot. The size of the hunted increased the status of the hunter so much that some measuring tapes that were used had 11 inches to a foot! Thus big game hunting, as Lahiri-Choudhury argues, became a short-cut to acquiring the status of a gentleman, a way of proving ones credentials to peers. But hardly any colonial who shot elephants recognized the courage of the native trackers and shikaris, who often went ahead of the well-armed White sahib! Even G.P. Sanderson sent two of his unarmed trackers ahead of him after wounding an elephant.

For the British, shooting an elephant was far more thrilling than hunting foxes using trained fox-hounds back home. No wonder Lord Curzon once implored a friend of his to ‘come and stay with us and we will arrange for you to shoot tigers from the back of elephants or elephants from the back of tigers.’ But the Indian princes and their British guests were inveterate hunters. In some princely states of the maharajas, hunting was a major form of recreation and dead elephant’s feet held umbrellas; tusks were used for gongs, and the penis as a stalwart golf bag!

For the Hindus, however, the elephant is a symbol of Lord Ganesh, and hence its killing has always been taboo. While the upper class Englishmen loved the sport of elephant hunting, the upper class Hindus loathed the sport as barbaric. Even in predominantly Buddhist Ceylon, elephant hunting was never popular among the people, although capturing and training elephants for use in war and peace was an established art. Elephants were protected by kings in Ceylon, and it was only in 1826 that their hunting became an accepted form of sport. At least 40,000 Asian elephants were killed or captured during the past century in India alone.

The book is divided into four sections: the first deals with the changing perceptions of the people who hunted elephants; the second with the dangers associated with the game of shooting elephants in India; the third deals with encounters of elephants in Burma, and the fourth is confined to Ceylon. These carefully selected excerpts from 23 contributors provide us a historical perspective of the changing attitude of the colonial hunter to the elephant and his role in its endangerment.

Lahiri-Choudhury begins his anthology with W.H. Hunter’s account of William Makepeace Thackeray, grandfather of the novelist, who at the age of 17 joined the East India Company in East Bengal (Bangladesh today) at an annual salary of Rs 495 (or 62 pounds). Thackeray augmented his meagre salary by engaging in the private trade of supplying elephants for the Company’s troops. He also became a mighty hunter of elephants. His main source of income, however, was the destruction of tigers and the capture of wild elephants. Over time, the attitude of the colonials changed – from regarding the elephant as an instrument of short-term profit to valuing it subsequently for pleasure when it became an object of sport hunting. The government of the day in fact promoted the slaughter of elephants by offering a bounty for each animal that was killed. The impact of this policy was most seriously felt in South India and Ceylon where elephants declined substantially in both range and number.

In Ceylon, Samuel Baker and his colleagues were responsible for wiping out entire herds of elephants, collecting only their tails as trophies from the largely tusk-less individuals. Baker even explains the difference between killing and shooting an elephant. Furthermore, since elephants were so numerous and widely distributed, there was hardly any recognition of the need to conserve the species. It was F.W. Champion who first became appalled at the mindless slaughter of the magnificent animal, which he referred to as ‘perhaps the finest of God’s wild creatures.’

But the real story of wild elephants according to Lahiri-Choudhury began with Captain Thomas Williamson in 1807, and continued with the publications by Sir Emerson Tennent in 1867 and G.P. Sanderson in 1878. Incidentally, Tennent’s credibility declined and he lost out to Sanderson’s in due course with some of his contemporaries refusing to take his writings seriously. John Macdonald Henderson used an old quip to describe it – ‘all that is true in it is not new and what is new is not true.’ Sanderson too rubbished Tennent’s work, The Wild Elephant, as ‘full of the errors which are unavoidable when a man writes on a subject with which he has no practical acquaintance.’ Sir Emerson Tennent was nicknamed ‘Sir Timorsome Emmet’ by his colleagues in Ceylon on account of his tendency to run away from a crowd!

In colonial India, elephants in the wild were first studied by the British over the barrels of the rifle before binoculars and notebooks replaced them. G.P. Sanderson’s Thirteen Years Among the Wild Beasts of India, published in 1878, still remains a classic. Col. F.T. Pollock, on the other hand, was spot on when he compared the temperament of the elephant under stress to that of women – ‘uncertain, coy and difficult to please.’ He also correctly measured the approximate shoulder height of the elephant by multiplying the circumference of its forefoot by two – a fact that was well-known to elephant catchers in Ceylon long before Pollock’s time.

Reading Lahiri-Choudhury’s carefully selected excerpts makes it clear that a number of hunters contradicted each other on the basis of their own experiences and ignorance. There is considerable confusion over the longevity of the species in the wild. While Emerson Tennent, drawing on the information he received from knowledgeable natives, estimated it as 70 years, he also quotes one Col. Robertson who found a domesticated elephant in Ceylon whose records indicated that it might have lived to more than 140 years! Sanderson betrayed his ignorance of the average lifespan of an elephant in the wild by putting it around 150 years. One of the most renowned travellers of the 17th century, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier too mentions in his classic, Travels in India, that ‘an elephant’s age sometimes amounts to 120 or 130.’ Furthermore, the exploits of the British hunters were published largely for the consumption of the British audience both in the colonies and in the Mother Country. Such publications appeared in Country Life and Field in England. The natives did not exist in the subconscious of the colonials. An exception was Sanderson who acknowledged the fact that ‘the elephant is essentially a native’s animal. Natives alone have fully studied his peculiarities and classified him into castes; his capture, training and keeping are in native hands, as well as the trade; and the native standard of merit regulates the market.’

The exploits of the colonial hunters did not advance the cause of elephant conservation. Elephant and wildlife conservation in the Indian subcontinent grew out of the innate concerns of the Hindus and Buddhists for the welfare of the animals. However, the need to set up special reserves for protecting wildlife, including the elephant, arose from a concern by the very people who exploited wildlife – namely the British colonial hunters – who feared that at the rate they were exterminating wildlife, there would soon be no game left for hunting!

Lahiri-Choudhury’s book provides a wealth of firsthand information on the elephant, both in the wild and in captivity. As many of the primary sources that he had consulted are no longer readily available to those of us working outside India, the book serves as a valuable adjunct. It also helps us understand the time, the culture and the mindset of the colonials who took to the sport of big game hunting. If there is a message in the book, then it is that an understanding of the past could be the beginning of wisdom in conserving and managing the magnificent megaherbivore in Asia.

Charles Santiapillai

 

THE LIVING ELEPHANTS: Evolutionary Ecology, Behaviour, and Conservation by Raman Sukumar. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2003.

Raman Sukumar, perhaps the best exponent of the elephant in Asia, has advanced the cause of Asian elephant conservation for more than two decades with numerous publications based on rigorous scientific research. His earlier book, ‘The Asian Elephant: Ecology and Management’ (Cambridge University Press, 1989) is standard reading for anyone working on the species. In writing serious scientific books, the major difficulty lies not so much in what to include as in what to leave out.

The Living Elephants is a remarkable book that succeeds admirably in its purpose of synthesizing the evolution, behaviour, ecology, conservation and management of elephants, while dealing with the history of the interactions between humans and elephants. There are few biologists in Asia studying elephants who have the depth of knowledge, or even the courage to present such a broad overview of both extinct and extant elephants as has been done by Sukumar.

The elephant has always fascinated humans. No other animal has had such a close relationship with people. In Asia the elephant is worshipped as a god (Ganesha) by Hindus, while it is slaughtered for meat or ivory in Africa. The first reference to the elephant occurs in the Rig Veda (c. 1200-1000 B.C.) where it was called mriga hastin, the beast with a hand. The elephant must have been domesticated about 4,000 years ago in India, long before the arrival of Indo-Aryan tribes, who were unacquainted with the elephant in the lands from where they came. The Mahabharata provides the earliest evidence for the use of trained elephants in war. Kautilya’s Arthashastra recommended the establishment of sanctuaries for supplying the army with elephants.

In his book Sukumar attempts to provide a better balance between studies of Asian and African elephants than that offered by other books currently available. Although much of the information discussed here has appeared in many journals and books over a long period of time, Sukumar should be credited for having assembled those facts in an interesting, balanced and coherent way. He has been careful to acknowledge everyone whose works form the basis of his book. It is a bold endeavour. The value of the book lies in the breadth of treatment extending to topics such as the evolutionary history of elephants, interrelationship of culture and ecology, social life of elephant families, reproductive behaviour of elephants, food and feeding of elephants, impact of elephants on their habitats, dynamics of elephant populations, conflict between elephants and people, and conservation of elephants.

Elephants are found in Africa and Asia today. The African bush elephant Loxodonta africana, the African forest elephant L. cyclotis and the Asian elephant Elephas maximus are the living representatives of more than 160 species recognized in fossil records as belonging to the order, Proboscidea. Such a burst in elephant speciation and evolution during the Pleistocene era was followed by the extinction of almost all the species. The two reasons that are often proposed for such extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna are global changes in climate and overkill by early man or (more likely) a combination of both. Modern studies in molecular genetics appear to put the traditional taxonomy of elephants into some sort of chaos. The results of recent genetic studies by Lori Eggert and co-workers support the recognition of two African species: Loxodonta africana, the savannah elephant, and Loxodonta cyclotis, the forest elephant. In Asia, DNA studies by Prithiviraj Fernando and colleagues reveal that Borneo’s elephants are genetically distinct. But the problem in taxonomy is determing to what extent the results of comparative studies in microbiology, biochemistry, etc. can be used in classifying animals? What conclusions can be drawn from such data as far as evolutionary relationships are concerned? Sukumar, for instance, cautions that it may be too premature to differentiate Loxodonta into two species. This does not mean that biochemical data are irrelevant; instead, they ought to be placed in proper perspective with a range of other characters.

Today, while there could be about 400,000 African elephants inhabiting a total land area of 4.9 million sq. km across 36 countries in the continent, the Asian elephant numbering about 45,000 ranges across a total land area of 486,800 sq. km and is found in just 13 countries. Yet, while the Asian elephant is by far the more seriously endangered, it is the elephant in Africa which continues to draw much more publicity and funds for conservation.

Sukumar discusses the evolution and spread of elephant culture from Northwestern India to the South, East and Southeast Asia. According to C.W. Nicholas, the first Warden of the Wildlife Department in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), it was the ancestors of the Sinhalese who towards the close of the 5th century B.C. brought with them their inherited skill in the domestication of the elephant to Ceylon. African elephants too were trained for use in war. In his campaign against the Romans, Hannibal crossed the Alps with his elephant army in 319 B.C. The interesting question is why the art of capture and taming of elephants collapsed in Africa? The African elephant has always been more valuable dead than alive given the economics of ivory trade, while the Asian elephant enjoyed protection even in the wild.

The elephant is one of the most sexually dimorphic of mammals. This is largely due to differences in the growth rate following the period of puberty when the males show a pronounced acceleration of growth – the post-pubertal growth spurt – with the result that adult bulls come to weigh twice as much as full grown cows, and are also much taller. Sukumar’s book provides a good understanding of the post-pubertal phenomenon of musth. The term musth comes from an Urdu word for intoxication. Musth is a male phenomenon in Asian elephants, while the temporal gland secretes a fluid – temporin in both immature and adult male and female African elephants, which plays a role in communication among individuals in a social group. As Sukumar rightly points out, ‘The term musth had been wrongly applied to any kind of secretion from the temporal glands in either males or females.’ Studies by Joyce Poole and Cynthia Moss in 1981 had firmly established that adult bull African elephants exhibited the physical and behavioural characteristics of musth similar to those in Asian elephants. Musth bulls in Africa, as Philip Kahl and Billie Armstrong point out, often strut with the head held high in the ‘musth-walk’, which they euphemistically refer to as the ‘John Wayne walk’. Young male elephants are also known to be less likely to be in musth if a larger musth bull is around. Larger, older bulls therefore may delay the onset of musth in younger males.

Despite advances in reproductive physiology, the oestrous cycle in elephants is still poorly understood. The studies of Bets Rasmussen and her co-workers indicate that females advertise their oestrous condition by releasing into their urine a chemical compound (z)-7-dodecen-1-yl-acetate, the same volatile compound used by many female insects to attract mates.

One of the most interesting chapters in the book concerns the social organization of elephants. Long-term observations made by Cynthia Moss led to the discovery that elephants have a multi-tiered social system. Each family, as has been identified by Richard Laws and Iain Douglas-Hamilton, is matriarchal. The age of the matriarch is a significant predictor of the number of calves produced by the family. The core of elephant society is the herd or family unit, and two or more herds go to form a bond group. Ten or more family units will make up a clan, and a number of clans in an area represent the subpopulation. The entire population would include mature bulls as well.

It is now known that elephants show an extended period of maternal care, in which mothers invest more on sons than daughters. Male calves are known to demand and get more milk from their mothers. Phyllis Lee and Cynthia Moss found that in addition to maternal care, other individuals in the herd, referred to as allomothers, care for elephant calves. They found that families with multiple allomothers were significantly more successful at rearing calves than families with few or no allomothers.

Once males reach sexual maturity, they are expelled from the natal herd to avoid inbreeding. Such young bulls may associate temporarily, forming the so called ‘bachelor herds’ or all-male groups. Solitary bulls and all-male groups are often responsible for much of the crop depredations in Asia. Adult bulls are not an integral part of an elephant herd. However, according to Richard Barnes, in regions of low elephant density, it would be advantageous for an adult bull to be attached to a female group for an extended period. This is still debatable, and as Sukumar points out, ‘perhaps the last word has not yet been said on this subject.’ Of the concept of ‘herd bull’, after a day’s reflection, one might say what Jake Barnes told a wistful Lady Brett in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, ‘Isn’t it pretty to think so?’

Elephants communicate through a wide repertoire of tactile, visual, chemical and acoustic signals. It was in 1986 that Katharine Payne and her co-workers realized, while observing Asian elephants in captivity, that they might be communicating at low sound frequencies (14-24 Hz), inaudible to us. As infrasound can travel at least four kilometres through a forest, a female can communicate with bulls to advertise her sexual readiness within an area of roughly 50 sq. km. With the use of radio-telemetry, we now have a better idea of how far elephants range in the wild. Ajay Desai and N. Baskaran were among the first to provide reliable estimates of home ranges of elephants in India using radio-telemetry. Studies on home range patterns have shown the negative correlation that exists between rainfall and range size.

The life of an elephant is one long meal. Elephants are voracious and wasteful feeders, consuming on average 4% of their body weight (6% in the case of lactating females). The choice of browse (C3 plants) or grass (C4 plants) is influenced by the availability of these plant types. They usually switch from browse during the dry season to grass in the rainy season. It appears that a diet of 5-6% crude protein is necessary for maintenance of adults.

There has been much debate over the ‘elephant problem’ in Africa. It was Richard Laws who observed that the concentration of elephants in limited areas could lead to a build up in their densities, even though absolute population size could be decreasing. While African elephants respond to overcrowding by destroying trees and converting forests to savannah, Asian elephants usually disperse to prevent overgrazing of their habitat. A contrary view is that elephant utilization of woody vegetation was merely natural foraging, and that ‘damage’ to trees was part of the natural ecology of semi-arid habitats.

If there were to be a department of unfinished business, human-elephant conflict would be one of its major concerns. Despite a plethora of symposia, conferences, workshops, and research studies on the human-elephant conflict, general solutions to crop raiding still elude us. A noteworthy feature of the book is the treatment of the human-elephant conflict, which has claimed the lives of both man and elephant. The African elephant’s misfortune is its tusks, for which it is slaughtered in large numbers. In parts of India, ivory poaching is also a major conservation problem. But in general, elephant poaching, as Shanthini Dawson and Tim Blackburn argue, may be a relatively minor problem in Asia today, because some males and all females lack tusks.

In Sri Lanka, where tuskers are rare (less than 7% of the bulls are tuskers), ivory poaching is not a serious problem. Instead, the human-elephant conflict is responsible for an annual loss of between 100-150 elephants and 30-50 humans. In many countries in Asia, unlike in Africa, there is no longer enough room for elephants to move about and adjust their densities to changes in the vegetation. When landscapes are fragmented, a system of corridors may be one way of ensuring genetic exchange between isolated populations or pocketed herds. A number of measures have been used to mitigate elephant depredations, and these range from the use of fire crackers, construction of trenches, establishment of electric fences, to the use of capsicum-based irritants developed by Ferrel Osborn in Zimbabwe. Other options have been the removal of ‘problem animals’ either through translocations or elephant drives. In Africa, problem elephants are also removed through culling.

Ivory trade is a very contentious issue. Both African and Asian elephants are listed in Appendix I of CITES, which bans their international trade. But as Sukumar points out, a mere ban in trade is no guarantee that elephants will survive. The ban may drive the ivory trade underground, making it as hard to police as cocaine smuggling from the forests of Latin America. While accepting the fact that the 1989 international ban did help reduce the level of ivory poaching in Africa, Sukumar argues that a more pragmatic, longer-term strategy for the trade in ivory needs to be worked out. It is important that countries in which elephants range make the existing machinery of conservation work better, instead of rushing headlong into a total ban that could make matters worse.

With the proliferation of research on elephants during the past four decades, the need for an authoritative overview has been keenly felt. Raman Sukumar’s book, perhaps his magnum opus, is an attempt to fill this gap. He writes with conviction backed by long-term observations and research on elephants. He has made a bold and successful attempt to get almost all the really important facts about elephants, and has included both old and new information. The book succeeds in bringing together the recent advances in the study of both African and Asian elephants. It is, however, not one to be skimmed at a sitting, but to be read in parts, to be digested and to be consulted time and again in the future. The comprehensive 25 page bibliography with almost 500 references will be of real value to both students and researchers wishing to go further. The book is well produced with the high quality of illustrations and graphs that we have come to expect from Oxford University Press.

The most pleasant surprise of the book is its readability. Because of its coverage and lucidity, the book is bound to interest a wider audience. It represents a landmark in providing an overall picture of the state of knowledge on elephants, and so will be valuable as a catalyst for research on elephants. The author’s scholarship in these matters being of a high order, his book will be of immense value to a broad spectrum of people as a means of catching up with important and startling developments in the field of elephant conservation.

Charles Santiapillai

_______________

Charles Santiapillai, The William H. Darr School of Agriculture, Missouri State University, Springfield, Missouri, USA; Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for the Study of Asian Elephant at Rajarata University of Sri Lanka.

top