Nigel Rothfels, Elephant Trails: A History of Animals and Cultures

Nigel Rothfels, Elephant Trails: A History of Animals and Cultures (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2021) 237 + ix pp. ISBN9781421442594 (hardcover) ISBN9781421442600 (ebook)

Elephant Trails opens with the premise that it is impossible fully for us to know nonhuman animals and that this is especially true in the case of elephants. Nigel Rothfels’s sensitive text on these gentle giants even goes so far as to suggest that partial understanding may be tantamount to misunderstanding. To exemplify his point, he draws on the Buddhist parable of six blind men who each have wildly differing perceptions of elephants. In their respective inter-species encounters, the men only identify a spear-like tusk, or snake-like trunk, or wall-like flank, or fan-like ear, or rope-like tail, or tree-trunk legs, none of which give a true impression of the animal if taken in isolation. Combatting such limitations, Rothfels views the physicality of elephants from multiple angles. In addition, he interrogates ways in which we conceptualise elephants’ emotional interior based on observations of their outward behaviour, and how we make a mental construct of their supposed consciousness of their own mortality, their ritualisation of death, and their prodigious memory.

Rothfels maintains that contemporary ideas about elephants are embedded in thousands of years of our cultural history. He begins by exploring ideas about elephants dating back to cave paintings of woolly mammoths, and rapidly progresses via misconceptions of elephant anatomy in Classical times, and misrepresentations of their hugeness in Medieval bestiaries depicting them bearing castles on their backs. He concentrates much of his effort on the long nineteenth century. This is the period during which he identifies western thought about elephants undergoing a profound alteration, the legacy of which still endures. He reiterates what his subtitle implies, which is that any consideration of the largest land mammals at any moment in time inevitably reveals more about the observer than the observed. ‘It is not just that the Anthropocene makes it impossible for anything in the world to exist outside of human history; it is also that to a significant extent, we make the elephant world, if not the elephants themselves’ (16).

Chapter by chapter Rothfels builds a composite picture of the live animals in the natural habitats of savannahs and jungles, and the unnatural habitats of zoos and circuses, the dead animals in museums, and the unreal creatures of our imagination. He describes fractions of elephant bodies where: their feet have been turned into umbrella stands; millions of tons of their ivory carved into valuable decorative objects or used as pre-plastic raw material; and their skin, bones, and miscellaneous parts exhibited by Natural History Museums or boxed and warehoused as not-quite detritus. Looking at the elephant in its entirety, he focuses on a handful of anthropomorphised individuals given human names such as Josephine or Alice, captured on camera in accordance with their celebrity status. He theorises why the elephant became emblematic of strength, family values and patience, adopted as the symbol of the Republican party in the United States. He then switches to cartoon characters such as Disney’s Dumbo or King Babar of children’s literature, arguing that, in American and European hunters’ memoirs, the animal prey is equally fictionalised. Unfortunately, he pays only scant attention to Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god, and this is a shortcoming of Rothfels’s confessedly western-centric approach.

When Rothfels discusses the mass extermination of elephant herds, he points to an entanglement with colonialism, in which the associated, lucrative ivory trade and self-aggrandisement of hunters leads to slaughter on a staggering scale. Even if not killed, elephantine size and strength causes the animals to be pressed into servitude as bearers of heavy loads or to be turned into objects of curiosity. Enslavement or enforced domestication removes any animal agency. Rothfels’s most powerful commentary is when he contemplates zoos and circuses - sites where live elephants are presented as spectacle. Zoos, he presents as locations of elephant captivity combined with conservation and education, and he is critical of incidental mistreatment of the giant animals in less reputable establishments, with most occurrences admittedly occurring in former times. Circuses, he frowns upon for pachyderm tricks resulting from training based on corporal punishment and physical discomfort. He aims for balance, but it is clear where his sympathy lies. He points to the extreme sexual dimorphism of elephants accounting for the bulk of zoo inhabitants and circus performers being female. Females are more docile and social whereas the greater size of the males coupled with their unpredictable behaviour renders them less susceptible to control. Rothfels notes, in the wild, males are subject to hormonally driven periods of aggression called ‘musth’ and it does not translate well to confined entertainment arenas. He describes at length the demise of two captive males, Gunda and Tusko, who were once a grand draw for audiences, but who, when they were later deemed a danger to the public, were chained and forced to endure the physical and mental torture of near immobilisation.

Rothfels argues that an increasing acknowledgement of the personhood of nonhuman animals ought to highlight our moral responsibility to avoid activities which approach the eradication of species or induce suffering. He forcefully makes the point that if we attribute to elephants, wisdom, memory, and the ability to feel sadness, then to take away their freedom is even more inexcusable. Despite his best efforts to help their cause by writing his highly personal elephant text, Rothfels laments that exploitation of them will continue, and their slow ending is inevitable. Throughout, he is at pains to establish the dignity of the large and peaceful vegetarians, however, he is tortured by the concern that his own thought-provoking work may not itself be able to escape being a fantasy about elephants or, worse still, a distant form of exploitation. Ethics and the raising of awareness is at the forefront, but there is no cumbersome didacticism, only flowing prose interspersed with helpful illustrations. Elephant Trails is a gentle pun on the pathways of the animals in the wild and the several traces followed by Rothfels and by centuries of humans attempting to grasp at the reality of elephants’ lived existence. It is also the journey travelled by readers of Rothfels’s book.

Janette Leaf, Birkbeck, University of London