The first memory that I have of elephants, the great gray behemoth, is extremely vivid. Every year for about ten days Ringling Brothers Barnum and Baily Circus, "The Greatest Show on Earth" would roll in to town on the Southern Pacific Railway which stopped at the foot of Geneva Avenue near San Francisco. The road would be closed to all traffic as the animals, the horses, lions, tigers, monkeys and elephants, along with the acrobats, trapeze artists, clowns, sequented women, jugglers, midgets and dozens of carnies, the traveling carnival workers came marching up the road to the Cow Palace where my father was manager. I had access to all areas of that drafty colosseum where the circus set up. In the south hall the elephants were chained around the legs, wrinkled, grey and as thick as tree trunks. When the doors sung open and the 16,000 spectators flooded the mezzanine, some walked up close to feed the elephants peanuts from red and white striped bags.
I must have been about 5 or 6 years old and between shows I went behind the barricades alone to feed them.
One huge elephant quickly snatched me up in his trunk and lofted me up into the air, his trunk weaving back and forth above his head, warming up like a baseball pitcher, grasping me tightly. One of the handlers nearby came running up with a long wooden shaft that had a gaffers hook on the end, grabbing his trunk, pulling it downwards, he released me. I thought it was all great fun and only realized later, seeing the trainers terror that the elephant intended to hurl me against the far wall like ripened fruit.
Until very recently, elephants could be found with their mahoots wandering around the neon lit streets of Bangkok begging money for bananas or sugar cane. One baby elephant of about 2 or 3 years old named Dodo was a cute little fellow who drunk as I was one evening thought it would be a great idea to own. I bargained with the mahoot and finally settled on ten thousand dollars for Dodo. When he called me the next day, truck ready to haul him over to our house, my wife said "no way, what are you nuts?". By then I had mercifully sobered up and knew she was right. Oh demon Irish whisky.
There can be no doubt that elephants are highly intelligent social animals. They are the largest land animal in the world and eat 250 kilos of food everyday. The gestation period is about 22 months and babies suckle for a couple of years. At maturity they can reach 10 feet tall and weigh up to 6 tons. In their lifetimes they have 6 sets of teeth compared to the only 2 sets for humans. Could this be because until recently men only lived an average of 20 to 30 years while for many thousands of years the elephant lived to be up to 80? Several dentists in Japan who work on one of the world's oldest populations have told me that in several cases in their careers, they have had patients who at 90 or 100 years and over have begun to develop a third set of teeth.
Elephants can recognize themselves in mirrors as has been proven. After looking over, under and around a mirror, they will, by a mark placed on the forehead touch that spot and realize that they are looking at themselves. They are self aware.
They bury their dead with twigs and leaves and further grieve with the death of one of their members. Elephants give birth to twins very, very rarely and when they do the twins are usually still born. In 1993 in Thailand an elephant gave birth to twin sisters. One twin was born dead and the other desperately tried using her trunk to lift her dead sister to her feet, Seeing she was dead she became depressed and refused to eat.
Shaba is a tented camp and at night if we needed anything we would have to call the front desk by radio phone and they would send a Masai warrior with a spear. We couldn't wander around outside because of the nocturnal lions. One morning I was looking across the marshy lagoon through binoculars and saw an elephant suddenly expel a huge torrent of liquid from between her hind legs followed by a massive pearlescent bean shaped form. I called out to Junko who was also out on the porch and told her to look through her binoculars at the elephant across the lagoon. All at once as she focused, another flood of liquid spewed out and another huge iridescent placenta fell out.
We took the land rover with our guide to drive over and have a closer look. The elephant peeled back the shimmering tissue with her trunk and at a safe distance through my 400 mm lens, I began to observe and snap pictures. As in the account witnessed in Thailand, she began to prod the calves with her truck, trying desperately to awaken them, prodding them with her foreleg.
They would not move.
They were born dead.
Some of her female relatives came out of the bush to join her, warding off the predatory animals who were beginning to gather. They swung their trunks at the vultures hovering in the air above, charging the hyenas and jackals. Lions growled deeply resonating in the distance. For three days we periodically watched her and her relatives grieve. Through the lens I could see her cry. A constant river of tears ran down her face, it was a heart breaking scene.
Finally after keeping their vigilance the herd moved on to let nature take its course. The event was so rare that the elephant research department center sent out observers to investigate and document.
In Burma elephants traditionally have always been captured and trained by the Karen people in the forests of Karen State to haul the golden logs of precious teak. That rugged terrain is virtually inaccessible and teak logs impossible to move without the help of the elephant. Top quality golden teak is worth many thousands of dollars per ton, and one log weighs several tons. Domesticated elephants are also used for human transport as there are few roads across the dark mountains and deep jungles of Eastern Burma. I had ridden elephants in rebel held areas of Karen and Karinni States going to visit remote tribes such as the Kayan whose women wear enormous hoops of black lacquered cotton ropes around their legs making their ability to walk difficult. My elephant was over 30 years old, a female with bright golden eyes. The saddle was a curved wooden basket slotted together which the mahout who rode on her spiky haired neck tied me securely into. I questioned the wisdom of this thinking that if the elephant were to fall over, I would be crushed. She flapped her pink and gray spotted ears against the mahouts knees as he directed her movements. She weaved between formidable trees which grew long thorns that could scrape off your skin like a cheese grater, avoiding them by inches. Clearly she knew her limits and this gave me confidence. The reason for being tied into the saddle became clear when we rode up the slippery face of a waterfall strewn with boulders, she rising up with a step then dipping down with another, I was thrown from side to side on her massive shoulder blades as she tested every step before taking it, higher and higher up the crest of the hill. She was far more sure footed than any horse could ever possibly have been.
A distant cousin of the Asian and African elephant is the woolly mammoth which became extinct 10 to 12 thousand years ago.Japanese scientists have extracted DNA from a baby mammoth found complete and frozen solid in the Siberian wasteland. I have no doubt that the woolly mammoth will be the first completely extinct animal to ever be brought back to life.
Elephants have always been revered. From the Hindu elephant god Ganesh, to Hannibal using them to cross the Alps and fight the Romans who in awe, later minted their images in to their coins 2000 years ago.
In the royal courts of Burma not so very long ago, the sacred white elephant could only be possessed by kings, had their own musicians to serenade them, and were suckled by the most beautiful flawless young maidens from whose ample breasts poured milk. The girls would have had long braided coils of black oiled hair piled up on their heads with clusters of yellow padauk blossoms which nearly touched their bare shoulders They would fall to their knees at the leathery feet of the great white tusker, their hands with coral pink palms cupping uplifted breasts from which the pale pachyderm satiated his thirst.
In the west the term white elephant has come to mean something completely useless and wasteful, perhaps because of the incredible costs incurred by maintaining one.
Finally there is the elephant memory which I wear. The Perahera in Sri Lanka where a parade of up to 100 elephants dressed in mirrored satin and gemstones with gold rings on their ivory tusks are ridden by men beneath the bearers of umbrellas. The lead elephant, the largest carries a chest on his back which contains the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha. I have that image of that elephant from the Parahera carved as an intaglio in blue sapphire which was panned from the gem gravels in a stream near Ratnapura. I took it in trade from a Muslim gem dealer who had no interest in Buddhist artifacts. I mounted it in 22 karat gold ring. It is ancient.
Its origins are completely unknown.