Pachyderm Skills

Tarra’s Grief, Rajan’s Style &
Stuff That Elephants Go Through

As most species around us, elephants predate mankind by several million years. Yet, even as they’ve survived a gruesome evolutionary process and a few planetary catastrophes to boot, from the moment of our arrival, their demise became ever more likely. Apparently, we can’t help it. It’s on our DNA, and perhaps our destiny, to be the ones who’ll finally switch off all life on earth.
But we’re still discovering wonderful things about these animals, lest us not depress the hell out of you before you even hear about them. There’s Tarra, who showed more compassion over the loss of her best friend, a dog, than many humans would. There’s Rajan, and his swimming skills. And there are those who love and care so much for them, to even develop a bionic leg for two landmine victims.
That’s because there’s enough people in the world who prove everyday that our genetic code is not only about the slash and burn of a warrior, but also about the humble approach of an apprentice. Elephants certainly have a lot to teach us, if only we give ourselves the chance to find out more about them.
In fact, in the past three decades, as human settlements have advanced into their natural habitats in Southeast Asia and Africa, we have been forced to learn more, and faster, about elephants than in all previous centuries. From the old ‘elephant’s memory’ cliche, scientific research has come a long way understanding the spirit of these proverbial gentle giants.
We know now that they communicate in a subsonic level with each other, over vast distances, and that their intelligence is comparable to that of dolphins and apes. Elephants also coexist in a well-established and harmonic matriarch order, with precise rules of living in society and collaborating with each other. Above all, there’s the heartbreaking way they grieve their dead.

When Tarra met Bella almost 10 years ago, at the Nashville’s Elephant Sanctuary, they had considerable differences. But while other residents sought partnerships among themselves, that was never an issue for these two. Not even the fact that Tarra outweighted Bella, a stray mutt who’d wondered into the 22 acres of land along with other dogs, by almost two thousand pounds.
They became inseparable and even when Bella got injured, Tarra mounted guard outside the medical offices of the compound waiting on her recovery. After spending all this time together, is no anthropomorphic stretch to imagine how Tarra reacted when Bella’s lifeless body was found last November. She had apparently been attacked by coyotes.
Even more amazing was that, at close inspection, the sanctuary’s director of elephant husbandry, Steve Smith, realized that Bella had not been killed at the site where she was found. Which may indicate that, at some point, Tarra found her and brought her home. The last we heard is that Tarra still shows signs of being in mourning, after all these months, and still hasn’t picked a new friend.

Another hazard to animals living in impoverished Southeast Asian and African countries, along with the natural spread of farmland and urban settlements, is of course, war. A documentary, The Eyes of Thailand, which had its premiere in the U.S. last month, is about Motala and Mosha, two elephants that stepped on landmines and lost each one of their front legs, and the efforts to get them new ones.
As the technology to build functional, bionic limbs for such a massive animal is not just expensive, but is not even quite there, the fact that they succeed is beyond anyone’s expectation. Without the unusual procedure none of the animals would have survived, as they wouldn’t be able to stand and feed for themselves.
The Windy Borman’s doc centers on the challenges that Soraida Salwala, founder of the Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital in Lampang, faced in her quest to get the prosthetic legs built. Naturally, there are those who think that such effort shouldn’t be diverted from the many humans who also routinely step on those lethal devices, but we’d rather not even get into that.

A few months ago, we told you about how elephants have become a symbol for the movement advocating an end for all zoos and animal enclosures. As more is become known about the psychological impact of captivity on wildlife, pachyderms seem to signal a new era of our relationship with animals, one that does not imply transporting them out of their natural habitat.
A strong argument in favor of such radical idea came unwittingly from an investigative report on caretakers at the Marghazar Zoo, in Islamabad, India. For years, the zoo had declared increasing purchases of alcohol, under the claim that it calmed ‘down elephants during their mating season.’ That, somehow didn’t raise any red flags.
Until it was revealed that, in fact, not just the elephants never consumed any of the alcohol purchased but that veterinarians consulted were completely against administering it to the animals. The final straw was when the same caretakers were connected with the death of an elephant earlier this month, that had been given to the zoo by the government of Sri Lanka.
Saheli, a young 22 years old female (elephants can live from 90 to over 100 years of age), had been brought over to mate with another elephant, Kaavan. But she injured a leg in relatively obscure circumstances, and seemed to be in a lot of distress. The zoo administration ordered an investigation into her death and has suspended the caretakers.
India, by the way, has an estimated herd of between 20 to 30 thousand elephants, and next week, will hold a three-day census, its most comprehensive in years. Unlike similar countings, restricted to reserve forests, the synchronized census will include forest, non-forest, reserve and non-reserve forest areas, according to Ajay Mishra, Chief Conservator of Forests, Project Elephant, Karnataka.
In India, the second most populous country in the world, the animal is also identified with a deity of Hinduism, and clashes between animals and humans are inevitable. Just last Sunday, the last day of a 10-day festival, three elephants broke loose and ran through Kerala’s Koodalmanikyam temple, killing a 2-year old boy and injuring 25 people.

It also belongs to India some of the islands in the Andaman Archipelago, in the Bay of Bengal, where American photographer Jody MacDonald took some of the pictures that illustrate this post, published on Islands Magazine. It’s a paradisaical group of forest-covered lands, administered by both India and Burma-Myanmar, with a small, non-native population of elephants.
Many environmentalists claim that their presence have been harming the place’s ecology and delicate natural balance for years. Be as it may, MacDonald’s managed to follow and photograph Rajan, a young elephant with an astounding talent for swimming in the crystalline blue waters surrounding the islands.
And finally, not to end this post on sour notes about abuses suffered along the years by these majestic and still mysterious creatures that never cease to amaze us, let’s include a piece of news we’ve been saving for just such a moment for some time now. We only wish that the initiative remains as fresh and original as it did when it was first announced.
A few years back, the Topeka Zoo, needing funds for some preservation project, came up with a novel idea: to turn elephant poop into toys and sell them at the concession store. As a fundraiser, it was a success and the dolls and trinkets were being sold almost as fast as they were being painted.
As some of you may know, after dried up, elephant dung does no stink. A coat of bright, acrylic paint and a few touches and voilá, a Kansas City Chief or a Jayhawk from the University of Kansas, or even a Green Bay Packer Cheesehead is ready for er, if not consumption, to be displayed on your home. And everybody’s happy.
As many zoos, such as the Bronx Zoo, have closed their elephant enclosures for good, as it’s becoming clear that the animals do not adapt to captivity as once thought, who knows? Maybe the future is pointing to a new era of recycling waste and preserving the memory. Above all, more hope for those who have been fighting animal abuse for generations. We certainly won’t forget.

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