Elephants may well be my icon of choice for ancient grace. I’ve felt an affinity for them since childhood. I slept with a plush, stuffed Babar for years. He had a tattered felt crown that was especially soft against my cheek. I loved him until he literally fell apart, and then I bought a stuffed “lelepani” at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel when I was 10. My wicker laundry hamper was even shaped like an elephant. But my favorite childhood elephant was a real one, named Bobo, who lived at the Lincoln Park zoo. I met him while he was still a baby in the zoo nursery. I could pet him right over the little wall of his enclosure, and I visited him frequently after my Art Institute class on Saturday mornings. When he moved into the big elephant house, I was away at Girl Scout camp, but my mother mailed me a clipping. I looked for Bobo online and found these photos from 1974.
I’ve been reading about elephants more in depth lately. I’ve always been in awe of their intelligence and social sensibility. The way that they communicate and support each other has been documented extensively. They mourn their dead and protect each other. Both female groups and bulls maintain social ties with others of their sex. The female herds accept the leadership of a matriarch, who is grandmother, aunt, or mother of the others, and she decides when and where the herd moves on a daily and seasonal basis. These are the warm, fuzzy facts about elephants. In a book called Elephant Destiny: Biography of an Endangered Species in Africa by Martin Meredith, I read the painful and horrid facts about their history as a species. Their systematic decimation from Roman times to the present is a shocking example of human brutality. In articles in National Geographic and Smithsonian you can read about the ongoing war with poachers who trespass on national park land for the opportunity to sell tusks on the black market. Armed with semi-automatic weapons and axes to hack the ivory from the animal’s skull, they leave behind a devastating scene of carnage that the rest of the herd internalizes, exhibiting increasing fear and mournfulness.
One of my dreams is to take part in a scientific research project to study elephants and to support the construction of safe corridors for their migrations through Africa. One organization that matches up volunteers with these projects is called Earthwatch. They have an elephant excursion slated for 2012 in which I’d love to participate, but I’m not sure I’ll be up to the “strenuous” activity level. Basically, you have to be able to sprint and climb a tree in case of animal attack in order not to be a liability. And you have to walk 10 miles a day over varied terrain. (That part would not be a problem.) There are other projects that will allow me to see elephants that have a “moderate” activity level, though. It’s definitely on my “bucket list’.
So I have accumulated a collection of elephantalia. Bookends, figurines, jewelry boxes, etc. adorn the bookshelf in my bedroom. One day, I’d like to have photographs that I took myself to add to that collection.