Jumbo the Elephant

A recent blurb in The Telegraph features a review of a documentary:

One could easily have imagined Attenborough and the Giant Elephant (BBC One), the bittersweet tale of the world’s first animal superstar – Jumbo the elephant, London Zoo’s foremost attraction in Victorian times – filling a prime-time slot in the Christmas or Boxing Day schedules. But perhaps it was deemed too sad. Too liable to dial down Yuletide high spirits with its archaeological examination of unintentional animal cruelty and the appalling ignorance of generations past.

I had never heard of Jumbo, but his story is rather tragic.  He was a superstar attraction, the first time many had ever seen an elephant.  He was beloved by children on both sides of the Atlantic.  

However, he was severely mistreated.  He was forced to perform and did not receive proper medical care.  His keeper then gave him alcohol to depress his violent outbursts.  He ended up dying in a horrid fashion – being hit in a train crash.

The only comfort is that perhaps Jumbo planted the early seeds of animal rights in people’s minds.  Seeing a live elephant made some care more about their welfare, and zoos have made positive changes since that time.  Many circuses have gone out of business or have stopped using animals in their shows.





Hannover Zoo elephant abuse

Allegations against the Hannover Zoo are horrifying, and quite damning, with video evidence of handlers abusing young elephants.  National Geographic reports that PETA videos show handlers using bull hooks to “train” the elephants.  Complaints about the zoo go back to 2004, but the new videos have sparked an investigation by the European Association of Zoos & Aquaria.  Elephant Aid International has viewed the footage and believes it to be authentic.

For many years, the Hannover Zoo was one of the very few left that had its animals perform for visitors.  The zoo says they have stopped the entertainment shows, but clearly they have not stopped the harsh circus-like treatment of their elephant population.


Love for the Giants

A new art exhibit in India raises awareness about human-elephant conflict.  “For the Love of Giants” is an exhibit of fifteen paintings and five pottery pieces by artist Praveen Nandkumar.   All proceeds from the sale of the art will go to A Rocha India, a not-for-profit organization.  They try to reduce human-animal conflicts by building fences with natural and man-made materials, doing camera tracking of wild animals, installing warning systems to alert residents of elephant presence, and running educational programs.

The exhibit is shown in India, at Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath.


Video: A Rocha India, YouTube

Venezuela zoo elephant starving

Ruperta, the only African elephant in Venezuela, is starving.  The zoo does not have the funds to feed her, as Venezuela is in a severe economic crisis.  The government denies the dire situation, blaming her weight loss on a stomach bug.  Other animals at the zoo have already died of starvation.  Sadly, not much can be done as donations are being turned away.  The human crisis is also making the animal crisis less of a priority.

From the Miami Herald:

“Caracas’ El Universal reported that Ruperta is suffering from diarrhea and dehydration after zoo officials only had squash to feed her for several days. According to the newspaper, when neighbors tried to bring food to the elephant over the weekend, the donations were turned away by zoo officials citing sanitary issues.”

Venezuela is ranked by various organizations as one of the most corrupt nations.  Drops in oil prices (a major export), drought, poor infrastructure, severe problems with crime and drugs, and a poorly over-regulated economy spell disaster for the Venezuelans.  People wait in line for hours for basic necessities, and over 30% of Venezuelans lack decent sanitation (UN report).  With such a backdrop, Ruperta’s hopes for survival are slim.


Picture: free domain, Wikipedia by The Photographer, empty shelves are a common sight in Venezuela as shortages of basic goods are a fact of daily life

Mila the Elephant

Sadly, a 44 year old elephant named Mila died this past week at the San Diego Zoo.

Mila had a hard life.  She did not get along well with her companion at the Honolulu zoo, and was put on the market.

From the San Diego Tribune:

“Mila was sold at age 4 to the Whirling Brothers Circus in New Zealand.

For the next three decades she toured the country, never seeing another elephant. (There’s only one other in all of New Zealand.) For almost that long, a group called Save Animals From Exploitation campaigned for her release.”

It wasn’t until 2013 that she moved thousands of miles from New Zealand to San Diego.  After intense training and a slow introduction to the other elephants, she seemed to be thriving.

The cause of death is unknown, and her death was a surprise.  She may have had a heart attack or stroke.

Nonverbal Communication

If you see someone scowl and cross their arms, you know they are aggravated.  Elephants too use body communication.

A tail stuck out means the elephant is surprised and perhaps fearful, depending on what is surprising him.

Placing the tip of the trunk into another’s mouth is just like a friendly human handshake.  When a herd reunites, everyone has their trunks in each other’s mouths.

Although swatting the ears sometimes just swats flies, it also is a way for the matriarch to tell everyone in the herd to get moving.  If an elephant flaps its ears at you, you better really get moving!

A bouncing run with a shake of the head side to side is playful, and invites others to join in the fun.  Once an elephant matures, they don’t exhibit this behavior as often.

And, swatting the tail back and forth tells other elephants to back off…they are tailgating and that’s not appreciated.


Photo taken at Elephant Nature Park


Verbal Communication

Elephants have a far bigger vocal range than Julie Andrews: ten octaves!   They have at least 10 basic call types which can produce a huge variation when combined.   Like the situation with whales, humans have done a  lot of research and have tapes of elephant sounds, but have not cracked the code as to what exactly they are saying to one another.  What we do know, however, is that elephants talk like we do, with both verbal and nonverbal communication.

Elephants also use infrasound, sounds so low they do not get registered by the human ear.  If you ever wondered why animals seem to be able to predict natural disasters, it is likely because they pick up on these low sounds rumbling from nature, warning them of volcanoes, avalanches, and earthquakes.

(Photo taken at Elephant Nature Park)