Trigger warning: there is a picture of a butchered elephant in this blog. It’s not nice, but then neither is ivory poaching, here’s one organisation trying to stop it.
Elephants – Richard Carrington (Pelican, 1962).
This is a review of the first Pelican I have ever doubled up on, a circumstance which is entirely my fault… My partner very kindly thought it would be a nice treat to get me a gift combining two of my great loves – Pelicans and Elephants – and I had already gone and bought the damn thing off Abebooks without telling her.
Fortuitously, I left the other copy at home in Cheshire and after the semi-ordeal that was The Glass Bead Game I was looking to read something more accessible (i.e. anything in print) so I adopted Elephants as my “Tube book” (a book small enough to read and safely store in my bag on the London Underground on my commute to and from work).
I have mentioned previously my childhood love of trips to the zoo. My favourite animal, by a mile, was always the elephants. At Chester, where I spent what seems like half of my childhood, the elephant herd (they’re Asiatic, in case you’re wondering) were always a major draw. This was enhanced when I was younger by the design of the enclosure, in which the elephants stood on a sort of raised platform surrounded by a dry moat, and some flowers. Consequently, the elephants could lean over and extend their trunks toward visitors. There is an excellent photo of what must be a two-year old me, in bright red and yellow jumper, green cords, and a tartan flat cap (I was an incredibly cool kid) having one of these encounters. Sadly this photo is in Cheshire or else I would append it to this post.
The Asian Elephant (which I think we can all agree is the best one). Source.
Outside the zoo, where I could (and still do, whenever I visit) spend ages watching elephants just doing their thing, I was elephant mad. Elmer the Elephant books, Nellie the Elephant VHS’, countless elephant plastic and rubber toys, and a stuffed elephant imaginatively named “Elephant” all gave testimony to my love of these (predominantly) gentle giants. Most recently, I marveled at the ageing yet still impressive figures on display beneath the life-size blue whale in the Natural History Museum here in London. Despite this, it has been a while since I read anything specifically about elephants, so this seemed a good way to refresh my memory and perhaps learn something new (or relearn something given my terrible, most un-elephant-like, memory).
Based on the “Pelican test” that I mentioned a few weeks back Elephants is probably the best Pelican I have read yet. Carrington presents his subject very clearly and coherently. There are many interjections where he explains why he won’t delve down a scientific rabbit hole or apologises for the use of over-technical terminology which suggest that he got the brief where Pelicans were concerned.Despite this, he doesn’t shy away from anything important or complicated, patiently and clearly explaining his methodology and subject to the reader. Carrington writes with a schoolmasterly tone but must be commended for avoiding patronising the reader. Indeed his tone often leads to unintended amusement and there were several times where I chuckled out loud at the prose, for instance this gem: “In fact, it is doubtful if the mental powers of the elephant are very much greater than the those of the horse. And the horse, as those of us who are not sentimentalists will probably admit, is naturally a rather silly creature .” Carrington’s assertion has since been disproved, and it turns out that the elephant is one of the smartest animals around.
In terms of structure the book is organised very logically and well-illustrated throughout with both photographs and line-drawings. Part One deals with elephant biology, part two focuses upon the evolutionary ancestry of the elephant, and the final part concerns elephants’ relationship to man. These follow on very logically from each other and the book reads well and quickly as a result.
Yet if this is the most Pelican-y Pelican I have read it is also the most dated. This manifests itself in two particular ways, both of them lamentable but for different reasons. The first is in its appraisal of elephant conservation. Here Carrington strikes out on a cautious but broadly optimistic note that recent reports suggest was fatally misplaced. After discussing the threat of poaching, he confidently asserts that “elephants today are in no danger of extermination .” How that has changed in the past six decades… The recent meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has brought the devastation that ivory poachers back into the spotlight, with no real prospect of preventing it in sight.
In the early 1960s, however, Carrington mistook the nascent attempts by a number of British colonial administrators for a long-term solution to a problem claiming that “fortunately the activities of poachers are now gradually being brought under control, and… there is little danger that the African elephant will ever be exterminated by man .” Contra to Carrington’s optimistic predictions an orgy of ivory-related genocide has brought these incredible creatures to the brink of extinction. He makes a passionate case for the importance of conservation, but sadly we failed to heed Carrington’s warning, and the elephants paid for it.
If Carrington’s dated naivety where conservation was concerned is forgivable, his unabashed racism towards Africans is not. This is the second way in which the book has dated badly. Carrington repeatedly contrasts the ‘civilised’ history of the east with a total lack of history/civilisation among Africans, as in this choice passage. After recounting an African folk tale about elephants he feels prompted to comment:
This is not a very interesting story, nor can it have a particularly startling denouement, but it is a good illustration of the childlike naivete of the African mind. This naivete is likewise demonstrated by the many mistaken beliefs held by Africans concerning elephants, and in fact every other kind of game. One would think that people living so close to nature, who until recently derived the great part of their livelihood from hunting, would have acquired a deep knowledge of the animals of the bush. To a certain extent this is so, but only where the knowledge is needed for some practical purpose, such as assuring the successful outcome of a hunt. In other questions of natural lore the African tends to water down his genuine  observations with a number of picturesque but entirely erroneous prejudices and superstitions.
In talking about Africans in this way, Carrington has fallen into what one of my old lecturers called the “Trevor-Roper Trap”. This takes its name from the otherwise eminent historian Hugh Trevor-Roper who once famously and rather idiotically declared:
Undergraduates, seduced, as always, by the changing breath of journalistic fashion, demand that they should be taught the history of black Africa. Perhaps, in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none, or very little: there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is largely darkness, like the history of pre-European, pre-Columbian America. And darkness is not a subject for history.
Blimey. Needless to say, even at the time, others were proving Carrington and Trevor-Roper wrong in their assumptions.
In summary then, Elephants was very much a product of its time. A time when early conservation initiatives seems to hold out hope for a resurgent global elephant population. A time when it was alright to write an authoritative book on elephants yet be shockingly ignorant about Africans at the same time. For these drawbacks, a book I should have liked a lot more is only getting a three ∃∃∃ “there exists” for the three remaining species of elephant.
As I read more and more Pelicans I am increasingly conscious of their dated nature (see next week’s review) – when I started collecting them the idea of seeing knowledge frozen in time, a bit like that mosquito in Jurassic Park – was highly appealing to me. It still is, and I have broadly enjoyed all the Pelicans I have read, but I wonder how many of the older ones have dated beyond use given the enormous amount of change the world has seen. I guess I’ll have to keep reading to find out…
On that contemplative note, I shall see you next week, when for once (because I have pulled ahead in my reading) I can guarantee you a review of Robin Clarke’s We All Fall Down: The Prospect of Chemical and Biological Warfare!