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Elephants, Ivory and Our Kind

By Edited Dec 4, 2015 5 6

Elephants, Ivory and Our Kind


Elephants, Ivory and Our Kind

By: J. Marlando

I am extremely grateful for being chosen to join a team of documentary makers a few years back to study elephants in the field. Half our team traveled to Africa with the other half remaining in Asia. I was with the team in Asia.

I can recall sitting around a campfire up near the old Burma boarder (now Myanmar) talking about the "wonders" and incredible intelligence of elephants. Our leader of the project, Chuck Keen, always would say, "If elephants had hands they would rule the world.

Indeed, there were subtle attributes that the entire crew had witnessed over the observations made both in Africa and Asia. (African elephants

Elephants, Ivory and Our Kind
are slightly bigger in that they have larger tusks and ears than do Indian elephants). Beyond these physical differences, however, both have similar intellects and surprisingly display signals of empathy and conscientious behaviors. Two attributes generally applied only to humans.

One apparent example of "conscious awareness" is that the working elephants of Asia refuse to work...unless they get their morning baths

Elephants, Ivory and Our Kind
in a nearby stream. This is their protocol for starting their day of toil. Well, elephants are just darned smart. (In case you're interested, their brains our similar to ours. In fact, structurally elephant brains are as complex as human brains and their cortex have as many neurons. The implications of these similarities are extremely thought-provoking). Anyway, there was something else we observed during our studies: Included in the elephant's behavior are signals of love and other qualities such as joy, sorrow, guilt and shame. Elephants also have their system of crime and punishment: When an elephant does something bad or unacceptable to his herd or group, he is exiled as a form of punishment. That is, he is isolated and made to stay alone
Elephants, Ivory and Our Kind
abandoned by the others for a certain length of time. During that time, some elephants are known to weep. (Some experts deny that any animal actually weep but I have seen what appeared to be weeping by an alienated elephant in the bush).

Incidentally, I have been very fortunate in my life as I have had opportunity to work with a great many animals both domestic and exotic. As a young man I worked for Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, just outside Colorado Springs. I've also worked for Ralph Helfer, the world's first animal behaviorist and I have personally "owned" many animals including an African lion, a spider monkey, a most precious skunk and many horses. I am only sharing this to show the reader I have been able to observe animals in very close proximity. And because of this, I have witnessed joy, fear, shame and mindfulness such as regret, sorrow and happiness in all of them. That is, I have seen a range of both intellect and feeling in those animals I have been around. And, as Ralph Helfer would say they all respond to love.

The goal of this article is to stimulate or strengthen our concern for animals in general and worldwide and for purposes here, to stir a movement to stop the slaughter of the magnificent elephants that can (and might) be extinct within the next decade or so. Especially the African elephant is being slaughtered by the greed of Ivory hunters. I am most ashamed to say that at least one report says that the U.S. buys more ivory products than anyplace else. I hope that this is not the case but what is absolutely the case is that most of the ivory trade is in China. China is basically the marketplace for the killers of elephants to sell their tusks.

The Soul of Animals

Elephants, Ivory and Our Kind

Actually animals in most societies were treated well and kindly until Rene Descartes (1596-1650) announced that only man had a soul and animals had no feeling because they were machines-like. Rene Descartes is considered the "father of modern philosophy" by the way. For the first time the voice of authority was saying spirit does not exist in nature and God is somewhere outside of time and space. God, in other words, was made an observer as opposed to the classical view that believed he was a participator in Nature.

This began a kind of movement wherein farmers began beating and working their animals to death; of training with whips and committing other cruelties not excluding neglect, at least in some instances. And, while it has always been acceptable for people to hunt for food, sports hunting, evolved too. That is, killing for the fun or pleasure of it.(As a quick aside, the best comment on pleasure hunting I've ever heard is spoken in the movie My Cousin Vinnie, starring Joe Pescei and Marisa Tormie; a truly hilarious comedy. Funny or not, however, a most profound statement is made about hunting during one of the most hilarious scenes and this classic movie should be seen by everyone. Unlike so many Hollywood comedies this one is honestly funny).

Our kind, at least in most regions of the world, have killed animals for food since the dawning of people-like creatures that roamed the planet in very ancient times. This seems to conform to the natural order of things but killing for the profit

Elephants, Ivory and Our Kind
or sport,  also known as trophy killing, is grossly arrogant and unfeeling to say the least.

It is not my wish to turn this article into an ecological out crying but the truth is that some 3 millions ducks go non-retrieved every year that have been wounded, many deer are shot more than once and take a long time to die; hippopotamus' are almost extinct from hunters and even the magnificent gorillas are being murdered for profit. And, speaking of profit, our fish are being killed or poisoned because of the arrogance and greed of our kind. The list of atrocities against other living things goes on  but the reader already has the point. And so, this sends us directly to the topic of this section: the soul of animals.

Nearly everyone who has loved and therefore been close to a pet (or many pets) has observed the emotional and thinking qualities of the animals. While we have communication barriers, most of those barriers are eliminated by signals such as tail wagging, whining, hiding, playing and so forth. I have not only seen these qualities and more in domestic animals but exotic animals as well. Indeed, I once worked closely with a number of orangutans that revealed emotions such as love, anger, jealousy, despair, super joy, fear, regret, loneliness, trust, distrust and so on. Like humans they had their individual attitudes but also, like humans, collective ones as well. In any case, they are far from being gene machines as some so-called intellectuals and scholars claim.

Like many indigenous people, the Native Americans called other living things such as trees and coyotes, tress, bushes and bears their brothers and sisters. This connectedness was basically felt by people world-wide before Descartes (mentioned in the above) declared that only our kind, as stated earlier, had souls or spirits. I personally believe that only when we can grasp that consciousness is in all things that we immediately enjoy a new relationship with our world and all that is in it. Indeed, we can even begin loving our neighbors as ourselves.

If what I am saying here sounds hokey to some readers, these observations that I am making correspond with the new physics in a great many ways. Especially in the ideas of the ancient sage, Wang Shihuai, who told us that the universe is all mind and all phenomena. (Ironically right around Descartes' time). In any case, when we can grasp this we can have the realization that all living things, including us, are in a web of relationships and that consciousness (call it mind, soul, spirit or God) dwells in all things. This, by the way, is not a creation of my "clever" pen but of the new science itself.

We simply need to put a stop to the killing of one of the most magnificent animals left on the planet for their tusks.

Elephants, Ivory and Our Kind
And the way that we can do this, beyond protest, is simply to STOP buying ivory. This is the simple and easy solution to preserving elephants and permitting them not only to survive but to re-populate. And this is not only the right thing to do but also the kind and conscientious thing to do.

Are Elephants really feeling and thinking creatures

When I studied elephants, I found them to be extremely mindful, showing emotions and mental prowess. No, I am not humanizing them nor would I want to. Yet, there are certain connections between us and them that are apparent. In order to make this point I will repeat a story from the wonderful book, When Elephants Weep, by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy:

One evening in the 1930s Ma Shwe, a work elephant and her three-month-old calf were trapped in rising floodwaters in the UpperTaungwinRiver in Burma. Elephant handlers rushed to the river when they heard the calf screaming but could do nothing to help, for the steep banks were twelve to fifteen foot high. Ma Shwe's feet were still on the river bottom, but her calf was floating. Ma Shwe held the baby against her body, whenever she began to drift away, she used her trunk to pull the calf back against the current. The fast-rising water soon washed the calf away and Ma Shwe plunged downstream for fifty yards and retrieved it. She pinned her calf against the bank with her head, then lifted it in her trunk, reared on her hind legs, and placed it on a rocky ledge five feet above the water. Ma Shew then fell back into the torrent and disappeared down stream.

The elephant handlers turned their attention to the calf, which could barely fit on the narrow ledge where it stood shivering eight feet below. Half an hour later, J.H. Williams, the British manager of the elephant camp, was peering down at the calf wondering how to rescue her when he heard 'the grandest sounds of a mothers love I can remember. Ma Shwe had crossed the river and got up on the bank and was making her way back as fast as she could, calling the whole time--a defiant roar, but to her calf it was music. The two little ears, like maps of India, were cocked forward listening to the sounds that mattered, the call of her mother.' When Ma Shwe saw her calf, safe on the other side of the river, her call changed to the rumble that elephants typically make when pleased. The two elephants were left where they were. By morning Ma Shwe had crossed the river, no longer in flood, and the calf was off the ledge.

These kinds of stories about heroic acts of heroism are common world wide. A few years ago a Chicago newspaper wrote about a warehouse fire (as I recall) and how a mother cat,

Elephants, Ivory and Our Kind
made five trips back and forth from the burning building to save her kittens. When our son died, our dog Tonto jumped out of a two story building to the concrete below. He didn't die but came very close to dying. He was in recovery for months. In regard to such unexpected reactions, I remember my dear friend and employer Cliff Myers who had raised a chimp almost from birth. The chimp took seriously ill and, to save it from suffering, had to be killed. Because Cliff loved the chimp so much and they were close companions, he decided that he would shoot, sparring the animal from his constant suffering. And so, He put the chimpanzee on a stool a few feet away from him, lifted the rifle and aimed, but could not pull the trigger. For one thing tears were blinding him.He loved the chimp very much! The chimp who had been sitting on the stool, got off the stool, walked to cliff and patted him, giving him courage. Afterwards "the animal" returned to the stool, sat down again and covered his own eyes as if waiting for the final shot. How much did the chimp grasp we cannot know, but that series of events actually happened. And in regard to all this, how many dogs have rescued children (and adults) without training or coaxing but rather, out of some kind of empathy and conscientious caring?

None of us can say what goes on in an animals mind and heart but we can observe the workings of both in animal behaviors. Elephants are without a doubt among the most intelligent of all animals...but also the most heartfelt. As for language, they are known to make over 100 voices in their communicative skills, (a mark of intellect) and as far as empathy (a mark of feelings.) they demonstrate their incredible sense of being in a great many ways: There devotion to and their protectiveness toward their young

Elephants, Ivory and Our Kind
are examples of conscientious caring. The very structures of their society is yet another demonstration of this. Some elephants are also known o assist mother elephants in their deliveries. There is just so many fascinating aspects to these spectacular giants. Indeed,  elephants it seems are also creative. Some enjoy painting, for example. While we cannot know what goes through an elephants mind when he or she paints
Elephants, Ivory and Our Kind
we can assume the elephant is aware of what he or she doing at least in terms of its own "activity."  This self-awareness is a signal of absolute consciousness, a debatable topic for scientists but not for those who observe and/or work with them daily.

Are elephants really like us? What is interesting is that elephants, like humans, are not born with survival instants. They must learn them in adolescents and through experience. And, perhaps even more interesting is the fact that elephants love to play. They have game-like activities. For example,  they have fun throwing sticks and passing them on to others elephants. There's just so much they have in common with us like their obvious concern for their dead. Indeed, it is said that because elephants really do remember, that they, like humans, can endure Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. All of this and more adds to the significance and importance of these fantastic, important animals. That some humans can murder them for profit, endangering their entire species is one more statement of our kind's ego-based, self-serving ignorance and cruelty. Such individuals could no doubt learn from the very animals they slaughter merely to fill their own purses. The buyers of ivory, however, are no less mindless and callous.



Elephants, Ivory and Our Kind

African elephants are in the most danger, in fact, over a three year period nearly one hundred thousand elephants were murdered for their tusks. Most recently, poachers gone into the Bouba Ndjidah National Park in Cameroon, completed a mass murder of elephants using automatic weapons. These are only two observations of poaching but there are many more. And so, this and other such atrocities must be stopped. If China and other outlets refuse to stop the selling of ivory, the rest of the world can simply stop buying it. No demand....No supply, it's as simple as that!

And finally: It is important to realize that all animals are essential to the balances of our entire environment. Indeed, the great herds of buffalo (bison)

Elephants, Ivory and Our Kind
that crossed the American plains were vital to the grasslands and so to the healthy dance of nature of depleting and replenishing. In other words, the landscape is always kept in balance by the vast herds, be they elephants
Elephants, Ivory and Our Kind
deer or any other kind of animal prairie dogs to horses! Whenever we lose a species, our kind certainly endures apparent or subtle loss as well. Indeed, it is incorrect to say, "us and them" because all we living things are in a web of relationships. In this view, we need to be far more loving and conscientious as a (dependent) species ourselves.


Further  reading:

Jeffery Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy *When Elephants Weep *

Delta Publoshng

When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals
Amazon Price: $17.00 $4.25 Buy Now
(price as of Dec 4, 2015)
Just a wonderful and informative read
Animal Physiology, Third Edition
Amazon Price: $154.95 $92.17 Buy Now
(price as of Dec 4, 2015)
If you're a serious student of other living things, you'll love this book fora lot of years.


Feb 10, 2015 7:34pm
What an incredible experience you had with the elephants, and I really appreciated your photos. I just finished reading the book, "The Elephant Whisperer." It seems as if elephants have been brought to my attention more frequently recently. I do not own anything with ivory and I agree that the ivory trade needs to be brought to an end.
Mar 29, 2015 1:52pm
This is such a moving article. Thank you!
Apr 28, 2015 4:45am
Well rated! Wonderful article, thanks for sharing your deep insights about animals. I am familiar with both types of elephants. But we don't scrub the ears of our African elephants - I wonder why?
May 16, 2015 8:33am
What a wonderful article. I remember years ago when my mother passed away. She died at the hospital, yet her dogs at home seemed to know and grieved right along with the rest of the family.
May 16, 2015 9:40am
Hi: Thanks for your response. For sure the dogs knew--i have seen this grief displayed by animals many times. Descartes was so wrong when he depicted animals are mere
machines, we know so little about the consciousness of animals but they certainly feel
a form of empathy and love.
May 16, 2015 9:40am
Hi: Thanks for your response. For sure the dogs knew--i have seen this grief displayed by animals many times. Descartes was so wrong when he depicted animals are mere
machines, we know so little about the consciousness of animals but they certainly feel
a form of empathy and love.
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