The Cambridge Animal Alphabet series celebrates Cambridge's connections with animals through literature, art, science and society. Here, E is for Elephant: an animal that takes pride of place in the Parker Library's manuscripts, is frequently in conflict with people in Thailand and parts of Africa, and is the focus of some important conservation projects.

Unlike many earlier western drawings of elephants, which are wildly inaccurate, Paris’s sketch captures the essence of the animal with its wrinkled trunk, jointed legs and toe nails

Steven Archer

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The Parker Library (Corpus Christi College) is proud of its elephants. At least five illustrations of them are to be found in the Library’s collection of medieval manuscripts. Among them is an exceptionally beautiful copy of Kalila wa Dimna, the 8th-century Arabic text by Abdu llah ibn al-Mugaffa. The manuscript dates from the 14th century, and is in a fine hand with superb illustrations.

The text contains a series of instructive animal fables which can be compared to Aesop’s Fables. One of the fables has an illustration of a white elephant being shown by a fakir to the king. The regal dress of the elephant is mirrored exactly in the king’s garments, and the fables reflect the close relationship between the ruler and the animal. In a list of the king’s greatest treasures, the white elephant is given next after his kingdom, his wives and his sons.

One of the Library’s most popular illustrations is a drawing of the African elephant which was given by Louis IX of France to Henry III of England in 1255 as a diplomatic present. The drawing appears in the Chronica Maiora, a history of the world compiled by Matthew Paris, a Benedictine monk and the official chronicler of St Albans.

The elephant Paris drew is the earliest western depiction of an elephant drawn from life. “Unlike many earlier western drawings of elephants, which are wildly inaccurate, Paris’s sketch captures the essence of the animal with its wrinkled trunk, jointed legs and toe nails,” says Steven Archer, sub librarian.  Elephants are traditionally pictured in medieval manuscripts without knees; it was believed that they were unable to right themselves should they fall over.

The elephant is shown with its keeper (magister bestie) who is named as Henri de Flor (Henry of Florence). Archer says: “Paris helpfully includes the figure of Henri squeezed between the animal’s trunk and its front legs in order to give the reader an idea of the size of the elephant.”

Presented to Henry III in France, the elephant was transported across the Channel at a cost of £6 17s 5d. Accommodation measuring 20 feet by 4O feet (pitifully small by today’s standards) was especially created at the Tower of London, where the elephant joined a royal menagerie which included lions and leopards.

In London, the elephant was an object of great curiosity. Matthew Paris recorded  that “people flocked together to see the novel sight”. However, knowledge about its dietary needs was sadly lacking. It was fed meat and beer – and survived for just two years.  The animal was buried in the grounds of the Tower of London in 1257 but, a year later, the bones were dug up and sent to the Sacrist of Westminster.

Matthew Paris also drew an elephant carrying a party of musicians on his back. The elephant he depicts was sent by the Emperor Frederick II to meet the crusader, Richard, Earl of Cornwall, in 1241. It's thought that he made this drawing before seeing the real animal in London.

Another of the Parker Library’s treasures, the Peterborough bestiary, shows an elephant carrying on its back a castle, complete with turret and knights in chain mail. The image reflects an Indian tradition of elephants being used in battles as mobile forts.  Traditionally, a wooden tower is shown on the elephant’s back, protecting an army of men inside. The ‘elephant and castle’ is now remembered in the London place-name.

The accompanying text claims that female elephants woo males with a sprig of the mandoraga tree. More accurately, it states that elephants are animals of remarkable intelligence and memory, “Intellectu et memoria multa vigent”.

The remarkable intelligence and memory of elephants is at the core of a research programme run by Dr Josh Plotnik, a researcher in the Department of Psychology at Cambridge and a senior lecturer at Mahidol University in Kanchanaburi, Thailand.

Plotnik is founder of Think Elephants International, a US organisation conducting research in the lush and colourful jungles of the Thailand’s Golden Triangle, where for centuries mankind has used elephants for traction and transport. Think Elephants integrates research, education and conservation in an ambitious bid to understand elephant cognition and thus make an important contribution to safeguarding the future of a species facing serious threats.

“In Asia, there are few wildernesses left. People and elephants are in conflict over land with elephants encroaching on farms and eating crops. In Africa, elephants are vulnerable to poachers who kill them in order to sell their tusks into the ivory trade,” says Plotnik. “In both parts of the world, it’s vital that we engage people of all ages in the importance of conservation and in particular that we make sure children grow up with an appreciation of elephants.”

Elephants are known to be smart – but remarkably little empirical scientific evidence exists to support this assertion. Plotnik and colleagues has shown that elephants are capable of thoughtful cooperation and are able to recognise themselves in a mirror. Both abilities are highly unusual in animals and very rare indeed in non-primates.

“In a rope-pulling task that led to a food reward, the elephants learned not only that a partner was necessary, but also that it was the partner’s behaviour and not just their presence that was needed for success,” says Plotnik. “Recognising oneself in the mirror demonstrates that an animal is able to see itself as separate from others. This ability is one of the main traits underlying empathy and complex sociality.”

Elephants ‘see’ and ‘think’ using a combination of their eyes, ears and trunk. “Our observations suggest that elephants are ‘hearing and smelling’ animals rather than ‘seeing’ animals,” says Plotnik. “We are now just beginning to explore the ways in which they use their sense of smell to navigate within their environment – for example, how do they make decisions about the quality of and where to find food and water, and does their sense of smell play an important role in their decision-making process?"

A better understanding of elephants’ sense of smell might well be a useful tool in conservation efforts. If the team at Think Elephants discover, for example, that elephants locate food such as farm crops by smelling them, scientists and local communities might be able to use this information to prevent an elephant's approach before their interaction with crops becomes a significant human-elephant conflict.

In Kenya, Dr Lauren Evans, a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Geography, is also researching the conflicts that arise when elephants and humans share the same rural landscape.  She is an associate director of Space for Giants, a Kenyan-based elephant conservation charity that seeks to ensure a future for elephants through human-elephant conflict mitigation, anti-poaching, securing space and education. Her work focuses on relationships between elephants and farmers in an area of northern Kenya called Laikipia

“Electrified fences are increasingly being used as the ‘silver bullet’ solution to human-elephant conflict across much of African elephant range by creating a space for elephants, within wildlife areas, and a space for people,” says Evans. “Yet many fences fail in their objectives. Elephants adapt to break even the most sophisticated of fences and engage in an arms race with people trying to maintain them.”

Little is known about how, why and where elephants break fences.  Evans’ PhD research has filled this gap.  “Fence-breaking elephants occupy a unique niche at the frontline of human-occupied landscapes. These are animals that take risks, and face threats posed by humans, to raid crops for nutritional gain.  We’ve found that fence-breakers are invariably older males,” she says.

Evans’ research has shed light on the often-elusive social dynamics of bull elephants, which are considered to be more solitary than females.  Through use of GPS collars, camera traps positioned along fence lines, and days and nights of patient observation in the field, Evans found that bull elephants broke fences in loyal groupings.

“Younger adolescent males associate with larger fence-breaking elephants, and watch and follow these experienced bulls as they break fences.  Together they would cross the fence, split up and raid crops, and reconvene in the morning to break back into a wildlife conservancy,” she says.

“Furthermore, fence-breaking bulls devised unique ways to avoid getting an electric shock. Some curled their trunks over their heads and pulled back wires with their tusks, while others kicked posts down with their feet. One bull carefully wrapped his trunk around posts, in between the wires, to uproot them and flatten the fence. I even once saw him push a smaller bull through the fence before him.”

An eventual solution used by wildlife departments to manage persistent fence-breaking elephants is to remove them from the population by translocation or, as a last resort, to shoot them. In Laikipia, 12 of the most persistent fence-breaking bulls were moved some 300km to Meru National Park.

“The results were two-fold. The translocated elephants began to teach the Meru bulls how to break fences, while the younger ‘follower’ bulls of Laikipia began to lead fence-breaks themselves,” says Evans. “Measures to mitigate human-elephant conflict need to accommodate the adaptability and agency of elephants.  We need to move away from fortress-like protection of elephants and towards a reciprocal relationship between conservation and local people.”

Next in the Cambridge Animal Alphabet: F is for a creature that looks nothing like humans. But studying them is helping us learn more about devastating conditions, from neurodegenerative diseases to parasite interactions.

Inset images: Illustration of an elephant from Matthew Paris' Chronica Maiora (The Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge); The elephant at Cremona carrying a band of musicians on its back (The Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge); Josh Plotnik with an elephant (Elise Gilchrist, Think Elephants International).


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