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More about Elephants, edited by Andrew Lang

From The Wild Elephant. Sir J. Emerson Tennent.

Long, long ago, when the moon was still young, and some of the stars that we know best were only gradually coming into sight, the earth was covered all over with a tangle of huge trees and gigantic ferns, which formed the homes of all sorts of enormous beasts. There were no men, only great animals and immense lizards, whose skeletons may still be found embedded in rocks or frozen deep down among the Siberian marshes; for, after the period of fearful heat, when everything grew rampant, even in the very north, there came a time of equally intense cold, when every living creature perished in many parts of the world.

When the ice which crushed down life on the earth began to melt, and the sun once more had power to pierce the thick cold mists that had shrouded the world, animals might have been seen slowly creeping about the young trees and fresh green pastures, but their forms were no longer the same as they once were. The enormous frames of all sorts of huge monsters, and the great lizard called the ichthyosaurus, had been replaced by smaller and more graceful creatures, who could move lightly and easily through this new world. But changed though it seemed to be, one beast still remained to tell the story of those strange old times, and that was the elephant.

Now anybody who has ever stood behind a big, clumsy cart-horse going up a hill cannot fail to have been struck with its likeness to an elephant; and it is quite true that  elephants and horses are nearly related. Of course in the East, where countries are so big and marches are so long, it is necessary to have an animal to ride of more strength and endurance than a horse, and so elephants, who are, when well treated, as gentle as they are strong, were very early trained as beasts of burden, or even as ‘men-of-war.’

In their wild condition they have a great many curious habits. They roam about the forests of India or Africa in herds, and each herd is a real family, who have had a common grandfather. The elephants are very particular as to the number of their herd; it is never less than ten, or more than twenty-one, but being very sociable they easily get on terms of civility with other herds, and several of these groups may be seen moving together towards some special pond or feeding ground. But friendly as they often are, each clan keeps itself as proudly distinct from the rest as if they were all Highlanders. Any unlucky elephant who has lost his own herd, and tries to attach himself to a new one, is scouted and beaten away by every member of the tribe, till, like a man who is punished and scorned for misfortunes he cannot help, the poor animal grows desperate, and takes to evil courses, and is hunted down under the name of ‘a rogue.’

Elephants have a great idea of law and order, and carefully choose a leader who is either strong enough or clever enough to protect the herd against its enemies. Even a female has sometimes been chosen, if her wisdom has been superior to that of the rest; but male or female, the leader once fixed upon, the herd never fails to give him absolute obedience, and will suffer themselves to be killed in their efforts to save his life.

An elephant dreams of mammoths, dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures


As everyone knows, during the dry season in India water becomes very scarce, and even the artificial tanks that have been built for reservoirs are very soon empty. About the middle of this century, an English officer, Major Skinner by name, had drawn up to rest on the embankment of a small Indian tank, which, low though it  was, contained the only water to be found for a great distance. On three sides of the tank there was a clearing, but on the fourth lay a very thick wood, where the herd lay encamped all day, waiting for darkness to fall, so that they might all go to drink. Major Skinner knew the habits of elephants well, and what to expect of them, so he sent all his natives to sleep, and climbed himself into a large tree that sheltered the tank at one corner. However, it appeared that the elephants were unusually cautious that night, for he sat in his tree for two hours before a sound was heard, though they had been lively enough as long as the sun was shining.

Suddenly a huge elephant forced his way through the thickest part of the forest, and advanced slowly to the tank, his ears at full cock, and his eyes glancing stealthily round. He gazed longingly at the water for some minutes, but did not attempt to drink—perhaps he felt it would be a mean advantage to take of his comrades—and then he quietly retraced his steps backwards till he had put about a hundred yards between himself and the water, when five elephants came out of the jungle and joined him. These he led forward, listening carefully as before, and placed them at certain spots where they could command a view both of the open country and the forest. This done, and the safety of the others provided for, he went to fetch the main body of the herd, which happened to be four or five times as large as usual. Silently, as if preparing for an assault, the whole of this immense body marched up to where the scouts were standing, when a halt was signalled, so that the leader might for the last time make sure that no hidden danger, in the shape of man, lion, or tiger, awaited them. Then permission was given, and with a joyful toss of their trunks in the air, in they dashed, drinking, wallowing, and rolling over with delight, till one would have thought it had been years since they had tasted a drop of water, or known the pleasures of a bath.

From his perch in the tree Major Skinner had been  watching with interest the movements of the herd, and when he saw that they had really had their fill, he gently broke a little twig and threw it on the ground. It seemed hardly possible that such a tiny sound could reach the ears of those great tumbling, sucking bodies, but in one instant they were all out of the tank, and tearing towards the forest, almost carrying the little ones between them.

Of course it is not always that elephants can find tanks without travelling many hundreds of miles after them, and on these occasions their wonderful sagacity comes to their aid. They will pause on the banks of some dried-up river, now nothing but a sandy tract, and feel instinctively that underneath that sand is the water for which they thirst. But then, how to get at it? The elephants know as well as any engineer that if they tried to dig a hole straight down, the weight of their bodies would pull down the whole side of the pit with them, so that is of no use. In order to get round this difficulty, long experience has taught them that they must make one side to their well a gentle slope, and when this is done they can wait with perfect comfort for the water, whose appearance on the surface is only a question of time.

The elephant kneels after the dog bites its trunk


Much might be written about the likes and dislikes of elephants, which seem as a rule to be as motiveless as the likes and dislikes of human beings. Till they are tamed and treated kindly by some particular person, elephants show a decided objection to human beings, and in Ceylon have a greater repugnance to a white skin than to a brown one. In fact, they are shy of anything new or strange, but will put up with any animal to which they are accustomed. Elks, pigs, deer, and buffaloes are their feeding companions, and the elephants take no more notice of their presence than if they were so many canaries. Indeed, as far as can be gathered, the elephant is much more afraid of the little domestic animals with which it is quite unacquainted than of the huge vegetable-eating beasts with which both it and its forefathers were on  intimate terms. Goats and sheep it eyes with annoyance; they are new creatures, and were never seen in jungles or forests; but, bad as they might be, dogs, the shadows of  men, were worse still. They were so quick, so lively, and had such hideous high voices, which they were always using, not keeping them for special occasions like any self-respecting quadruped. Really they might almost as well be parrots with their incessant chatter. But of all kinds of dogs, surely the one called a Scotch terrier was the most alarming and detestable. One day an animal of this species actually seized the trunk of an elephant in its teeth, and the elephant was so surprised and frightened that it fell on its knees at once. At this the dog was a little frightened too, and let go, but recovered itself again as the elephant rose slowly to its feet, and prepared to charge afresh. The elephant, not knowing what to make of it, backed in alarm, hitting out at the dog with its front paws, but taking care to keep his wounded trunk well beyond its reach. At last, between fright and annoyance he lost his head completely, and would have fairly run away if the keeper had not come in and put a stop to the dog’s fun.

If Æsop had known elephants—or Scotch terriers—he might have made a fable out of this; but they had not visited Greece in his day.