A compilation of thoughts, facts, and literature on the African elephant, from a former journalist and scholar who has written extensively about the continent.
Elephants once ranged over all of Africa; now only five countries there have populations of more than 50,000. Meredith (Coming to Terms, 2000, etc.) begins 5,000 years ago in Egypt, whose pharaohs hunted elephants for their ivory until the climate became too arid to support such herds. They then turned to Syria, eventually driving the small Asian elephant population to extinction. The author next profiles Alexander the Great, who was so impressed by the Persians’ use of armored elephants that he incorporated them into his own army after 331 b.c. But by 46 b.c., the African elephant’s primary use was for entertainment: Romans pitted gladiators against dozens of elephants at a time, and the demand for this brutal spectacle eventually rendered the North African herds all but extinct. Over centuries, the African elephant population suffered losses and made gains until the great ivory trade began in the mid-1400s. Due to the lucrative market in piano keys and billiard balls (among other items), by 1760 elephant herds in southern Africa were much diminished, and by 1880 they had vanished. In East and West Africa, the same story was playing out. At this point, Meredith focuses on recent scientific studies, notably the work of Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamilton, Cynthia Moss, Joyce Poole, and Katherine Payne. He’s an engaging writer, and his synopses should lead readers to the original works themselves. He concludes with the great ivory wars of the 1970s and ’80s, naming Hong Kong and Japan as the major culprits. Now that many countries have joined the ban on ivory, some elephant populations may make a comeback, but their situation is perilous at best. The author provides a nice overview of the troubles facing the African elephant, but no original research at all.
Serviceable, though nothing new. (8 pages b&w photos, 32 illustrations)