Redefining Our Relationship with Elephants


Elephants and Ethics. Toward a Morality of Coexistence . Wemmer, C. and C. A.Christen , editors. 2008. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD. 512 pp. $75 (hardcover). ISBN 978-0-8018-8818-2.
Elephants on the Edge. What Animals Teach Us about Humanity? Bradshaw, G. A. 2009. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT. 352 pp. $28 (hardcover). ISBN 978-0-12731-7.

In 2000 four southern African countries tried to overturn the ban on trade in ivory at a Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting in Nairobi, Kenya. They presented a compelling argument that ivory was a valuable resource that should be traded to alleviate poverty and help save elephants. Kenya, the host country, responded by taking all delegates to meet the orphaned baby elephants at the David Sheldricks Trust. After an hour of interactions with baby elephants, delegates’ minds had changed, and ivory-trade proposals failed. Conservationists have been warning us for years that elephants are so much like humans that it is morally unacceptable to treat them as beasts of burden, kill them for ivory or cash, and keep them in zoos and circuses. Now, two new books, Elephants on the Edge by Bradshaw, and Elephants and Ethics edited by Wemmer and Christen, pull the evidence together and ask us to redefine our relationship with elephants.

In Elephants on the Edge, Bradshaw, an animal trauma specialist, draws parallels between elephant and human behavior, discussing the emotional breakdown in both groups following trauma. She reminds us of the cruelty involved in capturing young elephants during culling operations in South Africa and Zimbabwe, where mothers were killed, and asks readers, awed by elephants in the world's zoos and circuses, to questions how these elephants were procured and how they are kept under control. Bradshaw suggests we have completely underestimated elephants’ emotional capacities. She asks us to look at things differently and to believe that elephants are just like us. Only if we take this perspective can we empathize with elephants that are the victims of beating, starvation, chaining, isolation, and other forms of cruelty. The evidence that human and elephant behaviors are similar is compelling. Those of us who have studied elephants may still be surprised to learn that they are more like us than we had imagined, and that from them we have much to learn about ourselves. This book is engrossing and will appeal to a general audience.

In Elephants and Ethics, Christen Wemmer, a fellow at the California Academy of Sciences and an emeritus scientist with the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park, and Catherine A. Christen, an environmental historian at the Smithsonian National Zoo's Center for Conservation Education and Sustainability, address the same concerns as Bradshaw but in a set of academic chapters from leading scientists and elephant managers. Divided into three parts, this book first presents the history and what is known scientifically about elephants and their unique societies, minds, and abilities to feel. The second part focuses on the management of elephants in captivity for work, circuses, and zoos and explains how elephants came to have such roles. The final section of the book is on the ethics of managing elephants in the wild, particularly in relation to human–wildlife conflict and management of elephant populations. The challenge the books lays out is balancing the conservation of species that are affected by elephants, elephant conflicts with humans, and the potential to alleviate poverty by hunting elephants or selling them to circuses and zoos. If Elephants on the Edge is emotional, then, despite its title, Elephants and Ethics is a factual, no-nonsense book written by experts who pose practical problems and solutions to these problems. There is no escaping that elephant populations in some parts of Africa are, and will continue to be, managed with lethal means and that elephants will remain in zoos and circuses despite what we know about the suffering they feel.

Both books examine key challenges to elephant management from completely different perspectives. Bradshaw concludes that the problems caused by elephants, including the devastating episodes of human–elephant conflict experienced in Africa and Asia, the killing of keepers in zoos and handlers in circuses, and the incidents of elephants killing rhinos in South Africa, are simply consequences of anger, depression, or revenge. Bad behavior in elephants, she says, arises as a result of trauma imposed by humans, such as culling and hunting. In Elephants and Ethics different authors address the issue of elephant behavior with the aim of finding solutions to these problems.

Some readers may be put off by Bradshaw's emotional approach because only the evocative examples that contribute to her story line are presented. Perhaps less easy to read, Elephants and Ethics ensures there is something for everyone and leaves readers to draw their own conclusions. Those who care about elephants will be grateful to Wemmer and Christen for pulling off the mammoth task of getting these authors with widely divergent personalities to contribute to this book. This collaboration has brought together experts from Asia, Africa, North America, and Europe, people who hold very different views, and has helped them see things from each other's perspectives.

Elephants on the Edge and Elephants and Ethics are both extremely important books that will contribute significantly to debates on animal rights. The scientists who contributed to both these books add weight and scientific fact to the growing public concern about the treatment of elephants. Some of the authors have given evidence in the watershed court case against Ringling Brothers’ Center for Elephant Conservation regarding the training of elephants. A former trainer admitted to using severe methods that the company denied, although the evidence is captured in 50 photographs.

These two books come at a time when elephant populations are once again suffering great losses in the wild due to escalating poaching for meat and ivory in Africa and Asia. Despite the painful reality and heart-breaking stories, neither of these books is despondent. Instead, they are cautiously hopeful. They both reveal that research on elephants is really coming of age and this new knowledge is already making enormous differences. South Africa, which has been widely criticized for elephant culling, has now passed an elephant policy that addresses the morality of culling and for the first time recognizes the need for a new ethic to “define our relationship with animals that are more like us than previously realized” (Lötter et al. 2008).