The zoo in Johannesburg is a municipal institution, short of cash, long on bureaucracy, and run by the city's Parks and Recreation Department. Which meant that when I started working there the lawns were manicured, the flower beds lovely, but the animal quarters disastrous. I was the first professional zoologist to be employed there. Most of the staff were untrained, largely uninterested, and working there only because none of the city authority's other departments would have them.
It was an uphill struggle. Far too many pointless meetings, too much talk, and everything else in triplicate. Requisitions were a nightmare: it was always so much easier for officials to say no rather than come down and see problems for themselves 'out at the zoo'. We always seemed to be last on everyone's list of priorities. And then the only person who really cared about the zoo, the man who had found and hired me in London, left his post and we lost whatever clout we had in the first place, along with most of our budget. But then there was still Delilah…
She was four years younger than me: a teenager who had been born in the bush, but had lived most of her life in Johannesburg. She was an orphan, the survivor of a massacre, but despite this background she was one of the sunniest, most consistently good-tempered individuals I have ever met. She was also truly beautiful, with long, thick eyelashes. And I was particularly fond of her trunk.
Delilah lived alone in a dark, damp, concrete-floored cage in what was euphemistically described as the Elephant House. More than half of her time was spent shackled indoors, chained to a ring in the floor that gave her the scope of just eight feet of chain. During the day, she had the 'free run' of a compound half the size of a tennis court surrounded by girders of black steel bent out of shape by earlier, angrier denizens. This was where I first met her, standing near her steel barrier, rocking gently in a way I had learned to recognise as one of the first signs of stress and mental illness in elephants. As I approached, she pushed out her trunk directly toward me in the gesture all elephants use on meeting strange or higher-ranking individuals. I knew that this was a 'greeting-intention movement', something universally misinterpreted in zoos as a 'begging' gesture and rewarded by offers of food, when what is really being sought is friendship. So I cupped the tip of her trunk in my hand and gently blew into it.
The result was extraordinary. She entwined my whole arm in her trunk, held it there as she breathed deeply several times, and then put the tip of her trunk in her mouth and sighed. I came a little closer and let her explore my face and neck freely until I could hear a soft growl of pure delight: the elephant equivalent of purring.
It was love at first sight, and I decided, then and there, that my first priority in this zoo would be a new elephant house and company, elephant company, for Delilah. That took time, but as construction on the replacement elephant house continued, I got the chance to get to know Delilah a great deal better.
To start with, her initial automatic, head-lowered, ears flattened, swaying gesture of submission made me curse the early keepers who must have beaten her into obedience. But as we became better acquainted I was happy to see more confident approaches: she would raise her head, tuck her chin in, and lift and flap her ears, all in a short gallop to the fence.
I never fed her. That is not something elephants normally do for one another. I left that to her regular keeper, who by now was beginning to take a closer interest in her welfare. And eventually I decided it was time to go into the compound with her alone: just me and more than 8,000 pounds of female elephant on a blind date.
To get into the compound, I had to go through the store and the indoor area: the usual way the keepers approached her, with all the usual sounds. But by the time I stepped out of the darkness into the sun, she was already unusually interested. She had heard, smelled, seen something other than her keeper, and was standing tall. She flapped her ears and lifted her head very high, trunk spelling out the letter 's' in front of her head, the tip swivelling my way in full alert, a thin dribble of dark fluid on each cheek. 'Oh-oh!' I thought.
'This could go wrong. Have I miscalculated?'
She began to move toward me somewhat stiff-legged, trunk now hanging at a more acute angle, but still not showing the side-to-side head shake of outright threat: that would have sent me back indoors in a hurry. Then I heard the door close behind me, cutting off any retreat. The keeper obviously didn't want to be involved in any of this, or he wasn't very fond of me. Still she kept coming, keeping me guessing until the last moment, when she stopped right in front of me and very deliberately pressed the top of her trunk against my forehead so that I could feel a soft vibrant rumbling right through my body. She was leaning into me, purring something that sounded very much like 'Hey! What took you so long?'
For a while, construction on the new elephant house stopped altogether (something to do with the supply of cement), and I wondered what else I could do to keep Delilah amused. I contemplated bringing back elephant rides. There was still a pair of brick ladders, gangways like those on airport aprons, via which children once boarded howdahs (seated saddles) to be taken by elephant round the swan lake. The rides had been discontinued after an animal welfare organisation made a fuss, condemning them as demeaning to elephants. They were right, but for elephants stuck in a cage such a diversion could have been a welcome change of pace. I was sure Delilah could be taught to wear the howdah and would enjoy the company, but the city fathers and their lawyers squashed the whole idea. And I got cement in a hurry.
In the meantime, and before zoo opening time, I took to walking Delilah around myself. We used a bridle with a leather lead, which both she and I pretended would keep her in line. It was never tested, for the simple reason that she really enjoyed walking with me. She wasn't fond of monkeys or little creepy things like honey badgers and porcupines, however, so we avoided the part of the zoo where they lived and strolled instead between the paddocks of zebras, wildebeests and giraffes. These animals seemed familiar to her, and she spent a lot of time with her trunk hanging over their fences, trying to remember where and when she had met them before. I'm not sure she ever did make the connection: she was only three years old when she was captured, and her memories of her experiences before then must have been very faint.
Sometimes she let me grip her tail while she decided which way to go, trotting along, squeaking like a calf, perhaps reliving those times when her mother steered her with a firm trunkhold on her behind. And I could have sworn she found pleasure in this strange reversal of roles. But there was another day when this game nearly backfired.
Delilah must have heard lions before. There were several in the zoo, and they roared almost every evening, giving people who lived in the crowded suburbs nearby a frisson, reminding them that, all immediate appearances to the contrary, they were still living in Africa. I am certain that lion smell had been part of her zoo experience for 16 years and wouldn't normally disturb her. But I had forgotten, or was never told, that a new male lion was being brought in that day.
I even heard the tractor trailer coming our way, but this was such a normal part of zoo routine that I never thought twice about it until it was just 20 feet away and the lion flung himself at the bars with a deafening roar. That sound, anywhere nearby, is enough to turn your knees to water. In Delilah, it triggered an instinctive response. She whirled around and put herself between me and the lion, doing
everything possible to assume a group defence all on her own. There were no signs of indecision: no trunk coiling or winding; no ear-touching or pulling up tufts of grass. Her tail stiffened in my hand; her back arched; her head shot up; and her ears spread out to their full extent, providing an awesome frontage of 10 or 12 feet of grey anger studded with tusks and accompanied by an ear-splitting scream from her raised trunk.
Even from behind it was impressive. From the lion's side, it must have been absolutely terrifying. It took us two days to get him out of the travelling cage and an entire week before he dared show his nose in the outdoor enclosure.
Delilah took it in her giant stride. For weeks afterward, whenever she thought no one was looking, I saw her replay her display, polishing some of the moves. And at the end of each silent rehearsal, she adopted that funny, loose-limbed sort of swagger that in the elephant world invariably indicates a large degree of self-satisfaction.
When the domed buildings of the new elephant area were almost complete, we got word of a pair of young elephants who had survived a cull on the border between South Africa and Botswana. I pulled a few strings, and within the week they were ours and on their way to Johannesburg.
The plan was to keep them in the old building next to Delilah so that they could get used to each other through the bars before they were all turned loose in their new home. Delilah's part of the original building was larger, better equipped for the two newcomers, so we moved her to a smaller older wing that had not been used at all since her arrival.
She was reluctant to make the move and had to be led by hand into her new quarters, moving very slowly, step by step, hanging back as long as she could. The place had been spring cleaned, scrubbed and furnished with fresh hay and water, but it was clear that she didn't like it. I stayed with her all the way, making encouraging noises, but that didn't help much. In the end, however, she settled down a little and we left her to it as I watched from behind the scenes.
She started sniffing first at the food and bedding, and then moved across to the other side of the indoor area, the tip of her trunk opening and closing, testing smells left and right, reaching out to its full extent as she got closer to the wall. Then Delilah's behaviour was part of a well-developed, continent-wide pattern of action in which elephants recognise death and respond to it with rituals which seem to be deeply felt the pattern changed: she began to concentrate on one spot in the corner, pausing, turning, hesitating, finally giving all her attention to that small area. She became very quiet, even tense, and stood right over the spot, giving it her undivided attention, so absorbed that even her trunk stopped moving. And she stayed that way, entranced, for minutes on end.
Everything about her demeanour reminded me of a young bull elephant I had seen in South Africa's Addo Elephant National Park investigating another elephant's skull. Eventually, Delilah shook herself out of the meditation and seemed to come to a decision. She went over to the hay pile, picked up a large sheaf with her trunk and carried it across to the offending area. She kept on transporting hay until the entire corner was completely concealed. Then she relaxed and seemed quite at home.
I called the keeper and showed him what she had done. It didn't make any sense to him, either, until I asked how long it was since the wing had been used.
'Almost 20 years.' he said. 'This is where we kept the last African elephant. The one we had before Delilah arrived…'
I asked what had happened to it.
'She became very sick and difficult and had to be kept shackled all the time. Until eventually the visiting vet said she would have to be put down. We shot her…' He paused and I could see that something had just occurred to him. 'My God,' he said, with his eyes wide. 'That's where it happened, all those years ago. That's where she died. Right in that corner!'
Everyone connected with elephants has a similar story. Joyce Poole, the scientific director of Kenya's Amboseli National Park, says: 'I have observed a mother, her facial expression one I could recognise as grief, stand beside her stillborn baby for three days, and I have been deeply moved by the eerie silence of an elephant family as, for an hour, they fondled the bones of their matriarch.’
Poole’s colleague Cynthia Moss says: ‘Recently, a big adult female died of natural causes and we collected her jaw after a few weeks and brought it to the camp. Three days later her family happened to be passing through the camp and when they smelled the jaw they detoured from their path to inspect it. One individual stayed for a long time after the others had gone, repeatedly feeling and stroking the jaw and turning it with his foot and his trunk. He was the dead elephant's seven year-old son, her youngest calf. I felt sure that he recognised it as his mother’s.’
Oria Douglas-Hamilton, who with her husband Ian runs the Elephant Watch Camp in Samburu National Reserve, northern Kenya, says: 'The tusks of [one] dead elephant excited immediate interest; they were picked up, mouthed and passed on from elephant to elephant… To begin with only the largest individuals would get near the skeleton, but the rest of the group followed, many of them carrying pieces, which were dropped within about a hundred yards… It was an uncanny
sight to see those elephants walking away carrying bones as if in some necromantic rite.'
And Sylvia Sikes, author of The Natural History of the African Elephant, says: 'If the female elephant is dead, they tear out branches and grass clumps from the surrounding vegetation and drop these on and around the carcass… then scrape soil toward the carcass and stand by, weaving restlessly from side to side.'
The strange ritual of elephants turning and dispersing bones is well documented; as is their apparently widespread habit of burying the carcasses of other animals. And it seems clear that elephants have no difficulty in recognising the body parts of their own kin or the place of death of related (or unrelated) individuals, even long after all obvious remains have been removed.
So Delilah's behaviour was not aberrant. It was part of a well- developed, continent-wide pattern of action in which elephants recognise death and respond to it with rituals that result in dispersion or concealment of remains, and which seem to be deeply felt.
There is something rather humane in elephants' grieving. When responding to the death of one of their kind, elephants become distinctly formal. They fall silent, moving with unusual decorum, observing what seem to be very solemn ceremonial acts. Last rites, perhaps.
Not long after I witnessed Delilah reacting to the death of one of her kind, Johannesburg Zoo's new elephant area was opened, much to the delight of Delilah and her new friends, who spent a great deal of time there in constant contact, relishing being close to one another. We also completed a new big cat area, and a wolf wood, but then the building fund ran out completely, and I ran out of patience and decided to move on…
Infrasound Communication: a vast natural internet
For years elephant researchers have been confounded by much of elephant behaviour. Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants, has been amazed by their ability to organise their herds without any visible or audible cues. He even joked about ESP. Cynthia Moss and Joyce Poole in Kenya were puzzled by the ability of far-flung male and female elephants to find each other during the few days in every five years when the female can conceive. In Zimbabwe Rowan Martin had discovered that his radio-tracked elephants were precisely coordinating their movements despite being miles apart. And flying over Botswana, I had noticed that separate elephant trails were not only as straight as fence lines, but parallel and equidistant even though they were well out of sight of each other.
In 1984 whale sonar expert Katy Payne spent a week in the elephant house at Washington Park Zoo, recording everything that happened. While doing so, she noticed what she calls a 'thrill in the air' or 'silent thunder', something reminiscent not just of giant pipe organs, but
also of great whales underwater. Four months later, she was back with fellow acoustic biologists from New York's Cornell University and the equipment necessary to record and measure infrasound.
The elephant house was full of it. Later analysis showed a complex array of overlapping calls that couldn't be heard by humans in the zoo, but sprang to life and hearing when the tapes were run at 10 times their usual speed. The loudest sounds were three octaves too low for humans to detect, but were capable of connecting two elephants standing face to face on opposite sides of a concrete wall three feet thick. Elephants use infrasound.
At the lowest frequencies (between five and 25 cycles per second) infrasound has astonishing properties. The long, slow waves are hardly affected by the densest forests and keep on going for many miles without distortion or loss of power. In the natural world, they lie
somewhere just above the deep rumbles of earthquakes, volcanoes, severe weather and ocean waves, and well below the calls of any other animals except perhaps blue and fin whales. And when Payne took her equipment to Africa, even to the quietest parts of the continent's wildernesses, she discovered that the sound of silence is everywhere punctuated, day and night, by long-distance trunk calls.
So, groups of elephants arrive at a waterhole simultaneously from different directions despite not having met for weeks. An entire herd, relaxing on its feeding grounds, suddenly takes flight or freezes in its footsteps. Groups synchronise their behaviour no matter which way the wind blows. And adult males drop whatever they are doing and converge on an ovulating female. Infrasound is the answer to all these mysteries, and the mechanism that generates many more.
The elephant network is extensive. The average animal-to-animal distance in highly populated areas may be just a few miles, but each individual is part of a far larger communication system, a cell in
a network that covers hundreds of thousands of square miles,
potentially an entire country. This natural internet is vast and calls
into question all the assumptions we have been making about
elephant society. Elephant families can no longer be restricted to a group of visibly bonded animals. Herds could consist of every elephant in the whole ecology, which makes nonsense of all culling programmes that involve taking out just family groups to prevent disturbing other animals in the area. Kill one elephant and every elephant within infrasound range knows about it instantly.
Infrasound also provides the kind of detail and intimacy that could help maintain hierarchies in elephant societies, like those in the Namib Desert, where individuals may not meet face to face for months or even years.
Zoologist Ivan Sanderson tells of a young elephant called Sadie, one of eight belonging to a circus in Missouri. The group was being trained for an upcoming performance, and Sadie, the youngest, tried in vain to master the complex routines, until it all overwhelmed her and she fled
the ring. Twice the trainers brought her back and chastised her, but on the third occasion she simply gave up, sank to her knees, lay down on her side and started weeping. 'She lay there,' said one of the horrified trainers, 'tears streaming down her face, sobs racking her huge body, like a child.'
In addition to their two protective eyelids, elephants have a third clear blinking membrane that sweeps horizontally across the eyeball, and which is lubricated by the Harderian gland. The secretion from this gland differs slightly from that of our lachrymal glands, but when there is enough of it, something very like tears trickles from the corner of the eyes of elephants and runs down their cheeks. As this tends to happen when elephants are tired, sick, or emotionally disturbed, I see no reason not to conclude that elephants weep.
I have seen a zoo elephant shackled on its own do just that, and it is impossible not to be deeply moved. The least we can do in the circumstances is to allow that elephants are capable of feeling disturbed and of showing great concern. There is no other way of describing what happens when they gather around a dead herd member, playing their trunks over the fallen animal, touching its tusks, sniffing at a wound perhaps, and doing so in utter silence. Their whole
comportment changes: there is none of the usual rumbling or pacing or scratching and scraping; they just look forlorn. They appear to be deeply moved, and to deny them this capacity seems churlish and
The most social of animals
Elephants lead extraordinarily complex social lives. Females, in particular, are never alone. They are born into and live in bonded groups which they never leave. These groups, in turn, enjoy the
experience of a multi-tiered network of other elephants, encompassing an entire local population that lives in a farflung herd.
As a rule, all the members of a family group eat, drink, rest and travel at the same time, keeping constant contact with one another, calling, sniffing, touching tusks and trunks, tasting each others' mouths,
interacting, in zoologist Katy Payne's words, 'like ants which exchange drops of regurgitated liquid when they meet, and so learn about the composition and condition of the colony'.
All elephants greet each other, but when the encounter involves animals that are directly related, the reunion is effusive. Cynthia Moss followed one family in Kenya's Amboseli National Park for 13 years. She
says: 'Subgroups of the family will run together, rumbling, trumpeting, and screaming, raise their heads, click their tusks together, entwine their trunks, flap their ears, spin around and back into each other, urinate and defecate, and generally show great excitement. A greeting such as this will sometimes last for as long as 10 minutes.'
Similar rituals and ceremonies cement relationships all the way up the social scale - from families to groups through clans and on to encompass every elephant in an ecosystem. Mature males lead
slightly different lives, compelled by testosterone and musth (an Urdu
word meaning 'sexual intoxication') to seek the company of others; the males act as satellites to the female herds. They, too, keep in touch, by sound and smell. A solitary elephant is not an elephant at all.
Dying faster than they can reproduce
Elephants are surprisingly difficult to count. Despite their size, they have an uncanny ability to dissolve into shadows, disappearing in
plain sight and reappearing where you least expect them. Even from the air, it is hard to untangle a herd, and turn a tide of great grey backs into numbers. And whenever you can, the arithmetic is dismal.
At the turn of the 19th century, there were perhaps 200,000 elephants in the wild in Asia. Today there are fewer than 50,000. Ten million African elephants roamed the savannas of Africa in Hemingway's day;
now there may be no more than half a million. Elephants everywhere are dying faster than they can reproduce.
On average, elephants can expect to live for roughly 65 years, at which age they run out of teeth and starve. Females reach puberty, just as we do, at about 12 years old and remain fertile until they are
50. Every gestation occupies almost two years, but the calving interval in most of Africa is nearer five years, which means that the annual
population growth rate, even under ideal conditions, is seldom more than 4 per cent.
Elephants are the slowest breeders in the animal kingdom, but left to their own devices they are theoretically capable of turning one breeding pair into 15 million questing trunks in just 500 years. However, elephant numbers in Africa have been controlled historically by climatic
factors such as periodic droughts. An even more important influence during the last century has been direct competition between elephants and humans for the same resources.
Lyall Watson is a naturalist and author of over twenty books. This article is extracted from Elephantoms, published by WW Norton.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist November 2004