The journeys of the elephants

It is just bad behaviour on my part, I must admit, when I, as a wildlife scientist, point fingers at other people’s ignorance about wildlife, issue unsolicited comments and corrections at errors they make, poke fun even. Still, it is hard to resist at times, especially when it concerns animals as wonderful and legendary, and, yes, as large as elephants. It is particularly hard to stay quiet when someone is talking or writing about Asian elephants, Elephas maximus, but uses a painting or photograph or example of the African species, Loxodonta africana. How can one mistake the Asian elephants, with their arching convex backs and smaller ears, their two-humped foreheads and trunk tips ending in a single finger-like lobe, a grand animal that looks like this,

Row of elephants

A herd of Asian elephants (Photo: Divya Mudappa)

for African elephants, with their saddle-like concave backs and much larger ears, their females carrying tusks like males, their sloping foreheads and corrugated skin, trunk tips ending in a pair of pincer-like lobes?

African elephant

African elephant

Still, it happens all the time. A website or newspaper reports on a serious issue involving elephants and people in the fragmented landscape of forests and fields and cities in southern India, but uses a photograph of a large herd of African elephants marching through open savanna. A tea producer in Assam brands its tea packet with an image, not of Asian elephants walking old migratory routes where huge tea plantations now exist, but that of a herd of African elephants, adding gratuitous insult: these are ‘raging elephants’. A reputed Indian scientist suggests making fences with disused railway tracks to separate people from elephants here in India because it has worked in Addo National Park in Africa, and the authorities take the suggestion and run to install another barrier in an already sundered landscape. To sell news or products or opinions, the African is pulled in place of the Asian, again and again and again. One baulks at the indifference, at the injustice and ignorance on display.

Yes, ’n’ how many times can a man turn his head
Pretending he just doesn’t see?
~ Bob Dylan, Blowin’ in the Wind

One good thing about ignorance, however, which no one understands, or so wrote José Saramago in his novel The Elephant’s Journey, is that “it protects us from false knowledge”. The Elephant’s Journey is Saramago’s fictional retelling of the historical journey made by an Asian elephant, Solomon, gifted in 1551 by King João III of Portugal to Archduke Maximilian of  Austria. Saramago writes of Solomon’s journey from Lisbon to Vienna, through the Iberian peninsula and northern Italy and across the alps, with a “masterfully light hand” and tender humour. His words in this delightful novel came to my mind in the last few days, oddly enough, after reading about the results of a recent scientific study on elephants. A study probing more than three centuries into the past, pulling specimens out of museums, flipping open the pages of an historic book of the eighteenth century, in which Carl von Linné or Linnaeus, the father of modern biological taxonomy, formally classified the elephant, bestowing the scientific name Elephas maximus, for the very first time. In Saramago’s strangely appropriate words:

The past is an immense area of stony ground that many people would like to drive across as if it were a motorway, while others move patiently from stone to stone, lifting each one because they need to know what lies beneath. Sometimes scorpions crawl out or centipedes, fat white caterpillars or ripe chrysalises, but it’s not impossible that, at least once, an elephant might appear…

And when the elephant does appear before you for the first time, after the initial wonderment and fascination fades away, you might be tempted to conclude, like the European peasants do when the elephant appears in their village, that:

There’s not much to an elephant, really, when you’ve walked round him once, you’ve seen all there is to see.

The specimen Linnaeus used (Courtest: Swedish Museum of Natural History)

The specimen Linnaeus used (Courtesy: Swedish Museum of Natural History)

Sure, until someone looks even closer, like the scientists did in the recent study. The study in question, by Enrico Capellini of the University of Copenhagen and an international team of scientists, found that something long believed to be true about Asian elephants, their very identity as Elephas maximus established by Linnaeus in his historic work Systema Naturae, was the result of an error. Linnaeus described the Asian elephant from a ‘type’ specimen, an elephant foetus preserved in an alcohol-filled jar (a somewhat large jar, one presumes). The specimen—long considered as the first taxonomic specimen and permanent benchmark for Asian elephant—turns out to be (you guessed it!) that of an African elephant. Published in November 2013, the study weaves brilliant scientific and archival detective work, delving into ancient DNA and protein molecules, into museum records, artwork, and archives, to conclude that Linnaeus had it wrong. And Saramago says:

as elephant philosophy would have it, what cannot be cannot be,

Which means that Elephas maximus Linnaeus, 1758, as the species is named, fully and formally, refers at the first instance to the African elephant. Which means that I might now have to suppress my smug, superior erudition on telling Asian from African elephants and instead eat my own words. Which goes to show that you never know where you will be led when you dig into the past. Into history.

It is the idea of history itself, that Saramago examines from his fictional vantage point, using the lens of literature.

…but that is how it’s set down in history, as an incontrovertible, documented fact, supported by historians and confirmed by the novelist, who must be forgiven for taking certain liberties with names, not only because it is his right to invent, but also because he had to fill in certain gaps so that the sacred coherence of the story was not lost. It must be said that history is always selective, and discriminatory too, selecting from life only what society deems to be historical and scorning the rest, which is precisely where we might find the true explanation of facts, of things, of wretched reality itself. In truth, I say to you, it is better to be a novelist, a fiction writer, a liar.

Perhaps Linnaeus, in his enthusiasm to describe the elephant, paid insufficient attention to history. The elephant foetus that Linnaeus labelled was obtained at his behest by the Swedish royalty from the collection of Albertus Seba, a Dutch pharmacist interested in natural history and trader in animals collected from various parts of the world. Seba obtained the elephant foetus from the Dutch West India Company, which traded in Africa and regions west across the Atlantic. Linnaeus, however, believed and declared the locality of origin of the elephant as Ceylon (Sri Lanka), which may have been the case if the source had been the Dutch East India Company. If Linnaeus had paid more attention to history, as to biology, one would perhaps have not had to wait 250 years for an analysis of ancient mitochondrial DNA to establish that the elephant originated in a part of Africa where Dutch traders were active in the 17th century. Linnaeus had, unwittingly, been looking Lanka instead of talking Togo.

As I said to you once before, the elephant is a different matter altogether, every elephant contains two elephants, one who learns what he’s taught and another who insists on ignoring it all, … I realised that I’m just like the elephant, that a part of me learns and the other part ignores everything I’ve learned, and the longer I live, the more I ignore,

Fortunately for us ignorant retrospective liars about elephants, Asian and African, the taxonomists are still on our side. Waving their bewildering box of rules about names and naming of animals, called the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, they have provided a face-saving way out. Out of the other specimens (‘syntypes’) of elephants that Linnaeus had seen, known, or used while describing the elephant, one can designate another specimen (a ‘lectotype’) to shoulder the responsibility of carrying the species’s name. To find and pin down the new name-torch carrier, the scientists have pulled out, not a rabbit from a hat, for that is not hip in science, but what is perfectly de rigueur: a skeleton out of a closet. A genuine Asian elephant skeleton, confirmed by anatomical and DNA analysis, which Linnaeus himself had referred to, will now be the specimen-designate for Asian elephants. The Asian elephant, thanks be to The Code, will remain Elephas maximus. It is as Saramago ordained,

because life laughs at predictions and introduces words where we imagined silences, and sudden returns when we thought we would never see each other again.

Where that skeleton came from is another remarkable story. One that takes the tale another hundred years into the past, into the mid 17th century. In 1664, John Ray, an English academic who quit Cambridge to pursue natural history and travel through Europe, saw and wrote about “…the skin and skeleton of an elephant which was shown in Florence some 8 or 10 years ago and died there”, a specimen that Linnaeus, too, was aware of. The skeleton remains today, much as Ray described it, in the Natural History Museum of the University of Florence. The scientists have verified from anatomical and molecular analysis that the skeleton is that of an Asian elephant. I applaud their patience, their achievement, but it is Saramago’s subtle humour that rings in my ear.

If your highness knew elephants as I believe I do, you would know that india exists wherever an indian elephant happens to be, and I am not speaking here of african elephants, of whom I have no experience, and that same india will, whatever happens, always remain intact inside him,

The skeleton was that of an elephant named Hansken. Hansken was a female Asian elephant, brought to Europe courtesy the right company this time, the Dutch East India Company, from Sri Lanka, with the fortuitous result that the type locality mentioned by Linnaeus for Elephas maximus can now remain the same. Arriving in Europe in the 1630s, she was taken as a travelling curiosity through varies cities, including Amsterdam, where in 1637, she was sketched by a person no less than Rembrandt!

This is Elephas maximus (Sketch by Rembrandt, Courtesy British Museum)

This is Hansken. This is Elephas maximus (Sketch by Rembrandt, Courtesy: British Museum via Wikimedia Commons).

Now, I cannot help wondering if Rembrandt and Linnaeus were aware of the other elephant that had journeyed from Sri Lanka through Europe, a century earlier in the 1550s: the Suleiman of history, the Solomon of Saramago’s story. (Is history and his story really all that different, for an animal with culture and memory like the elephant, for people like us? In Saramago’s part of the world, in Portuguese and Spanish and Catalan, is not the word for story and history the same? Historia! So it is.).

Still, after the conundrum posed by Linnaeus’s error, what a distinguished and artful conclusion to arrive at, for Asian elephants! A newly-designated specimen, the skeleton of Hansken, whose fleshed-and-blooded portrait was made by Rembrandt himself! Destiny, Saramago writes,

when it chooses, is as good or even better than god at writing straight on crooked lines.

Of Solomon, we know that he entered Vienna in early 1552 and died in less than two years. What we know little about is of the people who attended to him, particularly his mahout. Not so, of course, in Saramago’s story, wherein “to fill in certain gaps so that the sacred coherence of the story was not lost”, he invents a mahout with a peculiar eastern Indian sounding name, Subhro. As Solomon enters Austria, Subhro, too, is passed on with the elephant to Maximilian, who with a sort of Germanic disdain, renames the elephant Suleiman and rechristens his mahout, Fritz. What do we know of the life of Subhro-Fritz? Or of Hansken’s mahout? There are inscriptions and woodcuts, coins and frescoes, depicting Solomon in Europe, and Hansken is immortalised by Linnaeus and Rembrandt, but clearly the elephant is the centre of attention, not the mahout on its back.

The elephant 'Soliman' (Source: Felistoria, Wikimedia Commons)

The elephant ‘Soliman’  in Vienna, 1552 (Source: Felistoria, Wikimedia Commons)

One wonders. What is the fate of the keeper when it is the kept that garners all the attention? As Subhro himself says:

but, one way or another, dear friend, while your future is guaranteed, mine isn’t, I’m a mahout, a parasite, a mere appendage.

And what, one wonders, too, will happen now, to the poor African elephant foetus in the jar? Does it become a footnote to history, a museum relic, an anecdote, an aside? Now, to paraphrase E. E. Cummings, after the doting fingers of prurient philosophers have pinched and poked, and the naughty thumb of science prodded the elephant-that-never-was, now: will it rest encased in its alcoholic tomb? Will it be quietly mourned, yet spurned, like a miscarriage, spawned by Linnaeus, of an anonymous mother? Or will fade to obscurity again, for centuries, forever, like a misbegotten afterbirth? Will we conclude, as Saramago suggests, of this elephant’s journey, as we might of the life of the mahouts:

and that was that, we will not see them in this theatre again, but such is life, the actors appear, then leave the stage, as is only fitting, it’s what usually and always will happen sooner or later, they say their part, then disappear through the door at the back, the one that opens onto the garden.

Still, worse things could happen. The foetus could become a museum celebrity, to be probed and pinched and peered at further. It could become a case study: required reading in taxonomic textbooks.

Or perhaps, it will remain a mute witness, as the elephants do on their own journeys through landscapes of Asia and Africa, when we subject them to our scrutiny, amusement, benevolence, entertainment, affection, harassment, and exploitation. As they will continue to do while we struggle to come to terms with elephants with whom we have lived for thousands of years. Struggling to understand the elephants for who they are, to respect their identities and individuality, and to give them the admiration that they deserve, we continue to seek answers on our own terms. Perhaps we will find those answers yet, from patient science or great literature, or perhaps from wise Solomon himself, in The Elephant’s Journey:

For the first time in the history of humanity, an animal was bidding farewell, in the literal sense, to a few human beings, as if he owed them friendship and respect, an idea unconfirmed by the moral precepts in our codes of conduct, but which can perhaps be found inscribed in letters of gold in the fundamental laws of the elephantine race.

Further reading:

Callaway, E. 2013. Linnaeus's Asian elephant was wrong species. 
Nature doi:10.1038/nature.2013.14063

Cappellini, E., Gentry, A., Palkopoulou, E., Ishida, Y., Cram, D., Roos, A.-M., 
Watson, M., Johansson, U. S., Fernholm, B., Agnelli, P., Barbagli, F., Littlewood, 
D. T. J., Kelstrup, C. D., Olsen, J. V., Lister, A. M., Roca, A. L., Dalén, L. and 
Gilbert, M. T. P. 2013. Resolution of the type material of the Asian elephant, 
Elephas maximus Linnaeus, 1758 (Proboscidea, Elephantidae). Zoological Journal of 
the Linnean Society. doi: 10.1111/zoj.12084

Medina, R. 2013. Ceci n’est pas un éléphant.
http://mappingignorance.org/2013/11/20/ceci-nest-pas-un-elephant/

Saramago, J. 2011. The elephant's journey. (Translated from the Portuguese by
Margaret Jull Costa.) Mariner Books.

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