From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 2001:
“It is said that if an elephant dies, the elephant’s person will
forever live in sorrow.”
Modoc: The True Story of the
Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived
by Ralph Hefner
HarperCollins (1350 Avenue Of The Americas,
New York, NY 10019), 1998.
325 pages, paperback. $13.00
To The Elephant Graveyard
by Tarquin Hall
Grove Press (841 Broadway, New York, NY 10003, 2001. 260 pages,
I have not visited a zoo or circus since childhood because I
cannot bear to see wild animals in captivity. So when I attended an
anti-circus demonstration in Seattle recently, I was not prepared to
actually see elephants. Serendipity intervened, and I was standing
in the back of the stadium when after the show they marched by.
Approximately 15 elephants solemnly passed within a few feet of me,
holding trunks to tails, kept in line by a stern trainer with a stun
gun. My friend yelled to them that she was sorry for the whole human
race. I chanted peace mantras to each one. It was easy to see their
glazed eyes. Maybe they were just tired, but to me they seemed
resigned to their life of slavery, with little spirit left.
For years I had known about the sufferings of circus animals
but had not counted circuses among my issues. The Seattle city
council rejected a proposed circus ban in 2000 by the margin of just
one vote. In the end, the pivotal issue seemed to be not the
wrongness, rightness, or popularity of the circus, but rather the
concern of other businesses about setting a regulatory precedent.
When I saw the elephants this year, I sensed the tragedy of
their existence and of that defeat. After bearing witness, I barely
slept while the circus was in town.
Like it or not, interactions with humans have been a big
part of pachyderm history for millennia. Human actions will
determine whether these magnificent beings can survive beyond our
devastating enroachment upon their ancient lands.
In Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever
Lived, Ralph Hefner relates, with some poetic license, the
stories of a boy named Bram and the elephant named Modoc who were
born on the same day in 1896 to a circus family in Germany. Growing
up side by side, their close friendship was almost the relationship
Modoc possessed a mischievous sense of humor. Sometimes
while playing she would pick Bram up and walk off with him. She
usually found a soft spot to drop him. Once, in an outrageously
silly mood, she dumped him in a small stream, then ran as fast as
she could, kicking up her heels and trumpeting all the way back to
This was a small circus where the animals were fully
integrated into the lives and struggles of the people who lived with
them. Disaster struck when the circus owner went bankrupt. The
human “freaks” were left without a livelihood. The animals were sold
to the sinister owner of a big circus who planned to take them to
America. Bram had vowed to his dying elephant trainer father that he
would never be separated from Modoc. Denied permission to go with
Modoc, he stowed away on the ship carrying the animals. A shipwreck
brought the first of many further challenges to their effort to stay
For a time they took refuge in India under the protection of
a maharajah. Elephants were greatly honored there, but they were
forced to leave that pampered life because the new circus owner was
in hot pursuit. Bram and Modoc made a perilous journey overland to
Thailand. There Bram became a mahout and taught Modoc to work in the
teak trade. Eventually, however, Modoc was discovered, taken to
America, and exploited in the big circus. Still Bram struggled to
stay with her through many decades.
Hefner appears late in the book as owner of the Gentle Jungle
Exotic Animal Rental company, which eventually acquired Modoc. This
company pioneered the use of affectionate nonviolent training methods
in Hollywood as Africa, USA; merged with Marine World in 1985; and
disappeared in name, though some of the animals may survive, when
Marine World Africa USA became Six Flags Marine World in 1998. Modoc
died in 1974, having lived seventy-eight years, and Hefner honors
her with this loving and emotional portrayal, suitable for young and
Unlike Modoc, most captive elephants still come from the
wild. Taking elephants from the wild specifically for resale was all
but ended by the 1973 adoption worldwide of the Convention on
International Trade in Endangered Species, yet rogue elephants are
still routinely captured or shot, typically after repeated
incursions into farms and villages, and many orphaned baby elephants
are still taken into captive care after their mothers are either shot
as a public menace or poached.
As there is limited sanctuary space for elephants, and ever
less wild habitat to release captured elephants into, nations with
frequent elephant/human conflicts are increasingly eager to amend
CITES to enable them to sell the surplus.
Zoos and circuses are increasingly interested in buying
elephants because African elephants rarely reproduce successfully in
captivity, and the captive Asian elephant population is
disproportionately geriatric now, with little evident likelihood of
producing enough offspring to replace itself.
Elephant/human conflicts and publc frustration over the
inability of governments to either prevent them or pay for elephant
damage are increasingly common wherever elephants still exist in the
wild. In Africa the situation is exacerbated by the open interest of
the governments of Botswana, Nambia, and Zimbabwe in resuming
international ivory exports. Strong factions in Tanzania and Kenya
are also admittedly eager to cash in on elephant remains. But there
is relatively little exhibition demand for African elephants, who
are believed to be flightier and harder to train.
In Asia, where Hindu and Buddhist religious tradition holds
elephants in high esteem, rogue and orphaned elephants have for
thousands of years been captured and taught to work or perform. This
is still seen as the best way to handle them. Though tractors have
displaced the use of elephants in logging, elephants are still
widely believed to be worth more alive than dead–especially if they
could be exported to replenish zoo and circus stock.
Meanwhile, desperate farmers battle elephants with every
means they have. Some have actually been caught soliciting ivory
poachers to kill elephants and divert the blame. The conflict among
farmers and elephants is especially intense in the Sonitpur district
of Assam, the northeasternmost Indian state, where 31 elephants
were poisoned in the 70 days preceding November 5, 2001. Herds of
elephants sneak into crops each evening and eat until dawn. Some have
learned to break into storehouses, where they can wipe out a farmer
in a single night. The animals are not to blame, because their
habitat has been destroyed. Their ancient migratory routes have been
cut off by recent expansion of human habitat. Like the farmers, the
elephants are confused, angry, and just plain hungry, and
sometimes also feel they have cause to fight.
Tarquin Hall, the author of To The Elephant Graveyard, was
a young journalist looking for a hot opportunity. When he heard that
the authorities in Assam had authorized the killing of a particularly
dangerous rogue elephant, he joined the expedition to document what
This particular tusker was once domesticated, probably as a
logging elephant, and abused. There were suspicions that his abuser
was an alcoholic because many of the several dozen men the rogue
maimed–and killed–were intoxicated. In a region where humans have
been shot for killing rhinos, the elephant must be killed to satisfy
the public perception of justice. Yet it is not an easy choice.
The Khasi tribespeople of the area live intimately with their
tame elephants. The mahouts sleep and bathe with them. When the
kunkis are sick, the mahouts take them to the forest, where the
elephants pick the herbs or plants they need. Somehow, they are
able to prescribe their own medicine. It is then up to the mahout to
prepare whatever the elephants choose.
One mahout told Hall of how he fell from his kunki and was
knocked unconscious in the forest. The elephant picked him up, laid
him over his back, and in the middle of the night, carried him for
over thirty miles. Upon reaching home he roused everyone from their
beds and waited outside the mahout’s door until he was better.
Even the local monasteries are full of elephant lore. It is
said that if an elephant dies, the elephant’s person will forever
live in sorrow.
Along with practicing the philosophy of ahimsa, meaning
“live-and-let-live,” many Khasi believe that elephants hold godly
status, and were against killing this rogue no matter what. None
wanted the blood of an elephant on their hands. Yet in this case it
was agreed that the elephant was beyond rehabilitation, and that
killing him would be the kindest alternative. Dinesh Choudhury,
believed to be the last remaining professional elephant hunter, took
the assignment with reluctance. No one in the hunting party wanted
to see him killed. They went about the hunt as if pursuing a human
criminal, feeling that the elephant was at least the moral peer of
Seeking to avoid performing the execution, Choudhury gave
the rogue many chances to reform. But the tusker was a serial
killer. Though he knew he was being stalked, he kept on killing.
It was speculated that he was seeking revenge on humans for what had
been done to him.
Hall writes with a dry British wit. He tells a harrowing
and gut wrenching Indian travel survival story. Assam is a dangerous
province, full of terrorists seeking independence from India.
Various ethnic groups jostle each other to keep their cultures alive.
The elephants are squeezed into wildlife parks within an
ever-shrinking forest, pressured from all sides.
Although unsentimental, Hall has a deep sympathy for
elephants. He presents the case that without international help to
expand and protect sanctuaries, wild Asian elephants will not
survive as a species. Already, only 20,000 to 25,000 wild elephants
remain in India, down from hundreds of thousands since the late 19th
century. Yet India still has about half of the total wild Asian
–Eileen Weintraub (with M.C.)