BOOKS: The Ghosts of Tsavo, Ivory Markets, Wild Orphans, and Tarra
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 2002:
The Ghosts of Tsavo
by Philip Caputo
Adventure Press (c/o National Geographic Society,
1145 17th St. NW, Washington, DC 20036), 2002. 275 pages,
The South & South East Asian Ivory Markets
by Esmond Martin & Daniel Stiles
Save the Elephants (c/o Ambrose Appelbe, 7 New Square, Lincoln’s
Inn, London WC2A 3RA, U.K.)
88 pages, paperback. No listed price.
by Gerry Ellis
Welcome Books (588 Broadway, New York, NY 10012), 2002. 136
pages, illust., hardcover. $24.95.
Travels With Tarra
by Carol Buckley
Tilbury House Publishers (2 Mechanic Street #3, Gardiner, ME 04345), 2002.
40 pages, illustrated, hardcover. $16.95.
Save The Elephants ivory trade investigators Esmond Martin
and Daniel Stiles, circus elephant trainer turned sanctuarian Carol
Buckley, and Daphne Sheldrick, whose elephant orphanage in Nairobi
National Park, Kenya, is subject of photojournalist Gerry Ellis’
Wild Orphans, each grasp and have devoted much of their lives to
addressing different parts of the mystique of elephants–and the
dilemma of how best to save them from extinction and abuse.
Ellis recently joined them by forming the Foundation for
Global Biodiversity Education for Children, Globio for short.
Globio assists six animal orphanages on five continents, including
the Sheldrick orphanage.
Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and novelist
Philip Caputo contributes to the direct discussion of elephant
conservation only “three silent cheers for Daphne Sheldrick, though
I know she would despise me because I hunt and approve of hunting,”
after a wildlife biologist complains about being denied permission to
tranquilize and radio-collar lions in Tsavo National Park, Kenya.
Focusing on the lions of Tsavo, Caputo several times
digresses to defend hunting in passages which outside of the opening
few chapters, about three other men’s hunt for a human-eating lion,
seem chiefly defensive and irrelevant.
Yet Caputo’s nonfiction book The Ghosts of Tsavo offers vital
context to the work of all the others, albeit more in the factual
information he provides than in what he makes of it. Despite
Caputo’s anachronistic opinions about hunting, his ability as a
reporter and suspenseful author must be appreciated –along with an
increasingly strong parallel between his narrative and the stories of
Ernest Hemingway about lion hunting in many of the same locations.
Caputo is too grounded a reporter to liken himself to
Hemingway, which would come across as fatuous, but both men made
their names writing of a foreign war they had experienced in youth,
became distinguished journalists as young men, enjoyed early success
in writing fiction, cultivated a macho image that helped them sell
books, and from time to time revealed a sensitivity toward animals
which might have made animal rights activists of them if they had not
grown up as hunters, in families of hunters.
Hemingway rediscovered his own mortality and limitations
during the Kenyan safari that inspired The Green Hills of Africa and
The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Caputo endured a similar experience.
Neither found wisdom, nor any remarkably deep insights, but such
were not what either one sought.
Exactly what they were seeking remains as mysterious as the
motivation of the leopard whose frozen carcass Hemingway described as
visible near the summit of Kilimanjaro. Why, Hemingway wondered,
did the leopard climb so high into habitat where he could not
survive? Hemingway and some of his characters imagined that the
quest of the leopard and their own futile quests had something in
common, but they never did quite articulate whatever it was.
As Caputo mentions in passing, modern elephants and lions
arrived in southern Asia first, and later Africa, by way of
escaping snow and ice. Glaciers covering most of the northern
hemisphere drove elephants, lions, elk, antelope, ancestral
zebras, cheetahs, and many other species now considered “Asian” and
“African” far south of the regions where they evolved.
Much later, the glaciers carved out bodies of water as they
melted and retreated that kept many of the animals they pushed south
from returning to the northern hemisphere. Pumas evolved from
smaller cats to fill the vacated niches of lions and cheetahs in the
Americas, their apparent place of origin. Elephants, after the
extinction of the woolly mammoth, lived nowhere above the 30th
parallel north latitude.
How biologically diverse lions were before the ice ages is
still unclear and much disputed, as is their route of descent from
either sabre-toothed ancestors or common ancestors of both lines.
Elephants, however, were for millions of years hugely
diverse and abundant. They were the dominant northern hemisphere
land mammal throughout most of that time, with the most ability to
transform habitat, but had begun their global decline long before
modern humans emerged to hunt them.
Indeed, for the first six million years of human evolution,
humans and protohumans seem to have been no threat to elephants, who
by then were the dominant mammals in the same habitat that produced
the human species. Human ancestors who conflicted with elephants got
stomped, as appears to have been the fate of some of the
Australopithicus robustus specimens now in museums.
Humans eventually helped to kill off the woolly mammoth, but
it was not until the 19th century European colonization of Africa and
Southeast Asia that hunting began to significantly impact either
African or Asian elephant populations.
The Ghost & The Darkness
Having depleted the elephants of the most easily accessible
parts of Africa, British ivory traders prevailed upon the British
government in 1898 to build a railway from Mobassa into the Congo by
way of Nairobi, to haul ivory from interior Africa. But the railway
was extended less than half the distance to Nairobi when work was
virtually halted by the Ghost and the Darkness, as terrified East
Indian railway workers named a pair of lions who documentedly killed
at least 28 of them, and were believed to have killed 135 people in
all, including local Africans.
Both the Ghost and the Darkness were eventually shot by
British military officer John H. Patterson. Their carcasses have
been displayed since 1907 at the Field Museum in Chicago. Thrilled
at observing the lions’ mounts as a boy, Caputo half a century later
explored their story and, with biologists examining the lions’
behavior from opposing points of view, explored their habitat as
Lions have always eaten humans from time to time, as
predators of opportunity, but if humans had ever been their
preferred prey, our ancestors might never have survived long enough
in Africa to eventually conquer all the world. The particular
mystery about the Ghost and the Darkness has always been why these
two lions became preferentially hunters of humans, when nothing
about their skeletons suggests infirmity obliging them to focus on
weaker and smaller prey.
Caputo concludes their environmental factors were mostly to
blame, but the theory he pursues most avidly is the hypothesis
advanced in the mid-1990s by Thomas Gnoske of the Field Museum that
African lions are not one but two subspecies. According to this
theory, the maned lions, who live mainly at higher elevations where
prey is abundant, have evolved as the subspecies whom humans best
know and understand. Maned lions live and hunt in prides typically
including two males and four females, and preferentially kill large
prey, such as buffalo and zebra. They relatively rarely hunt
humans, as one human is not big enough to feed a pride.
Male lions with small manes or none, on the other hand,
live at low elevations, often in sparse desert habitats like Tsavo.
Their prides typically consist of no other adult males but up to
seven females. That gender ratio leaves most males of small mane or
none to hunt alone, or with other bachelors. These lone males are
far more likely to kill humans. To them, a human is fast food.
The Ghost and the Darkness were maneless.
But it seems there is a simpler explanation for the
behavioral difference than a subspecies differentiation, now
accepted and voiced by Gnoske: maneless lions are the poor cousins
of African lion society. They occupy the most inhospitable habitat.
The females, who do most of the hunting for prides, cannot support
as many males as their upland kin, and the males they do support
have to fight twice as often to hold their status against bachelor
challenges. Constantly fighting keeps their systems suffused with
testosterone, making them more aggressive but inhibiting hair
growth. Removed to zoos, their testosterone levels decrease and
their manes grow thick.
Over time, distinct family traits have emerged among the
upland and lowland lions. These are, however, much below the
subspecies threshhold. Maned and maneless lions are not so
different, for example, as the African plains elephant and the
smaller African forest elephant, nor as different as the common
Southeast Asian elephant and their mammoth-like Himalayan kin.
Trumpets for help
Caputo considers that his narrative of Tsavo may be in part a
plea for help on behalf of African wildlife. Martin and Stiles,
Buckley, and Ellis each unabashedly trumpet for help on behalf of
elephants of all kinds, wherever they are.
Martin and Stiles directly address the proposal going before
the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in
October 2002 to reopen the global ivory traffic. Zimbabwe,
Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Tanzania all claim to have
ivory poaching under control, have immense ivory stockpiles from
“culled” elephants, those dead of natural causes, and confiscated
from poachers, and are eager to cash in by selling ivory to Japan
and other Asian nations, where ivory products are still coveted.
The Thailand Forestry Industry Organization on July 17
announced that it, too, wants to sell stockpiled ivory, to help
erase debts resulting from government restrictions on logging. The
FIO ivory comes from former log-hauling elephants, some of them dead
for more than 40 years.
Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia were already allowed to
sell some ivory, however, after the 1997 CITES meeting–and that
limited opening coincided with increased elephant poaching wherever
elephants occur, exactly as is happening now that another opening is
Yet Martin and Stiles in interviews with Southeast Asian
ivory sellers did not find a direct relationship between the legal
African ivory sales and the ongoing Asian ivory trade. That may be
in part because African ivory is only part of the supply stream.
Most of the ivory in the eight nations whose ivory markets Martin and
Stiles surveyed may be either of local origin, or laundered through
“Wild elephant populations in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam
from 1988 to 2000 have declined by over 80%, largely due to the
trade in ivory and other elephant products,” Martin and Stiles offer
in an Executive Summary. “Myanmar,” they continue, “with the
largest wild elephant population left” in Southeast Asia,
“estimated to be 4,820, has suffered a net loss of over a thousand
elephants since 1990.”
From India east, Martin and Stiles believe, the total
elephant population has declined from about 17,400 when the CITES
ivory embargo took effect in 1989, to 10,550 and dropping as of 2000.
Martin and Stiles report many indications that the ivory
trade is declining.
“Because the craftsmen do not see much of a future for their
profession, they are not encouraging younger members of their
families to learn the art,” Martin and Stiles write. “In Nepal,
the few remaining ivory craftsmen doubt that any market will remain
for their pieces in another ten years. In Vietnam, many craftsmen
have already given up, and in Sri Lanka, where the government has
cracked down, ivory carving definitely seems to be a dying
profession. In Thailand some of the craftsmen are worried about
obtaining adequate supplies of tusks in the future. Only in Myanmar,
where there is currently a healthy ivory market and active government
support to ivory crafting, is there any optimism about the future of
the ivory industry.”
Nonetheless, Martin and Stiles found, “None of the
governments for the countries surveyed has control over the ivory
trade. The governments of these countries need to improve their
domestic legislation, and enforce it, which has been done quite
successfully in India. A public awareness campaign aimed at ivory
traders and their customers is also required. It is much more
economical,” Martin and Stiles argue, “to control the marketing
side of the ivory industry than to prevent the illegal killing of
Both elephant advocates and would-be legal ivory traders
claim to have conservation arguments on their side.
Zimbabwe and allies argue that elephants can and should be
raised more-or-less like livestock, on hunting preserves. Trophy
hunters and ivory traders will ensure their survival as species,
this position holds, by purchasing their remains at prices high
enough to guarantee continued supply.
The Zimbabwean argument tends to appeal to free marketers,
including within the White House under Safari Club International life
member George W. Bush. Yet the price of any legal commodity can be
undercut by people willing to sell stolen goods, which in turn is a
disincentive to conservation.
That is only the beginning of the case against Zimbabwe-style
Even if elephants could persist entirely as a
quasi-domesticated farmed species, as the Zimbabwean position
postulates, which seems doubtful in view of their poor reproductive
record in captivity, they would no longer be wildlife. Elephant
evolution, except perhaps in a test tube, would cease.
Daphne Sheldrick, whom the biologist Caputo quotes dismisses
as a “bunny-hugger,” came to take a diametrically opposite view
during her nearly 30 years in Tsavo with her late husband David
Sheldrick, the first warden of Tsavo National Park, and has
eloquently shared her perspective with anyone who would listen since
the Sheldricks and their elephant orphanage were forcibly relocated
to Nairobi in 1976.
Sheldrick argues that free-roaming elephants are absolutely
and indispensably essential to creating and sustaining the habitat
that virtually all other large, charismatic African megafauna–and
smaller species, too–must have to survive. Sheldrick believes the
tree damage and other alleged symptoms of overabundant elephants that
Zimbabwe et al use as pretext for culling is grossly misunderstood
and misrepresented. The purported damage, according to Sheldrick,
is much like the so-called damage done by beavers when they flood a
meadow with their dam: it is this very action that diversifies the
habitat, opening niches to countless other animals and plants.
Daphne Sheldrick tends to be underappreciated by academic
researchers because she has spent her whole life nurturing orphaned
elephants instead of earning a Ph.D. and a professorship, then
formulating opinions on sabbatical visits to Africa between years of
sitting in an office or standing in front of a blackboard.
However, people of authentically deep expertise about
African wildlife inevitably find that they have much to learn from
her. This includes Gerry Ellis, whose Wild Orphans is a
photographic representation of a few memorable weeks at the Sheldrick
Wildlife Trust elephant orphanage and the Tsavo site where the
orphans are returned to the wild.
Although ANIMAL PEOPLE did not encounter Gerry Ellis during
our own visit to the same locations in late 1999, we must have just
barely missed him, as his photos and text show exactly the same
elephants and people, and tell some of the same stories that we
related in reporting about our trip in our January/February 2000
Daphne Sheldrick receives elephants orphaned by poaching,
accidents, illness, and many other circumstances mostly resulting
from elephants and humans conflicting over habitat. As she and her
hired handlers demonstrate, however, it is possible for humans and
elephants to form genuine and enduring bonds–and elephants can learn
to behave themselves, too, in a manner generally considerate of
Sheldrick believes that elephants and humans can and must
learn to co-exist in Africa, and Asia too, with greater effort at
communication and less misdirected effort at trying to govern
elephant conduct through blind force.
As the subtleties of elephant intelligence, capacity for
abstract thought, and ability to communicate become better
understood by scientists, Sheldrick seems ever more strongly
supported in many of the things she has been saying for years.
But she has not been altogether alone in saying them. Other
people who work closely with elephants have also come to feel that
they can be coaxed to behave well, most of the time, with no use of
force and with only the possible exception of males in musth, the
testosterone-saturated condition that typically precedes an effort to
find a female and mate.
Carol Buckley became an elephant person more-or-less by
accident, when in 1974 a tire dealer in her neighborhood in the Simi
Valley of southern California imported a baby elephant from Burma as
a promotional gimmick, just before the Endangered Species Act and
CITES cut off elephant imports for private possession.
Buckley, then a college student, volunteered to help look
after the elephant, named Tarra, and soon became her fulltime
companion and caretaker.
Eventually Buckley bought Tarra. She taught Tarra to
roller-skate, on skates specially made to support Tarra’s weight.
They performed together in circuses and at amusement parks for nearly
Along the way, however, Buckley developed reservations
about the quality of life of a performing elephant. Even though
Tarra was an enthusiastic performer, Buckley longed to return her to
at least a semi-wild way of life. This was at last accomplished when
Buckley founded the 800-acre Elephant Sanctuary at Hohenwald, in
Travels With Tarra is a picture-book written mainly for
children, documenting the intertwining lives of Tarra, Buckley,
and the sanctuary, which now hosts six Asian elephants. Whether or
not Buckley ever achieves her hope of bringing together all the Asian
elephants of North America to live as an extended family in almost
wild habitat, she has made a dramatic start, and has already
occasioned other handlers of captive elephants to rethink what they
Some have even advanced the idea that a wild elephant range
should be created in North America as a “lifeboat” to protect Asian
elephants from extinction, should they be poached entirely out of
their native habitat. The extinction of North American elephants
was, after all, something of a historical accident rather than a
matter of inevitability, and Asian elephants are their closest
living kin. Zoos have claimed the “lifeboat” role, but have not
done well at it. A facility like The Elephant Sanctuary at
Hohenwald, or The Wilds, a zoo-operated breeding ranch in Ohio,
might be more successful.
Yet the idea of rescuing Asian elephants, as a species, by
breeding them within a limited habitat, somewhat resembles the
Zimbabwean notion of farming elephants to be shot and dismembered for
profit. If there is no wilderness for elephants to return to,
maintaining them in captivity is essentially hospice care.
Presently, the most important role of The Elephant Sanctuary
at Hohenwald is that it obliges humans to think about the future of
elephants, both individually and collectively, in compassionate yet