BOOKS: Elephas Maximus: A Portrait of the Indian Elephant

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2004:

Elephas Maximus: A Portrait of the Indian Elephant
by Stephen Alter
Harcourt Inc. (15 E. 26th St., New York, NY 10010), 2004.
320 pages, hardcover. $25.00.

A thorough introduction to the history, mythological roles,
and present status of elephants in India, Elephas Maximus reviews
all the familiar elephant issues pertaining to habitat, poaching,
domestic use, and exhibition, and delves into others that have
received little attention in centuries.
For example, were the military capabilities of elephants
worth the risk and expense of keeping war elephant herds? An
elephant charge could devastate enemy infantry, but apparently war
elephants were almost as likely to wheel and trample the troops
behind them as those in front–as shown in the computer-made scenes
of elephant warfare in the second and third episodes of the Lord of
the Rings film trilogy.
Elephants dragged cannon into firing position as recently as
World War II, but had to be removed from the vicinity before the
cannon could be discharged.

Some elephants have been used in more recent Southeast Asian
conflicts, without notable success. Perhaps the skills of training
elephants for warfare have been lost. Perhaps they never existed.
Alter concludes that war elephants had some practical
military value, chiefly when used in combination with infantry and
cavalry, but that war elephants were useful to ancient rulers
chiefly as symbols of dominion.
Alter also explores the evolution of Ganesh and other
elephants of symbolic importance within Hinduism and Buddhism. The
mostly benign Ganesh of today is a relatively recent incarnation of a
deity whose roles in the past were sometimes ominous.
Five pages in the middle of Elephas Maximus review the saga
of the tuskless male elephant Moorthy, also known as Loki. Probably
a former logging elephant who was released into the woods after
tractors and a scarcity of timber took his job, Moorthy/Loki was
captured in 1998 following rampages that killed at least 12 and
perhaps as many as 36 people, in two neighboring states. U.S.
activist Deanna Krantz, then operating an animal hospital in Tamil
Nadu, alleged that he was abused, and eventually made him an
Internet cause celebre. The Performing Animal Welfare Society
amplified the matter with a direct mailing headlined “The worst case
of animal abuse ever documented.”
Yet eight separate investigations by Indian animal advocates
found little support for the charges. ANIMAL PEOPLE asked in
July/August 1999 whether the PAWS piece might have been “The most
misleading mailing ever?”
We followed up in 2000 and 2002.
Visiting the elephant in January 2002, Alter concluded, as
we did and as Indian courts eventually did, that Krantz’ allegations
were essentially hot air.
“Under the circumstances,” Alter writes, “accusations of
cultural arrogance and neocolonialism seem justified.”
Krantz is apparently no longer working in India.

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