In Communist China the ownership of dogs is illegal. Enforcing the law are the Dog Police who shoulder their way into homes where a dog is suspected, find the dog if one is present, cram it into a canvas bag which they have brought for the purpose, and in front of the owners and also the neighbors they club the dog to death.

Horrible? To us, perhaps, but not to the Communist government officials, who regularly execute dogs in this manner for ideological reasons. Overburdened by a human population that threatens to exceed its food supply, the government reasons that food is better consumed by human beings, and that dogs have no place in the equation. That an offending dog’s owners might be feeding their pet with shares of their own rations is simply not worth considering. The very existence of the dog is considered a threat, and the dog is dealt with accordingly.

Few of us in the West would see ourselves as participants in similar brutality, and yet we are. The fact escapes us merely because, like the actions of the Dog Police, our own actions are guided by ideology and little else. That we must exert near total control over animals in our sphere still seems of paramount importance to many so-called conservationists; that animal populations can manage themselves and can regulate their own numbers seems to some an anathema. I am speaking in particular of the African elephants, subject of much controversy.

Central to the controversy is the international ban on ivory, proclaimed in the hope of removing the incentive for ivory poaching that had caused the collapse of the East African elephant population. Opposing the ban were the Southern African nations, including Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa, and Botswana. By and large their officials control poaching so that, far from being endangered, elephants are growing in number. The game managers, who had used the sale of ivory to manage the game parks, claim they should still be free to profit from ivory. And there’s some truth in these claims. In the past ten years, large numbers of elephants have appeared in certain game parks in southern Africa. Why?

Actually, nobody knows why. Commonly, reproduction is blamed for the increasing numbers, but since elephants are extremely slow at reproducing, the explanation seems flawed. A female elephant must be about fourteen years old before she can become pregnant; gestation takes almost two years, and her infant must be three or four years old before the mother resumes estrus and can become pregnant again. Therefore, for some of the local increases in the elephant population, especially for those in which adult elephants greatly outnumber immature elephants, immigration is a far more likely explanation. When elephants are disturbed by inhospitable conditions such as drought or poachers, they may try to seek safety elsewhere. The refuges they chose may be widely known to the elephant leadership, perhaps because the conditions there are suitable for their kind. The newcomers then mix with the residents, causing a dramatic increase in the population of their new home.

Since little is known about the facts of elephant migration, what I have suggested is only a hypothesis. Even so, support for it can be found by contrasting the condition of elephants to that of the rhinos. Rhinos, too, are very slow at reproducing, but they don’t form complex social organizations or visit far-flung relatives, as elephants do, and they don’t emigrate from troubled areas, as elephants do. When rhinos are attacked by poachers, they have no choice but to stay home and be killed. Therefore, some regions have no rhinos, other regions have few rhinos, but no region with rhinos has a population boom.

To the park managers, the slaughter of “surplus” elephants (called “culling”) is believed to be a logical form of game management, and when a cull occurs both the resident and the immigrant elephants are shot by the hundreds if not thousands. This happens at a time when elephants are said to be endangered. Why are they shot? Their wildlife managers make three assumptions: first, that animal populations require human control (so the “right” biomass is usually determined by the highest-ranking game warden on the scene and therefore varies over time as well as by area); second, that the planet is our farm, and if wild animals are to be tolerated they must give us a commodity—as pigs must yield ham, so elephants must yield ivory and elephant-foot wastebaskets; and third, that elephants in large numbers eat too many trees, while park managers would prefer that they ate grasses and bushes. Of course, to mount a slaughtering effort big enough to substantially reduce an elephant population costs money, especially if airplanes herd the elephants to the killing grounds. How better to recoup the money than by selling the ivory tusks? That, then, is the argument. With certain wildlife managers, as with the Dog Police, an ideology prevails.


Of the five books considered here, two, At the Hand of Man and The Myth of Wild Africa, promote the cull-for-ivory form of management and foretell a lifting of the ban. Two others, Battle for the Elephants and The Fate of the Elephant, echo the sentiment of Oria Douglas-Hamilton, who summed up the opposition to culling with these words: “The African elephant needs management by man like it needs a hole in the head.”

The fifth book, Elephant: the Animal and its Ivory in African Culture, is a quite remarkable art book for which the editors openly solicit a place on the coffee table, feeling, quite rightly, that the beautiful photographs of elephants, events, and objects will attract readers who would otherwise be indifferent to elephant survival. The book’s scholarly yet highly readable essays range in subject matter from fine art to anthropology to animal behavior to ethology, and make up the richest such collection that it has yet been my privilege to see. And the message is eloquent: the importance of the elephant to the continent of Africa and to its peoples is immeasurable, and elephants should be saved.

How to achieve that is another matter, a problem approached with various degrees of credibility by the other books. The best known of these is Raymond Bonner’s At the Hand of Man, which for a book of its kind has received a remarkable amount of attention in the press. And there is much to recommend it. Bonner’s account of the battle to ban the sale of ivory, and of the power struggles between the numerous animal welfare groups and wildlife organizations involved in Africa is exceedingly well researched and makes very interesting reading. No one having whiffed the political infighting of the various wildlife organizations could fault his account of their policies and how they make them. Although warned about the collapse of the elephant population because of poaching, many wildlife organizations seemed oblivious to it and had to be dragged into action by their own supporters, who at least had read the papers. Some contributors will surely be discouraged to learn how their hard-earned donations were spent. Others may deplore the fact that several of these organizations, once having taken a firm position in support of the ivory trade, caved in suddenly to public pressure and endorsed the ban. As a result they reaped a blizzard of checks from animal lovers, often deemed the least qualified people on earth to set conservation policy.

On such issues, Bonner is at his best. Formerly a public interest lawyer and foreign correspondent for The New York Times, his ear for political innuendo is acute indeed. Here he is on The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and its senior vice-president, Curtis Bohlen:

It was slippery to talk about “African nations” being helped [by the ban] since most of them were against the ban and many were angry that the United States was unilaterally banning imports. That aside, it must have taxed Bohlen’s CIA training to have kept a straight face when he said it was “truly remarkable” that the administration had acted so swiftly, because WWF and the [Bush] administration were working in tandem, and Bohlen was coordinating it all.

If Bonner had left it at that, this reviewer would have raved about his work. But instead of sticking to what he does so well, he ventured into a field that by his own admission was completely new to him—and he has written a book that is not nearly so much about the politics of conservation as it is about elephants and what he takes to be the negative effects of the ivory ban. But to discuss elephants with any authority, one needs at least some knowledge of some animals, preferably of elephants themselves, and of the ways of the natural world. Alas, as subjects, animals are often considered so simple, so lowly, that many people don’t perceive the need for concrete information about them. They’re just animals, so what is there to know, anyway? But that attitude leads to glib and dangerous assumptions, and the sad fact is that neither Bonner nor anyone else can get a feeling for animal life by the usual methods of fact-finding commonly used by a reporter. Bonner says he appreciates the beauty of Nature. This is a good start, but is not nearly enough. Before one can make any sense discussing animals, one needs some close experience of their lives.

If Bonner had such experience, he almost certainly would have written a completely different book; but as he acknowledges, he had no previous connection with wildlife. It shows. Early on, he writes of lions howling, which one reads with a twinge of concern because lions do not howl. Later he refers to “longhorns of Texas” to suggest animals in large numbers, and one’s concern deepens because these days there are only two or three longhorns in Texas. The cattle you see there are mostly Herefords. But when Bonner points out, by way of justification of his approach to elephant control, that he has been an opponent of “commercial whaling and cutting down forests,” and had been “a vegetarian for a period in the Seventies” who still eats “very little red meat,” one sees the depth of his difficulty. Although these statements certainly express liberal views, they do not suggest even the most minimal understanding of any kind of animal, let alone creatures as complex as elephants. Alas, to have liberal opinions and to understand the natural world are not the same thing.


“Wildlife disappeared in the United States and Europe as populations grew [and] open spaces were settled,” Bonner asserts in order to illustrate a trend that may be inevitable in Africa. But in Europe and America most of the large wild mammals are still present, albeit not necessarily in the same numbers or on their former ranges. In certain parts of the United States, the large animals that are most sensitive to changes in ecology, the predators, are even increasing. In short, some of our conservation methods actually have merit.

When Bonner starts on elephants his misinformation becomes more serious. He announces, for instance, that it’s a good idea to kill elephants who are “beyond their reproductive years.” What could be more sensible than to cull old animals who are past their prime? If the aging animals in question were chickens or pigs, a frugal farmer would certainly cull them—old animals eat more and produce less. But a policy that makes economic sense for a farm cannot be automatically translated into good wildlife management, and Bonner’s recommendation is exactly the kind of pernicious mistake that mars his work. Analogous in human beings would be to slaughter all CEOs and managers, all teachers, coaches, and librarians, all elected political leaders.

Far from being expendable, the older elephants possess a lifetime of acquired information that can be indispensable to the survival of those in their care. Elephants moreover don’t necessarily lose their reproductive abilities with age (although older males may have fewer reproductive opportunities). Nor do female elephants experience menopause. In certain elephant populations, females remain reproductive to the end. How would Bonner have phrased his recommendation had he known that after one extensive slaughter or cull, autopsies showed that many older females including a sixty-year-old were either lactating or pregnant? The last two remaining teeth of the sixty-year-old were almost worn out, showing that she would have starved to death before she could raise the fetus that was found in her womb—in other words, her reproductive capacity had outlived the rest of her. (Elephants have six sets of teeth to our two sets, and, instead of dying of old age as some of us do, they die of starvation after their final set of teeth wears out.)

And what would Bonner have said had he known that in other elephant populations (again as shown by examining culled corpses) most older females were not pregnant or lactating? How would he have evaluated the importance of these two opposing observations? Would he have seen that taken together they suggest that elephants may be exerting their own population control? All this seems far beyond his sphere, for he appears unaware that other animals who traditionally lack predators do indeed control their own populations over time: the last thing they need is management by human beings. Rather, in a sadly credulous manner, Bonner has been led by the purveyors of ivory to believe that elephants unquestionably need culling; he thus makes a truly serious mistake.

He makes others. Elephants, he claims, don’t have positive effects on their environment. The value of wild animals of Africa, according to him, cannot be compared to the value of the rain forests of Brazil; nor will the loss of elephants materially affect the planet, although he admits that we’ll all be “poorer in spirit” without them. But few scientists could agree with that statement. Why? Because the effect of the disappearance of elephants on the welfare of the planet isn’t completely understood.

Elephants are a much smaller entity than the rain forests, to be sure, but for better or for worse the ecosystem would be substantially different without them because, in ways too numerous to mention, their activities, like those of glaciers, human beings, and beavers, profoundly affect the environment wherever they are found. Only now, for example, are we beginning to notice the effects of the disappearance of moas. These birds ate the fruits of certain trees, then transported the seeds in their stomachs and planted them in their dung. The last of these trees are now old and are falling, and are not being replanted. Soon they will vanish, and with them will vanish all those who live by their leaves and in their branches. The ecosystem is a house of cards, a line of dominoes. Any disturbance creates a chain reaction. And nothing the size of an elephant or a moa can disappear without causing an important change.

In the face of such serious errors, perhaps it would be better simply to ignore At the Hand of Man. It seems unsporting to compare the work of a reporter and former lawyer, however zealous, however well-intended, to, say, Battle for the Elephants, one of whose authors is Iain Douglas-Hamilton himself, the world’s leading expert on elephant population biology. But Bonner cannot be ignored because he has been listening to some of the African wildlife managers whose funds dried up with the ivory ban. Without any way to evaluate their statements, or without knowing what questions to ask that would have revealed their bias, he has subscribed to their ideology and is undertaking to preach it.

Still, Bonner is quite right to present the condition of elephants as complex and lacking a simple solution. No one could disagree with that. Very convincingly, he describes some of the problems incurred by the Africans who must deal with elephants close up, and whose economies may suffer from their governments’ efforts to protect game. Yet even here, a strange distinction emerges—a point of logic, really—in Bonner’s presentation. Like other writers before him, he cites African wildlife for its economic value as a tourist attraction. His findings further agree with those of many conservationists when he says that tourists come to Africa by the thousand and spend large sums of money to see wildlife, particularly elephants. But he then disagrees with the common assumption that money from the tourist trade spreads with a ripple effect, and thus is more beneficial to the country than money from the ivory trade, which ends up in the hands of a few international cartels. Instead, quoting Richard Leakey, Bonner writes that money generated by the tourist industry tends to flow straight to owners of the tourist lodges, travel agents, and the like, with only a small amount remaining for the benefit of the local population, including money collected as taxes. Why, he asks, should the local people protect the game when they gain nothing from its presence and can’t even afford to visit the parks?

It’s true that local people often gain little from the presence of a game preserve. But one would think that such a situation could be remedied. The parks, after all, are rich resources that earn millions. Rather than relinquish control of the resource, couldn’t the African governments redirect the money so that the local people would realize some benefit too? Many communities throughout the world have grasped that concept.

Yet Bonner never seems to question the status quo. Rather, he goes on to cite instances of animals harming people but remaining unpunished, and of animals trampling crops. But here he is sparring with a paper tiger. The parks, he says rather sulkily, can’t use fences to protect the local people, because fences “shrink the reproductive pool and tourists don’t like them because they give the park the feeling of Disneyland.” Later he suggests that, at least in the southern African game areas, big game hunting has a less damaging impact on the parks than tourism because the hunters are fewer than the tourists but spend much more per capita. How sad that Bonner didn’t visit a park like Namibia’s Etosha, a park which is fenced, and which with reasonable success keeps the game away from the surrounding farms. Etosha also regulates the number of tourists using the park at any one time, and, for a while anyway, encouraged visits by local people in the belief that they are the only sure wardens of the game. No park is perfect, to be sure, but Etosha has seemed on the way to solving the problems Bonner doesn’t think can be solved.

In marked contrast to Mr. Bonner are three of the other authors, the two Douglas-Hamiltons with their stirring Battle for the Elephants and Douglas Chadwick, whose The Fate of the Elephant is as clear as it is thoughtful. Both of these books are written by people who accept that in our dealings with the natural world our species should be less controlling and more scientific and insightful. The Douglas-Hamiltons have spent a lifetime studying elephants and they lead the fight to protect them. And what a battle it continues to be, sketched on these pages like a first class thriller. Ignored by governments and by the wildlife organizations when first they tried to give warning of the crash in elephant populations, the Douglas-Hamiltons on their own initiative and at their own expense fought to document the decline with a campaign that celebrated its most important victory with the burning of $3 million worth of ivory by Kenya’s President Moi. And still, in bush camps and at international conference tables, the fight goes on, a real-life Roots of Heaven. Both Battle for the Elephants and The Fate of the Elephant have won high praise from high places, as well they might, including praise from Richard Leakey.

All five of the books express a common theme, that elephants should be saved, and all five agree on one factor essential to their salvation, that the local people whose lands the elephants share must realize some benefit from their presence. But which author best understands the subject, and which book expresses the most likely recommendations? Not Mr. Bonner’s, unfortunately, since his useful information about the politics of wildlife is negated by a failure to understand the lives of the elephants themselves, and certainly not The Myth of Wild Africa by Jonathan S. Adams and Thomas O. McShane with its prissy, irritable approach to science. (On Dian Fossey’s work with gorillas they write that her “greatest failing as a scientist had less to do with training than with temperament. She was not at all interested in maintaining a distance between herself and her subjects, thus rejecting perhaps the most fundamental principle of ethology.” One wants to say: Come off it, Adams and McShane—most ethologists love their subjects. Otherwise they wouldn’t spend their lives crouched in the bushes picking off leeches. They just do a better job than Fossey did of hiding their feelings from you.)

Since all these books have similar themes, our standard of judgment must be whether the authors have some familiarity with elephants, and this criterion both Chadwick and the Douglas-Hamiltons meet exceedingly well. But my favorite of these books is Chadwick’s The Fate of the Elephant. He is a scientist through and through, and he writes with skill, charm, wit, and simplicity. His book encompasses virtually everything important about both African and Asian elephants, from their biology and habits to relations with our species, from poaching (of people by elephants and of elephants by people) to the politics of the ivory trade and the ban on it. Whatever their philosophy, readers will enjoy reading his book. Of one group of elephants he writes,

They had a knack for smashing stills in the forest, where the grain was being fermented into liquor, wallowing and swallowing in piles of mash. In one village, a bull found a whole barrel of palm toddy, sucked it down, and proceeded to act about like you would expect a megaton drunk to act. He tore up and smashed and trampled…and quite possibly enjoyed the hell out of himself.

Can such creatures be saved? Ultimately the answer has less to do with their population than with ours. If our species can control its numbers, elephants can live and so can we. That elephants have the right to share the planet is, as Chadwick shows, a view held by many people in very different cultures, and is not, as some of the other writers would suggest, simply the view of rich white tourists. “If I learned anything from my time among the elephants,” writes Chadwick,

it is the extent to which we are kin. The warmth of their families makes me feel warm. Their capacity for delight gives me joy. Their ability to learn and understand things is a continuing revelation for me. If a person can’t see these qualities when looking at elephants, it can only be because he or she doesn’t want to.

This Issue

March 24, 1994