(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Elephant Destiny: Biography of an Endangered Species in Africa is a history of the treatment of nature’s largest land animal, the elephant, at human hands. The book is part history, part scientific observation, and part humanitarian effort. Author Martin Meredith’s goal is to teach readers to appreciate some of nature’s gentlest creatures before they are wiped off the face of the earth by human greed. Meredith puts various kinds of information into this slim volume, which is illustrated with old-fashioned wood-block prints and a few color photographs. While Elephant Destiny is a short, accessible work, it may be quite hard to read, depending on the reader’s reaction to the stories of elephant suffering told by Meredith.

The author begins in recent times—specifically the 1970’s and 1980’s—and within five pages sets the tone for the entire book. Scientist Iain Douglas-Hamilton introduced his daughter to one of the elephants that he had gotten to know well during his years of doing research in Manyara, Tanzania. The elephant, Virgo, brushed its trunk over the face of Douglas-Hamilton’s daughter in a compassionate, almost human, way. Less than twenty years later, Douglas-Hamilton returned to Manyara and saw the results of the intervening years of brutality on the elephant population. Worst of all, he saw an elephant he recognized as Virgo, that, once it caught his scent, ran away because of fear. What were once peaceful creatures who recognized Douglas-Hamilton and other scientists as harmless were now so scared that they did not let anyone get too close.

This merely signifies the continuation of cruelty that elephants have suffered for thousands of years at the hands of people, who have used them as beasts of war. As early as 331 b.c.e., elephants were trained as war machines for Alexander the Great. In a famous historical feat, Hannibal, the Carthaginian general, drove elephants over the Alps to surprise the Roman soldiers in northern Italy.

Ivory, too, played a key part in empire building. As far back as 5000 b.c.e., ivory was an important commodity among rival nations. With the climate not as harsh as it is now, elephants roamed the entire African continent, including Egypt. Ancient Egyptians used ivory to make pendants and combs and, later, furniture. The pharaoh Tutankhamen had an ivory headrest, and King Solomon of the Old Testament commanded that a throne be made of ivory and gold to surpass all others. This act was exceeded by other rulers who built ivory statues forty to fifty feet high and entire palaces of ivory to signify their power. When one realizes that only three or four billiard balls can be made from a single elephant tusk, the impact of such construction is even more astounding.

Elephant tusks were not only instruments of warfare and wealth, but also a source of cruel entertainment. The Romans in their coliseums used elephants trained to fight and kill as gladiator contestants. In 55 b.c.e., twenty elephants were brought to fight to the death against humans. Meredith provides graphic details of the fight, which was reported by several Roman writers of the time, including Cicero. One elephant gave a heroic effort against the humans and seemed to trumpet for mercy as it was killed. The outcry was harsh, and the public cursed General Pompey the Great over the elephants’ mistreatment in perhaps...

(The entire section is 1376 words.)