African elephants are being decimated. The exact figures go up and down, but a recent dip notwithstanding the overall trend remains clear: throughout Central and East Africa, vast herds have been reduced to some hundreds or thousands of survivors. Even in the comparative elephant haven of southern Africa, there are new concerns about poaching. Research suggests that rates of elephant killing are mostly affected by demand, with recent demand coming most strongly from China, and corruption and poverty in elephants’ homelands are also important.
Humans have been killing elephants for thousands of years. Before the widespread use of firearms, killing an elephant was a relatively rare feat of human coordination and demonstrated the skill and sophistication of so-called “primitive” societies on the continent. Things changed dramatically starting in the second half of the nineteenth century. Where previously it would have taken many bullets to kill an elephant, now an elephant could be felled with just one shot – provided the hunter had perfect aim. (The British hunter William “Karamojo” Bell — renowned at the time, now he would more likely be seen to have killed elephants with psychopathic intensity — perfected the lethal “brain shot”.) Western demand for ivory during the early colonial era was unstinting, and hunters did their best to fill it. By the 1920s, elephants were hard to find in many places. Those who survived hid in forests and tall grass where humans would only find them if they approached very close, a dangerous position that gave elephants an important advantage. Luckily for elephants, plastic was becoming a workable substitute for ivory, and demand for the white gold dwindled. Elephants had some respite for several decades.
Starting in the 1970s, though, ivory became valuable as a speculative currency both in the West and in Asia, and elephants again had to go on the run. While rates of elephant killing have gone up and down since then, they have mostly been up. Currently the largest demand for ivory is in Southeast and East Asia; to understand what ivory means to people, there is no better starting point than Bryan Christy’s reporting for National Geographic. A Chinese government ban on the legal sale of ivory that went into effect January 1, 2018 seems so far to be helping reduce those markets, but it remains early days.
So that is the rather depressing overview. But statistics, as staggering as they can be, have only recently become a way for humans to relate to the tragedy and beauty of our history of encounter with elephants. Elephants have taken on the role of Rorschach test for human nature: are we good or bad? In elephants we will search for the answer. Stories of elephants and humans are stories of moral conscience and how it gets expressed, or goes awry. Elephants, by virtue of their strong sense of obligation and incredible brains, are seen to be somehow nobler than other animals and in need of special protection. They seem more like us, and also more not like us. In part, this way of representing elephants is the product of our distance from them. People farming near elephants, for instance, have important quotidian concerns about who shall be the one to harvest the crops — megafauna or she who sowed? But in these places, too, many people understand elephants to be special victims of humanity’s darker sides. They are victims, indeed, and yet at the same time we often look to them as our saviors, in that the process of fighting for elephant dignity is so often cast as a salvation for the humans who do it as well.
An early, indeed visionary, story in that genre is Romain Gary’s incredible novel The Roots of Heaven (1956) (adapted into a far less-incredible film starring Errol Morris). The book is set in post-World War II colonial francophone Equatorial Africa (Chad and the Central African Republic today). The protagonist sees the human drive to exterminate elephants (for “sport” and profit) as a marker of our depravity and aims to stop it. His quest on behalf of elephants — “a living beauty that has no earning power, no utility, no object except to let itself be seen from time to time,” as Gary put it — stands in for the possibility of redemption in the wake of such an utterly brutal war.
Mlima’s Tale is a more recent, and equally affecting, entry into this type of investigation of how humans and elephants have become entangled, and the ways we do and don’t have control of those entanglements. While elephants are more often on the receiving end of human violence, and while elephants could reasonably claim that humans started the fight, elephants are capable of fighting back too. Many are the elephant hunters who have been vanquished by their intended prey. It is hard to see how these entanglements might come to an end. Instead, we must look to smooth our most antagonistic encounters.
In the context of massive elephant slaughter, opinions are many, and strongly-held, about what should be done. Should ivory be destroyed, to demonstrate that its value as a commodity is nil? Or should captured ivory be sold, in order to fund better protection for those who remain, sales that could contribute to maintaining demand? Should it be legal anywhere to kill elephants (in southern Africa, elephant populations are stable, and even rising in some places)?
I take inspiration from my colleague Rebecca Hardin’s suggestion that the best way to balance human and elephant needs is to work from what she calls an “ethic of intimacy”. That is, start from the perspective of those humans and elephants who live among one another. Theirs is an intimate knowledge that can be the source of a greater mutual comprehension and mutual accommodation. This, as I see it, is part of Lynn Nottage’s argument in Mlima’s Tale as well. Mlima watches over the human protagonists throughout, leaving traces on them, marking them, and showing that someone is watching and aware of every cruelty and kindness. Mlima forces his intimacy onto the humans brought together in chains of connection by his tusks. Mlima is both victim and potential savior in his capacity to force us to look, and think, and do as our elephant compatriots are reputed to do: never forget, and even reckon with how our complicity in elephant murder unfolds through both greed and accident.