Elephant Destiny

Biography Of An Endangered Species In Africa


By Martin Meredith

Formats and Prices





  1. ebook $9.99
  2. Trade Paperback $16.99

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around April 27, 2009. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

For thousands of years, the majestic elephant has roamed the African continent, as beloved by man as it has been preyed upon. But centuries of exploitation and ivory hunting have taken their toll: now, as wars and poachers continue to ravage its habitat, as disease and political strife deflect attention from its plight, the African elephant faces imminent extinction.

What will become of these magnificent beasts? As the elephant’s future looms ever darker, Martin Meredith’s concise and richly illustrated biography traces the elephant’s history from the first ivory expeditions of the Egyptian pharaohs 2500 years ago to today, exploring along the way the indelible imprint the African elephant has made in art, literature, culture, and society. He shares recent extraordinary discoveries about the elephant’s sophisticated family and community structure and reveals the remarkable ways in which elephants show compassion and loyalty to each other.

Elegant, illuminating, and urgent, Elephant Destiny offers a beautiful and important tribute to one of earth’s most magisterial creatures at the very moment it threatens to vanish from being.


Elephant Destiny

Also by Martin Meredith

The Past is Another Country:
Rhodesia – UDI to Zimbabwe

The First Dance of Freedom:
Black Africa in the Postwar Era

In the Name of Apartheid:
South Africa in the Postwar Era

South Africa’s New Era:
The 1994 Election

Nelson Mandela:
A Biography

Coming to Terms:
South Africa’s Search for Truth

Our Votes, Our Guns:
Robert Mugabe and the Tragedy of Zimbabwe

Fischer’s Choice:
A Life of Bram Fischer

Elephant Destiny

Biography of an Endangered Species in Africa

Martin Meredith

Copyright © 2001 by Martin Meredith.

Originally published as Africa’s Elephant in Great Britain in 2001
by Hodder and Stoughton.
A division of Hodder Headline.
Published in the United States by PublicAffairs™,
a member of the Perseus Books Group.
All rights reserved.
Printed in the United States of America.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner
whatsoever without written permission except
in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
For information, address PublicAffairs,
250 West 57th Street, Suite 1321, New York, NY 10107.
PublicAffairs books are available at special discounts
for bulk purchases in the U.S. by corporations,
institutions, and other organizations.
For more information, please contact
the Special Markets Department
at the Perseus Books Group,
11 Cambridge Center, Cambridge, MA 02142,
call (617) 252–5298, or email special.markets@perseusbooks.com.

Meredith, Martin.
Elephant Destiny : a biography of an endangered
species in Africa/ by Martin Meredith.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references (p.).
ISBN 1-58648–233–5 (pbk.)
eBook ISBN: 9780786728381
1. African elephant. I. Title
QL737.P98 M473 2003

2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1

For Tilly, Daisy, Ellie and Susie


The broad nature of this book has meant that I have relied on the work of many other authors. Starting with Aristotle, the father of elephant science, in the fourth century bc, the trail leads through a landscape of Roman historians, medieval naturalists, Victorian poets, colonial hunters and game wardens, culminating in the endeavours of modern biologists. In recent times, the discoveries of field scientists such as John Perry, Irven Buss, Richard Laws, Iain Douglas- Hamilton, Cynthia Moss, Joyce Poole and Katy Payne have transformed our understanding of the elephant world. I am especially indebted to Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamilton for their generous hospitality and for many memorable days spent at Sirocco on Lake Naivasha, at their elephant archive in Nairobi and at the Samburu Elephant Research Project. I am also grateful to Cynthia Moss, Joyce Poole and staff at the Amboseli Elephant Research Project. My own encounters with elephants have taken place in many different parts of Africa over the years: in the Zambezi Valley, Hwange, Chobe, the Skeleton Coast, the Luangwa Valley, Manyara, Tsavo and the Masai Mara. But nothing has surpassed the enjoyment of watching elephants close up in Samburu and in Amboseli in the company of researchers knowledgeable about their family history and habits. My thanks are also due to Dave Cumming, Karen McComb, Steve Cobb, Juliet Brightmore, Felicity Bryan, Rachel Whitehead, and Peter Osnos and the staff of PublicAffairs.


At the foot of a waterfall that cascades down the escarpment of the Great Rift Valley into the Ndala River, there is a pool with sandy edges where elephants like to congregate. Overlooking the pool stands a high bank with views stretching across canopies of flat-topped acacia trees towards Lake Manyara a few miles beyond. It was here, in 1966, that a young Scottish biologist, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, decided to set up camp for what was to become a pioneering study of African elephants.

Douglas-Hamilton’s initial assignment was to assess the damage to trees caused by elephants in Manyara, a small national park in northern Tanzania lying between the Rift Valley escarpment and the lake. It contained one of the highest densities of elephant population ever recorded: nearly 500 elephants were estimated to be living in an area of no more than thirty-five square miles. They had recently started to strip bark from acacia thorn trees, destroying whole tracts of woodland. No one knew what they needed from the bark nor what the consequences of the damage they inflicted on the acacia forest would be. The park authorities also wanted to learn more about an elephant migration that occurred in the dry season when large numbers disappeared into a huge cloud forest on top of the escarpment.

Soon after his arrival, Douglas-Hamilton realised the need for a more thorough, long-term approach to understanding the impact of elephants on their environment in Manyara. Only by ascertaining their birth rates and death rates and their movements in and out of the park would he be able to gain a clear perspective on the scale of the problem. This in turn meant that he would have to acquire the ability to recognise by sight a large number of individual elephants. No one had hitherto undertaken a study of individual elephants in the wild.

Day after day he followed elephants, taking photographs for identification, sometimes on foot, or crouching in trees, or from a battered Land-Rover. The most effective method of identification, he discovered, was to memorise the shape of their ears which were usually marked by notches, slits or holes. Another distinguishing feature was the pattern of veins on their ears which provided as accurate a means of identification as human fingerprints.

The work was hazardous. Each elephant had to be photographed with its ears spread out, facing the camera, a position most commonly adopted when an elephant was alarmed and about to charge. Douglas-Hamilton was charged on countless occasions, making many narrow escapes. Once, following an elephant trail up the escarpment, he was trampled by a rhinoceros and seriously injured.

But gradually the elephants grew accustomed to his presence, accepting him as harmless, and Douglas-Hamilton was able to observe elephant life at close hand undisturbed for hour after hour. He became familiar with their different personalities, naming many of them after friends or literary and historical figures, instead of by scientific numbers.

His cast of characters included: Boadicea, a leading matriarch who made fierce threat charges but never carried them through; the ferocious Torone sisters who charged without warning and in total silence; and Virgo, a gentle elephant, intensely curious, who would walk up to Douglas- Hamilton, standing only a few feet away, eventually allowing him to touch the lip of her extended trunk. After four years in Manyara, Douglas-Hamilton had named or numbered almost all the elephants in the park.

By observing them so closely, he gained new insights into their remarkable social life, finding many resemblances to human behaviour. The basis of elephant society, he concluded, was the family unit, led by a matriarch and consisting of sisters and cousins, with their various offspring. Family members were bound by strong ties of loyalty which lasted for life. Cows were devoted to the well-being and protection of their offspring, exercising parental care well into their early teenage years. In times of distress and danger they held fast to their family ties and swiftly combined to ward off threats by predators. Family units in turn were linked to wider ‘kinship’ groups, usually related, whose company they often shared. In all, Douglas-Hamilton discovered some forty-eight cow-calf family units in Manyara, most of them belonging to larger kinship groups.

To help him keep track of elephant movements, he devised a method of fixing radio collars carrying a transmitter around the neck of an elephant that had been temporarily immobilised by drugs. The first experiments were successful. For twenty days and nights he was able to stay on the trail of a young bull as he wandered up the escarpment, along densely forested gorges and down to the lakeside, recording his eating and drinking habits and the company he kept. As a next step, Douglas-Hamilton acquired a light aircraft, enabling him to pick up radio signals in the air from a distance as far as thirty miles away, providing far greater scope to plot elephant movements.

It was on a trip to Nairobi in 1969 to get his plane serviced that he met a girl with long dark hair and a vivacious nature named Oria Rocco, to whom he was immediately attracted. The daughter of an Italian aviator and a French sculptress, she had been brought up on the family farm on the shores of Lake Naivasha in Kenya. She was swiftly enticed to Douglas-Hamilton’s camp on the Ndala River and soon immersed in the world of elephants. Their first daughter, Saba, was born the following year.

Shortly before leaving Manyara in 1970, the Douglas- Hamiltons introduced their three-month-old daughter to Virgo who was in the company of her close relatives. Standing close to Oria, Virgo moved the tip of her trunk over Saba in a figure of eight, smelling her gently. Oria recalled the moment: ‘We both stood still for a long while, facing each other with our babies by our sides.’

Douglas-Hamilton’s work in Manyara, however, was overtaken by disaster. During the 1970s and 1980s, as ivory prices on the world market soared, poachers armed with automatic weapons decimated many of Africa’s elephant populations. Between 1979 and 1989 the total elephant population was halved.

Manyara’s elephants were spared the ravages of the 1970s, but not the next onslaught of the 1980s. In 1987 Douglas-Hamilton returned to Manyara to find out what had happened. From the air, the old elephant haunts seemed deserted. There were dead elephants everywhere. On his last day, he climbed a tree at Ndala to watch a line of approaching elephants. Among them was Virgo, accompanied by a few stragglers and orphans. Fifty yards away, she caught the whiff of human scent, reared her head, spun round and fled down the hill in terror. ‘I knew then that Manyara’s elephant society had suffered a pogrom,’ said Douglas-Hamilton.

Elephants have fascinated mankind since early civilisation. They have been used as symbols of wisdom and power. They have featured in myths and religions, representing prudence, constancy and many other virtues. They have appeared on coins, in architecture, sculpture and painting, in folklore and nursery tales. Ancient writers dwelt on their intelligence, their capacity for learning and their gentle character. They noted too their unusual sense of death. Modern biologists have discovered they possess one of the most advanced and harmonious social organisations in the world of mammals.

Yet, for all their talents and their endearing nature, African elephants have been among the most persecuted animals on earth. The ivory they carry has been prized since ancient times for its unique beauty and sensual qualities. So relentless has been the demand for ivory that many of Africa’s great herds have been driven to extinction. After decades of slaughter in the nineteenth century, governments in Africa set aside vast areas of land as national parks and wildlife reserves to ensure the survival of endangered species such as elephants. But even there, they were not safe. In the late twentieth century, just as scientists were beginning to understand the complexities of elephant society, a new onslaught started. Among the victims were many of Manyara’s elephants—the first individuals in the wild that scientists had ever studied. The onslaught was so systematic that biologists warned that if it continued African elephants would die out altogether. Yet, year after year, their warnings went unheeded.

The Land of Punt

Elephants once roamed over the whole of Africa, from the shores of the Mediterranean in the north to the slopes of Table Mountain in the south. They thrived even in the vast expanses of the Sahara, as ancient rock paintings there testify. But in the third millennium bc, as the climate changed and the great rivers and lakes of the Sahara gradually dried up, elephant and man alike retreated before the encroaching desert, some moving northwards towards the Mediterranean, others withdrawing to the sahel, the ‘shore’ of the Sahara, lying hundreds of miles to the south. The elephants’ range in northern Africa was thus cut in two. By 2000 bc, the desert had become almost empty, a landscape of bare rock and moving mountains of sand eventually covering nearly one-third of the continent. In the central Sahara, only the rock paintings remained.

Elephants survived in Egypt for a time. The first pharaohs enjoyed hunting them and coveted them for their ivory. Some were captured and tamed. As early as 3000 bc the Egyptians had developed different hieroglyphs to distinguish between wild elephants and trained ones. But in Egypt too, as the climate became increasingly arid, the local elephant population dwindled and disappeared, along with the rhinoceros and the giraffe.

the pharaohs thus turned their attention to other areas, eastwards to Syria where herds of Asian elephants could still be found, and southwards, along the Nile Valley to Nubia and beyond, to a region known as the land of Punt, renowned for its riches in ivory, incense, timber, gold and other minerals.

Large-scale expeditions were despatched up the Nile to acquire ‘the marvels of the land of Punt’. The first recorded expedition set off during the reign of the pharaoh Sahure in the twenty-fifth century bc. In the twenty-third century bc an Egyptian nobleman named Harkhuf, the governor of Elephantine (Aswan), led four expeditions there.

Other expeditions were sent to Punt by ship, along the Red Sea coast. In the fifteenth century bc Queen Hatsheput ordered the construction of a fleet of five ships on the Nile which were then carried across the desert from Thebes to the Red Sea coast together with all the provisions and equipment required for the voyage southwards. Among the ‘marvels’ the expedition brought back were 700 elephant tusks.

Ivory was in constant demand, both in Egypt and in other lands around the eastern Mediterranean. Since the fifth millennium bc it had been treasured as a symbol of wealth and status. Its subtle glowing colour and sensual surface appealed to carvers and the rich elite alike. The Egyptians first used it to make luxury items such as combs, bangles and pendants; then they devised more elaborate products such as statuettes, ornaments, chests and gaming boards. Pharaohs’ graves were filled with carved ivory objects and inlaid ivory furniture to accompany them on their way to the afterlife. Tutankhamun was provided with an exquisite ivory headrest.

The ivory-carving trade spread throughout the eastern Mediterranean, much of it carried on by itinerant Phoenician craftsmen. Ivory workshops flourished in Crete, in Cyprus and in the Greek city of Mycenae.

The use of ivory became ever more extravagant. The Old Testament records how in c.1000 bc King Solomon ordered the construction of a ‘great ivory throne’ overlaid with gold. ‘The like of it was never made in any kingdom,’ says the Book of Kings. Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem also used huge quantities of ivory. King Ahab later built a palace that was so heavily ornamented in ivory that it was known as the ivory house. Indeed, in the Hebrew kingdom, ivory became synonymous with luxury and decadence, prompting the Old Testament prophet, Amos, to warn, ‘The houses of ivory shall perish.’

The Greeks, in the fifth century bc, developed a similar passion for ivory. They took particular delight in a type of statuary known as chryselephantine in which ivory represented the flesh of a figure while gold was used for robes and hair. Using ivory and gold, the Greek sculptor Phidias built statues of Athena nearly forty feet high and of Zeus more than fifty-eight feet high.

So great was the demand for ivory from ancient civilisations that by 500 bc the Syrian herds had all been driven to extinction.

The land of Punt thus became increasingly important to the ivory trade. Soon after the Ptolemies, a Greek dynasty, took power in Egypt in 323 bc, they organised new expeditions to exploit the riches of the south—an area they called Ethiopia, ‘the land of the blacks’. In about 270 bc the second Ptolemy, Philadelphus, sent a mission ‘to investigate about hunting elephants’ and to found a new settlement on the Red Sea coast he called Philotera, about 100 miles south of Suez. A chain of hunting stations was established further south along the coast eventually reaching as far as Bab el Mandeb, opposite Aden. Many stations bore the names of expedition leaders: the Island of Straton; the Look-out Post of Demetrius; the Altars of Conon; the Harbours of Antiphilus.

There were plenty of ivory stocks and elephant herds to be found. The Greek historian Polybius reported in the second century bc that ‘in the outlying parts of the province, where it marches with Ethiopia, elephants’ tusks serve instead of doorposts in the houses, and partitions in these buildings and in stabling for cattle are made by using elephants’ tusks for poles.’

Hunting parties were organised with the help of local Ethiopian elephant fighters known as Elephantomachoi who used hamstringing as a common method of attack. An Alexandrian geographer, Agatharchides of Cnidus, writing in the second century bc, provides a graphic account of how the Elephantomachoi pursued their quarry.

Hiding in a tree, a hunter waited until an elephant passed beneath. Then:

He seizes its tail with his hands and plants his feet against its left thigh. He has hanging from his shoulders an axe that is light enough for a blow to be struck with one hand and extremely sharp. Grasping this in his right hand, he severs the right hamstring tendon by striking repeated blows while supporting his own body with his left hand. They apply themselves with remarkable swiftness to these tasks as though their own soul had been set before each as a prize. For the situation allows for no other outcome than that he should subdue the beast or himself die.

Sometimes, as the hamstrung creature is unable to turn because of its impaired movement, it settles back on the wounded spot, falls and kills itself and the Ethiopian, or sometimes it squeezes the man against a rock or a tree and crushes him with its weight until it kills him.

Some elephants, maddened with pain, make no attempt to fend off their assailant but take flight across the plain until their attacker by repeatedly striking at the same spot with his axe severs the tendon and renders the beast helpless. When the animal falls, the men run to it as a group; and while it is still alive, they cut pieces of meat from its hindquarters and feast.

Another method that local hunters used, according to Agatharchides, was the bow and arrow.

Three men with one bow and many arrows coated with snake venom lie in wait in the bush beside the animals’ trails. When a beast approaches, one man holds the bow, bracing it with his foot, and two other men employ all their strength to draw the bowstring and release the arrow. Their sole target is the middle of the flank with the result that the arrow pierces through its skin and cuts and wounds its stomach. The huge beast, struck and mortally wounded, loses its strength and collapses.

While the ivory supplies were highly valued, however, the Ptolemies were interested in Ethiopia’s elephants not only for their ivory. Facing challenges from rival dynasties in the Levant, they wanted them for war purposes. Orders went out to capture live elephants.

Arms and the Elephant

When Alexander the Great led his Macedonian army into its final battle to conquer the Persian Empire in 331 bc, he was disconcerted to find among King Darius’s army a contingent of fifteen elephants decked out in armour and ready for combat. Alexander had never previously encountered elephants.

On this occasion, they gave him little trouble. But four years later, after invading northern India, Alexander met a far more formidable force. Drawn up against him on the east bank of the River Hydaspes was a huge Indian army protected in front by a battle line of 200 heavily armoured elephants. Some carried towers on their backs manned by soldiers armed with long pikes. The mere sight and smell of the elephants was enough to terrify Alexander’s cavalry horses and alarm his men. In battle, they wrought terrible havoc, impaling men on their tusks, seizing them with their trunks and dashing them to the ground. But eventually Alexander won a famous victory.

He was sufficiently impressed by the fighting abilities of Indian elephants to incorporate them into his own army. Against soldiers and horses that had never seen them, they created panic and pandemonium. Elephants became the forerunner of the modern tank, trained to intimidate infantry, to launch cavalry charges and to tear down fortifications. They were also used to execute prisoners.

After the death of Alexander in 323 bc, his empire and his elephant corps were divided among his generals. In the eastern Mediterranean two rival dynasties emerged: the Ptolemies, who controlled Egypt and Palestine from their metropolis at Alexandria, at the mouth of the Nile; and the Seleucids who held northern Syria, Mesopotamia and Persia. In a long series of wars fought over possession of southern Syria during the third century bc, both sides used war elephants. But while the Seleucids were able to obtain replacements from India, the Ptolemies’ access to India was blocked. Their elephant corps was soon depleted. They therefore turned to Africa for an alternative source of supply.

A new base to capture elephants was established on the Red Sea coast at a point near the Baraka River, about fifty miles south of Port Sudan. Named Ptolemais Theron, or Ptolemais of the Hunts, it grew into ‘a great city’, according to a contemporary inscription, self-supporting in crops and cattle.

But local Ethiopian hunters proved unwilling to help capture elephants alive, as Agatharchides noted: ‘Ptolemy urged the hunters to refrain from killing elephants in order that he might have them alive . . . Not only did he not persuade them but they said that they would not change their way of life in exchange for the whole kingdom of Egypt.’

Nevertheless, the enterprise at Ptolemais Theron eventually succeeded. ‘Elephants were caught in great number for the king and brought as marvels to the king, on his transports on the sea.’

The voyage to Egypt in specially constructed transport ships was hazardous. Crews had to deal with treacherous head winds, hidden coral reefs and the constant risk of shipwreck. The Greek writer Diodorus records:

The ships which carry the elephants, being of deep draught because of their weight and heavy by reason of their equipment, involve their crews in great and terrible dangers.

Since they run under full sail and often are driven before the force of the winds during the night, sometimes they strike the rocks and are wrecked, at other times they run aground on slightly submerged spits.

The sailors cannot go over the sides of the ships because the water is deeper than a man’s height, and when in their efforts to rescue their vessel by means of their punt-poles they accomplish nothing, they jettison everything except their provisions.

At first, elephants were taken by ship all the way to the head of the Gulf of Suez, 1,000 miles away, and from there by canal to Memphis. But so dangerous was the long sea route that a new port was established for them halfway along the coast at Berenice Trogodytica. From Berenice, the elephants walked overland through the Eastern Desert to the Nile along a caravan route specially equipped with camps and watering places. Their eventual destination was the main elephant stables at Memphis. Some were taken to Alexandria for display in a zoo which Philadelphus established there.

African elephants were first deployed in battle against the Seleucids during the Third Syrian War in the 240s bc, in a campaign that the Ptolemies easily won. During the Fourth Syrian War, however, they fared less well.

At the Battle of Raphia in Palestine in 217 bc, African and Asian war elephants met in a decisive encounter. Both sides used towers containing soldiers. But Ptolemy’s African elephants were smaller in size than their opponents; they came from the ‘cyclotis’ subspecies of elephant, or forest elephant, which then inhabited northeast Africa, standing no more than eight feet tall at the shoulder. They were also heavily outnumbered. Ptolemy fielded seventy-three elephants; his enemy, Antiochus, one hundred and two.


On Sale
Apr 27, 2009
Page Count
256 pages

Martin Meredith

About the Author

Martin Meredith is a journalist, biographer, and historian who has written extensively on Africa and its recent history. His previous books include Mandela; Mugabe; Diamonds, Gold, and War; Born in Africa; and The Fate of Africa. He lives near Oxford, England.

Learn more about this author