Vii issue 1 2009 Journal for Critical Animal Studies


The Ancient Plight of the War Elephant



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The Ancient Plight of the War Elephant


In 2008, both the African and the Asian elephant are dangerously near extinction. Between 1979 and 1989 the African elephant population was reduced from around 1.3 million to perhaps 600,000 due to ivory poaching; and only around 35-40,000 Asian elephants remain (Irwin, 2000). At the time of the ancient battles between Carthage and Rome, African forest elephants likely ranged as far as the Mediterranean, and the African elephant roamed the entire continent. Elephants were abundant, trainable, and commodified, used, but never domesticated. Being the only nonhuman animal ever used in large scale warfare, this non-domestication is notable. All war elephants were most likely captured in the wild in lieu of breeding. In contrast, the dog and the horse are the only other animals to be used in warfare, and they have been domesticated for four thousand years. However, the elephant is the only animal ever used as an active weapon; curiously they will stomp an enemy while the horse will always step over them (Kistler, 2007). When this fact was discovered regarding the elephant, it was soon pressed into service.
As late as the Vietnam War, elephants were used to transport items. Since they were big and visible, they were used as ground targets for U.S. air forces. In Asia, elephants were typically not used as active instruments of war but rather as beasts of incredible burden, pulling loads along the ground that could not be moved by many numbers of troops. In World War II, elephants were used to drag huge cannons to battle positions. And the service of elephants in modern warfare has caused them to be bombed from planes and suffer searing napalm and other injuries and death, far from their natural state of living (Kistler, 2007).
In the wild elephants are not always aggressive toward humans; they tend to be peaceful creatures living in large female herds while the adult males mostly wander alone. Elephants do occasionally attack cars and tourists in the wild, but their threat displays are usually empty. To many people, the human use of elephants seems to exemplify some of the worst human abuses toward all nonhuman animals. It is Matthew Scully, author of Dominion: The Suffering of Animals, The Power of Man, and the Call to Mercy who claims the fate of the elephant to be the greatest human onslaught ever visited upon any animal (Scully, 2002).
Most likely the most famous war elephants are those used by the Carthaginian general Hannibal during his crossing of the Alps during the second Punic War against Rome in 218-201 BC. However, other cultures in Asia had long used elephants in military campaigns. The probable first use of an elephant by a human was over five thousand years ago in Asia when an orphaned calf wandered into a village. It was friendly, trainable, and proved most useful. It is believed that the first organized use of elephants was in India where the Elephant Corps made up one of the branches of the Indian military. By 1000 BC, riding elephants was very common in Western China; they were so numerous it is believed that almost everybody had one. As such, human use of the elephant began to spread substantially.
Humans became adroit at capturing wild elephants. It was even discovered that certain captured elephants could be trained to help capture wild ones and this happened in China so often that the southern region of Ho-Nan became known as the “Country of Docile Elephants” (Kistler, 2007: 3). Soon after learning to subdue these beasts for relatively peaceful tasks such as transportation and transport, humans soon pressed elephants into warfare. The aforementioned Hannibal is the most iconic user of war elephants, but Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Hannibal are only some of the leaders who utilized elephants in warfare. The first war elephant was probably utilized around 1100 BC, and the first contact Europeans had with war elephants is thought to have been the October 1st, 331 BC Battle of Gaugamela with Persia fighting against Alexander the Great. Mecca, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Egypt, the Numidians, and Kushites, and Carthage all used war elephants. The Islamic founder Mohammad was born in the year 571 AD, and it is known as the Year of the Elephant.
As is well known, use of elephants is pervasive in many religious and artistic rituals and practices throughout the Eastern. The soldiers of Constantinople faced war elephants. Arab horses ceased their charges, terrified of Persia’s war elephants until Arab troops learned how to defeat the elephants by gouging out their eyes and attacking their trunks. Additionally, the famous ancient Queen Semiramis supposedly faced attacking forces utilizing front lines of behemoth war elephants (Kistler, 2007).
While effective, war elephants were not invincible by any means. Romans discovered by slitting their horses’ throats that the smell of blood would often cause elephants to rage and trample their own troops in confusion. Also, it was discovered that elephants were terrified of the squeal of pigs, so war pigs were also used. One would put tar on the backs of the pigs, set them aflame, and direct the terrified and squealing pigs at the elephants who would succumb to panic, thus rendering them ineffective. Pliny the Elder and Aelian in his de Natura Animalium both report the effectiveness of war pigs. And of course Hannibal and Carthage were ultimately unsuccessful. As any teacher who has taught Virgil’s Aeneid knows, when Hannibal reached the Republic, only one of his thirty seven war elephants remained alive. Also, it is known the Chinese caused rival elephants to panic and crush their own troops by shooting crossbows into the elephants’ sensitive skin that was incorrectly believed to be extremely tough and virtually impenetrable (Ebrey, Walthall, & Palais 90). Eventually—and thankfully—the use of elephants in warfare vanished.




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