By Frances Lamberts
With weight of up to 10 tons, their height and enormous tusks, elephants look like remnants of primeval fauna, some of their fossilized bones found in Gray. In Erwin, they occasion an artistic annual revival in memory of a historic event, to honor the circus elephant Mary and benefit a sanctuary for these unique animals.
Awe-inspiring creatures, they are intelligent and skillful, exhibiting varied emotions not unlike our own. Social animals, they communicate danger and emotional pleasure, help one another when attacked and adjust the herd’s activity to accommodate an injured member. They grieve for dying or dead companions and have been observed covering a carcass with grass clumps and branches torn from the surrounding vegetation.
Charles Darwin thought elephants to weep when injured and even shed tears of grief at companions’ suffering. The American wildlife biologist Douglas Chadwick told of a young Indian elephant weeping when scolded for having knocked someone down in too-boisterous play.
The newspaper Zeit reported 12 million elephants to have roamed Africa a hundred years ago. Fewer than 400,000 still survive. Killed by poachers for ivory, they also are victims to large-scale deforestation and habitat loss. Both the African and Asian elephant reportedly are at risk of extinction.
But in one African country they are thriving. Botswana, the Zeit reporters conclude, values its wild animals, none more than its elephants. A keystone species whose ecological functions maintain the Chobe-National-Park landscape, it also constitutes a major tourist attraction, bringing millions in revenue. The population, steadily growing since the early 1990s, now counts 135,000, more than a third of Africa’s total. Residents of Unicoi, visiting Botswana in March, encountered elephants “everywhere” except in the country’s desert region.
Are they capable of map reading, too? Many of these elephants emigrated from neighboring countries – South Africa, Zimbabwe and others – where hunting, poaching, or land mines from civil wars are major threats. They seem to know where safety lies. Since now exceeding sustainable-population size, Botswana has instituted a small, fixed-number annual culling.
In the U.S. now, as the Trump administration has opened several national monuments and many other public lands to development and “redefined” the Endangered Species Act and other relevant laws, protections for wildlife are being weakened. With the Rocky Fork State Park a crucial reserve and the Town of Erwin celebrating the memory of its elephant and funding conservation causes, this region, hopefully, will better preserve our own, natural resources heritage.