Elephant: The Animal and Its Ivory in African Culture

Elephant: Part 4: The Elephant in Africa Today



"For the African people, the elephant has been a prominent part of their continent from time immemorial. Africans have either regarded elephants a source of livelihood, or as the host of their ancestral spirits....Some African communities, greatly fearing for their safety and well-being, have migrated widely over the centuries to avoid elephants. Other, smaller groups of people started, in those early days to kill elephants for commercial purposes. They have continued to do so in modern times. In the last fifty years or so, the species has been subjected to increasing hunting pressure, for no other reason than to acquire ivory for trade. This minority group of human destroyers has been largely responsible for the massive decline in the population of elephants across their entire range.

Many people I have encountered from the developed countries of the West have tended to credit themselves with teaching Africans to protect and conserve wildlife and their environment. No; the developed world taught Africans how to become efficient killers, using modern weapons. They taught Africans to kill wild animals for pleasure or, as it is called, sport. Africans have learned to kill and take away only trophies, leaving the rest of the animal's biomass to go to waste. This kind of behavior is not typically African. Most older Africans would be horrified by it. They respect their environment and the animals that share it with them. They represent a tradition that may become extinct like the elephant if both are not protected."

From "An African Perspective" by Perez Olindo in Elephants: The Deciding Decade.

Elephant: Part 3: The Elephant as Material


“Though the elephant's tail is short, it can nevertheless keep flies off the elephant.”
-An Asante Proverb

Ivory, hide, hair, bone, and callus.. .the elephant's body provides raw material for many objects, from the ceremonial to the utilitarian. These materials are likely to be used in a leadership context, for they often connote status and power. Ivory, admired for its luster, durability and strength, remains a desired medium for prestige objects. In its rarity, it communicates messages of power, status and wealth. For example, high-ranking members of the Bwami Society in Zaire wear hair and callus bracelets, anklets and necklaces. Chiefs in Ghana and elsewhere hold flywhisks made from the elephant's tail. As is suggested in the proverb above, the elephant's tail is a metaphor for the chief's abilities to solve all problems despite his apparent shortcomings.

Elephant: Part 2: The Image of the Elephant

When an elephant crosses your path, you don't need to inquire, 'Oh, did something just pass by?'  

- A Yoruba Proverb

The elephant is a powerful and evocative image in much of the art of Africa. It appears on some of the most important ritual objects used in ancestor veneration and rites of passage. Yet it also adorns humble domestic objects (combs, food bowls, heddle pulleys) and commercial products (beer, detergent, and postage stamps). Sometimes the elephant is depicted in isolation, other times it is part of a complex scene.

African interpretations of the elephant vary considerably. Some focus on its strength and size, others on its longevity and stamina, its mental capacities — intelligence, memory, clairvoyance—or its social qualities—nurturance, group cooperation, and loyalty. The object bearing a representation of the elephant is often thought to be symbolically infused with the animal's attributes.


Elephant: Part 1: The Elephant and Its Environment


The Elephant and Its Environment

The Elephant, the 'Architect of the Savannah'

"The most familiar habitat for African elephants is the savannah, or"bush,"a vast expanse of rolling grassland, dotted with flat-topped acacia trees and divided by winding strips of riverine forest. During the rainy seasons, when the grass is green and growing, elephants can be found all across the savannah. They are seldom found very far from water. After the elephants have quenched their thirst, there is then time to bathe and relax. Their dusty, quilted skins are dunked and showered, and liberally plastered with mud. Calves wriggle, wrestle and roll in the mud...emerging to play with their playmates.

 The leadership of a family herd of elephants always rests with a venerable old female, known as the matriarch. The herd she leads normally consists of her daughters and grand-daughters, with perhaps one or two sisters and their offspring as well... .When danger threatens, all the family members turn to the matriarch for guidance. Her behavior, based on decades of experience, will tell them whether to fight or flee. She may lead them to form a defensive circle, with the calves safely inside and the adults facing outwards, ears spread and heads head high to increase their apparent size and intimidate the foe."