Archived Story

Elephants: an extremely weighty subject 

Published 12:31am Wednesday, June 1, 2011

You and I know that the elephant is the largest land animal on Earth, and there are two varieties: the African and the Asiatic. Do you know how to tell them apart?

Just walk up to any elephant and check the number of finger-like knobs on the tip of its trunk. If there are two, it is an African elephant; just one, and it’s Asiatic.

Or you might prefer keeping your distance (which earns you brownie points for intelligence) and just look at the animal’s ears. African elephant ears are huge, some 4 feet wide, and they cover the shoulders. Asiatic elephant ears are petite, leaving the shoulders exposed.

I know a bit about Asiatic elephants, having lived among them for several months in India when serving as a volunteer for the International Executive Service Corps. When these animals are captured in the wild, they do not spend the rest of their lives lolling about in a zoo; they work for a living. Many of them are in the logging industry. Not only can they carry heavy loads on their backs and with their trunks (up to 600 pounds), they also can topple large trees and move them to another site in heavily forested, rugged terrain where machinery cannot operate.

Drive down any road in south India early in the morning and you’ll see elephants and their trainers on their way to work, with the elephants carrying their lunches (bamboo, tall grasses, leafy branches) in their trunks.

I was being driven into the city of Cochi the first time I saw one of these elephants, and I begged my driver to stop so I could get a picture č little realizing I’d have many opportunities for such a photo shoot. I jumped out of the car into a pile of elephant droppings. Thank goodness they were several days old and dry.

There was a time when many Indians owned at least one elephant, but it has gotten so expensive to keep these animals that now towns and cities have rent-an-elephant shops.

Some of the elephants of India may be caparisoned to walk in parades, participate in Hindu religious ceremonies or be the hit of a party. These elephants are gorgeous with their colorful, ornamental coverings draped over their foreheads and sides and decorated howdahs and gawdy umbrellas on their backs.

On one occasion, my driver, Jahan, took me to Hindu festivities where 104 elephants were lined up, side by side, according to height. Each was gloriously caparisoned, and the mahouts were in brilliant costumes. While rope fences kept the public from getting near the elephants, Jahan spoke to “someone” and I was escorted to a spot where I was standing nose-to-trunk with the great beasts. (I think my driver told the “someone” I was the queen of Sheba, or some such notable.) I called “sugamanu” to the nearest mahouts, who responded in kind. That is a greeting much like our “How are you?”

When we were leaving the grounds, with the elephants moving off in another direction, we heard a commotion. I was ready to investigate, but Jahan said, “No!” He knew from the shouting that one of the elephants had gone amok, either injuring his mahout, or killing him. That does happen. While a wild animal can be trained, it is never going to be tame. I never learned what had happened to that elephant’s trainer.

Shortly after that a family, down the street from where I was staying, rented an elephant, beautifully caparisoned, to stand at the curb during a party announcing their son’s engagement to╩wed. Most Indian marriages are arranged by the bride and bridegroom’s parents, often with the bride-to-be and the designated bridegroom not meeting until the day of the betrothal.

All elephants are fond of water and are great swimmers. In the Indian countryside, I frequently came upon mahouts scrubbing their elephants lying on their sides in a stream or pond. The elephants love it, and it helps rid the great beasts of insects and other pests that irritate the animals’ thick hides. Wild elephants often roll in mud holes to rid themselves of vermin.

And right beside the elephants in the streams and ponds may be village women doing the family laundry or a man or two bathing in the altogether.

While I’m a bit leery of elephants, I did ride on them in a howdah several times while in India, but I did not find it a comfortable means of transportation. And prior to going to India, I was talked into mounting an elephant when living in Virginia and working as a staff writer for a daily newspaper.

Some charitable event had brought an elephant to town, and she was tethered in a lot across the street from the fire department, which was on my beat. When I showed up there looking for a news story, the on-duty, but unbusy, firemen dared me to get on the elephant. I couldn’t say “No.” (I was a lot younger and stupider back then.) The firemen hauled out a ladder for me to use to climb aboard the╩animal č you might know I was wearing a dress that day. However, it had a full skirt, so I gathered it between my legs rather like a diaper (think of Mahatma Ghandi). This left my legs exposed; the hair, or bristles, on an elephant are mighty scratchy on bare skin.

I would never take an elephant home with me for a pet; there’s just too much of it. But I’m willing to sponsor a Be Kind to Elephants (especially those in India) Day if someone hasn’t beat me to it.

Polly Unterzuber may be reached by email at

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