Monday, July 06, 2009

Cambodian elephants and other great elephants

Photo from wikipedia. This was depressing: the hanging of Mary the elephant in the US state of Tennessee on September 13, 1916.

This was what happened:
"Mary was a five ton Asian elephant who performed in the Sparks World Famous Shows. On September 11, 1916 a hotel worker named Red Eldridge was hired as an assistant elephant trainer by the circus. There are several accounts of his death but the most widely accepted version is that he prodded her behind the ear with a hook after she reached down to nibble on a watermelon rind. She went into a rage, snatched Eldridge with her trunk, threw him against a drink stand and deliberately stepped on his head, crushing it.

"The elephant was hanged by the neck from a railcar-mounted industrial crane. The first attempt resulted in a snapped chain, causing Mary to fall and break her hip as dozens of children fled in terror. The severely wounded elephant died during a second attempt and was buried beside the tracks."
She was hanged in front of 2500 people, including many children.

Many people in Cambodia, including me, love elephants. One of the ironies of war in Cambodia is that bomb craters became important sources of water for Cambodia's elephants, according to Sun Hean (1995). Santiapillai and Jackson (1990) wrote: “The elephant might also have benefited from the [war’s] almost total halt in development projects.” This information and this question: “Which has brought more destruction to elephants, both wild and domesticated: twenty years of war in Cambodia or twenty years of peaceful development in Thailand?" can be found here onthe UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation's website or It is a comprehensive, if now outdated, account of Cambodian elephants.

The FAO report quotes Santiapillai (Pers. comm., 1996) that there were between 500 and 1,000 wild elephants in Cambodia but there was considerable poaching for ivory. As for domesticated elephants, there were probably 300-600. That was 13 years ago.

Fast forward to today, 2009. This March 13 report by the Phnom Penh Post notes there are only 17 elephants in Siem Reap. The first nationwide elephant census by Fauna and Flora International found there are 102 domestic elephants left in the Kingdom, down from 160 five years ago. "Following current trends and an aging domestic population, there are likely to be none remaining in 10 or 15 years," the project advisor Matt Malby told the Post.

While a healthy elephant can live to around 70, in Cambodia the average age is 46 to 48. [I thought this was comparable to the life expectancy of Cambodian people, and was surprised to learn Khmers have a life expectancy of 61.69 years (2008 est.). See demographics of Cambodia. That is pretty good, much better than the 50-something I was told when I first arrived in this country.]

"I've had phone calls," Gavin Bourchier, elephant manager at elephant conservation organisation, Compagnie des Elephants d'Angkor, told the Post. "‘Can we borrow a baby elephant and put a comical hat on it and make it do tricks?' I have a low opinion of the human race anyway, but I think people who like harmonica playing, hula hoop-spinning elephants ... well, it says a lot about the person."

Seeing what happened to Mary, I completely agree. Not just about the person who makes the animal do tricks, but also his hateful audience. They are just like tabloid readers who I despise. People who feed the demand for harmful, hurtful crap.

If you are interested, Thomas Edison released a film "Electrocuting an Elephant". He had suggested electrocution with alternating current, which had been used for the execution of humans since 1890. To reinforce the execution, Topsy was fed carrots laced with 460 grams of potassium cyanide before the deadly current from a 6,600-volt AC source was sent coursing through her body. She was dead in seconds.

Again, she was killed because she killed people, including a severely abusive trainer who attempted to feed her a lit cigarette.

The people of Coney Island felt bad 100 years later and erected a memorial for Topsy at the Coney Island Museum. Too little, too late if you ask me.

Click here to find out more about famous elephants.

1 comment:

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