Death & Compassion: The elephant in southern African literature

[Afterword] This book outlines a heartening historical trajectory, from dispassionate slaughter of elephants to compassionate fellow-feeling, even something approaching reverence. Rudi van Aarde, one of South Africa’s premier elephant researchers and enthusiasts, writes: ‘We have entered a time where animal welfare and compassionate conservation prevails’. But I am not especially sanguine that, on a global scale, it is the dominant trajectory; it is certainly not the only one. A purely economic history might offer a very different picture. With the power of crime syndicates, allied to corrupt governments, the porosity of international trade controls, and a dearth of adequate funding for enforcement, the prospect seems dim, for elephants and for hundreds of other species subject to human delusion and depredation – the ‘extinction market’, as one writer has called it.

I have asked one central question: What does a reading of our literatures tell us about our (southern Africans’) relations with elephants? In a way, this has produced a history of the region from the elephants’ perspective, albeit a patchy one. I have tried to see what certain discernible genres of writing – the travelogue, the hunting account, the novel, the memoir, the poem – can offer our ‘reading’ of elephant being. ... Writings on elephants – often internally contradictory, purveying falsehoods and delusions as much as truths – do demonstrably affect actual behaviour towards elephants ‘on the ground’, whether lethal or redemptive.

... I have also posed some subsidiary questions. Can we really know what precolonial attitudes towards elephants were, as they are refracted through multiple, arguably exploitative, modern forms? What impact did early zoological thinking have on the travelogue’s portrayal of the elephant? What does the literature, both fictional and non-fictional, tell us about why men hunt elephants? How might we best educate our youngsters about the value of elephants, and of animals and ecosystems more generally? Can literature help forge senses of community that breach the conceptual barriers between human and animal, between wildness and domesticity, between the ‘fortress conservation’ ethics governing ranger memoirs and the self-consciously emotional worlds evoked by our best poets? What is the place of conceptions of animal beauty in our representations of, and actions towards, the animal world?

I do not pretend to have done more than begin to explore these questions; I certainly cannot claim have answered them. And the major practical question – What will happen to Africa’s elephants? – can only be answered in time. Presently they are losing heavily in a one-sided war; they have few defences, other than a relatively small number of actively caring (compassionate) people. Possibly there is a growing number of passively caring (sympathetic or empathetic) people; to the extent that there are, they were likely educated through imaginative or textual works. To the extent that ‘disengaged caring’ (pity, sympathy) can be translated into efficacious action, elephants will survive. There are glimmers of hope – in China’s commitment to ban ivory imports at the end of 2017, and in the substantial fall in price of ivory recently. It is no longer just ivory, or even pervasive conflict with human settlements; now the ‘fake news’ is that elephant skin products are good for acne, another oriental or just cynically profiteering myth. Sometimes it appears we are in an inexorable vortex of crazed consumption.

At the same time, efforts to save them feel both wonderful and increasingly desperate – such as Malawi’s decision in mid-2017 to translocate a full 500 elephants to a safer zone; or the extraordinary task of providing one landmine-maimed elephant with a prosthetic foot. We draw some comfort from the knowledge that in southern Africa elephants have been brought back from the brink of extinction before: they may be brought back again. This will require extraordinary international cooperation, legislative robustness, more efficient crime-fighting, wider education, financial resources. And better stories of compassion. In E N Anderson’s view, rational science, governmental institutions, and monetary pragmatics notwithstanding, ‘People work on an emotional economy of love and hate, acceptance and rejection, help and hurt. That is not discussed in the ecology texts, but it is actually the wellspring of all our actions. [...] Love, including aesthetic delight, is necessary for any broad strategy for environmental management’.

At bottom, only love and compassion will do it.

Wits University Press, 2018. 268pp.
ISBN 978-1-77614-218-7 (print)