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Elephas Maximus: A Portrait of the Indian Elephant

Elephas Maximus: A Portrait of the Indian Elephant

by Stephen Alter

Revered in Indian religion and culture, coveted for its ivory tusks, the majestic Asian elephant has captured the fascination of humans for more than four thousand years. In an effort to shed light on this regal animal and its unique relationship with humankind, author Stephen Alter traveled around the world to explore its natural home and its place in history and


Revered in Indian religion and culture, coveted for its ivory tusks, the majestic Asian elephant has captured the fascination of humans for more than four thousand years. In an effort to shed light on this regal animal and its unique relationship with humankind, author Stephen Alter traveled around the world to explore its natural home and its place in history and myth.

Alter's search takes him from the depths of wildlife preserves, to a tempting elephant auction, to a dazzling festival dedicated to Ganesha the elephant-headed god. Elephas maximus is as important to modern India as it was centuries ago. Yet conservationists are fighting to preserve its endangered habitat as settlements expand, and ivory poaching has threatened generations of elephants until tuskless males may be all that survive. Charting the elephant in history, art, religion, and folklore, Alter draws a vivid, gorgeously written portrait of its past and its troubled present while offering hope for its future.

Editorial Reviews

Boston Globe
"Magical and fascinating."
Science News
"Alter pays homage to ELEPHAS MAXIMUS [and] weaves such facts into lyrical text of travel and adventure."
author of Compass Points: How I Lived - Edward Hoagland
"These radiant, galumphing, expressive animals are vanishing in the wild. But Alter has been to see them and telepathize."
Publishers Weekly
Alter (Sacred Waters), a writer-in-residence at MIT, was born and raised in India, and in 2001 and 2002 he traveled to various parts of that country, observing elephants roaming wild in national parks and sanctuaries and in captivity in forest camps, zoos and temple precincts. In this entertaining and informative book, his lyrical descriptions of these venues serve as springboards for accounts of the elephants' biology and natural history, including an explanation of the differences between the African elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), which has a longer tradition of being captured and trained. He shows how, throughout history, the elephant-used for work and warfare and in religious ceremonies-has played an important role in Indian life, and the book is replete with colorful accounts of elephant lore in Indian mythology, literature and art. To emphasize the symbolic significance of the animal, Alter provides a lively description of the Ganesha Chathurthi festival in Mumbai, where images of Ganesha, the elephant-headed deity that embodies the power and mystery of creation, are worshipped for 10 days and then cast into the sea. Alter spends time with mahouts (elephant keepers and drivers) and writes movingly of the close relationships they develop with their charges. He visits a market where elephants are sold, and he talks with naturalists who are trying to protect Indian elephants from poaching and preserve their habitats. His book is an elegant paean to the Indian elephant and a wake-up call for its protection. B&w illus. throughout. (May) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
"A history more splendid than any maharaja's golden howdah."
Library Journal
"Alter's readable study will be enjoyed by anyone fascinated by these large animals and concerned with their survival."
Kirkus Reviews
A celebration of the Indian elephant, though the animal's current precarious circumstances make this a cautionary tale as well. While Alter (All the Way to Heaven, 1998, etc.) has spent many years in the subcontinent, this work stems from a series of journeys he made throughout India during 2001-02, ranging from Assam to Dehradun to the southern tip. It's a story well and fondly told, of myth and art and great Indian masterworks, with a smattering (which is all that's really known) of natural history about the Indian elephant's behavior and biology. Alter notes that only a small percentage of Indian elephants live in national parks; the majority roam in forest reserves and private land, leaving them vulnerable to habitat encroachment and poaching. Dividing his time equally between scouring ancient texts and observation in the field, the author finds a close braiding of intimate knowledge of the elephant with the creature's mythological status. In some instances they are portly, playful gods, in others emblems of authority, such as war elephants. As scholarly as Alter can be, he also has a knack for describing the elephants' landscape: a gilded-green river under a saffron sky, flowers and birds flashing orange and turquoise, groves of bamboo and ordered ranks of teak trees. He works the animal's contradictory status as both "an emblem of desire, the image of gajagamini-a woman whose walk is as seductive as an elephant's," and as a marauding raider, ruining a farmer's crop in a night. The elephant's survival cannot be assured solely by creating sanctuaries, Alter warns: it requires a "sustained commitment" from state and citizen alike. A history more splendid than any maharaja's goldenhowdah. (b&w illustrations throughout)

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
8.50(w) x 5.50(h) x 0.88(d)

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Read an Excerpt

Winter Sanctuary

January 3, 2002

We had spent eight hours that day in pursuit of elephants, driving from early morning to late afternoon along the dusty roads that circle through Corbett National Park. Accompanying me was a close friend, Ajay Mark, as well as our driver, Sanjay Singh, and a guide assigned by park authorities, M. S. Negi. Our search had taken us across open grasslands, up boulder-strewn riverbeds, and through heavy jungle. Despite their size, elephants have a way of disappearing in the forest and none of these huge beasts had revealed themselves. We saw plenty of other animals, including four kinds of deer-spotted cheetal, barking deer that have rusty red coats, sambar with shaggy brown manes, and hog deer that are a dull gray color and duck into the underbrush at the first growl of a car's engine. Sounders of wild boar rooted about near the roadside and langur monkeys with silver fur sprang from branch to branch overhead. But there were no elephants that we could see.

Signs of them were everywhere-broken tree limbs and mounds of dung like fibrous clumps of drying mulch. Obviously, a herd of elephants had been nearby in recent days, browsing over the grasslands and along the leaf-tangled margins of the jungle. Near the river we could see the circular prints of their feet in the mud and we found a place where one of them had wallowed near the shore, leaving a broad depression partly filled with water. Marks from creases in the elephant's skin were etched in the drying clay and looked like giant fingerprints.

I was told that only two days earlier a family of seven elephants had wandered up to the gate of the park headquarters at Dhikala. "They were right here," said Negi, pointing to the high grass encircling the camp. "All night we could hear them feeding."

Now the elephants were gone, retreating into the forest like the shadows of trees. Seated on the veranda of the rest house, I could see the foothills across the river fading into darkness. Stars were coming out and Venus shone overhead like a beacon, so bright it seemed artificial. The electricity at Dhikala had gone off and only a few kerosene lanterns glowed in doorways of the camp. My frustration at not having seen a wild elephant was tempered by a comforting sense of separation from the world of jet airliners, digital communication, and the so-called war on terror that dominated recent headlines. Though Dhikala is a large camp, housing over a hundred people, I had a feeling-particularly with the lights off-that this was a world in which human beings were thankfully outnumbered. The venality and violence of civilization, our petty jingoism and material conceits, counted for little under a black sky, pierced by the innumerable sparks of distant galaxies.

Alone with my thoughts, I imagined those shadowy elephants moving about under the cover of night. Their invisible presence seemed as constant and fluid as the nearby river, which had also disappeared. The elephants were elusive, but I knew that somewhere close at hand, certainly nearer than the stars, a herd was roaming through the forest. In my mind they grew larger and larger, taller than the trees, taller than the ridges on either side of the valley. Surrounded by darkness, I had no sense of scale, no skyline against which to measure my imagination. For me the elephants could be as huge as mountains or as small as specks of dust in my eye. Yet all I wanted was to see them, to witness the movement of their bodies and trace the swaying of their trunks. The footprints, the shattered branches and piles of dung weren't proof enough. I needed to reaffirm with my own eyes that they were here.

To fully appreciate the elephant it is essential to understand the habitat in which it lives. Few places in India are as beautiful as Corbett Park, where the Ramganga River emerges from the lower Himalayas and cuts a course that runs parallel to the foothills for thirty kilometers before spilling out into the plains. The Patlidun, literally "narrow valley," lies at the heart of this sanctuary. Thirty years ago a dam was built downstream, creating a reservoir, but above Dhikala the river remains pristine and undisturbed, flowing between densely wooded hills and bordered by an undulating mosaic of rounded rocks. The Ramganga is the vital artery of the park, a river that teems with fish like the mahseer and the goonch, sometimes referred to as a "freshwater shark." Two kinds of crocodiles are also found in this river. The mugger is more common, with a broad, flat snout, while gharial crocodiles have long, thin jaws and the males grow a bulbous nose.

Immediately upon entering the park one has a feeling of enclosure as the road passes through thick sal forests, the broad-leafed trees forming a cavern of branches overhead. In places there are clearings, revealing a muddy water hole or a brief glimpse of rugged foothills. The road is scored by dozens of dry streambeds that flood during the monsoon, though in winter these are littered with boulders and fringed with tall grass. The park is one of the last sanctuaries for the elephant and a place that preserves India's forest heritage, which has gradually been eroded by the felling of trees, the spread of agriculture, and the encroachment of human population.

With a park area of 520 square kilometers and contiguous reserve forests stretching over 2,000 square kilometers, Corbett National Park provides a refuge for many different species of wildlife, particularly the tiger. Roughly 350 elephants live here and until recently these were safe from poaching. However, in the winter of 2000-2001 eight bulls were killed in the park and their tusks hacked off. There are differing accounts of the method by which these animals were slaughtered. Newspaper articles reported that jagged pieces of metal and sharp nails were hidden inside balls of dough that were left in the path of the wild tuskers, who swallowed them whole. Once the sharp objects were ingested they lacerated the stomach and intestines of the elephants, who slowly bled to death. Later investigations suggest that the elephants were killed by poison arrows, implying that the poachers came from the northeastern states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, where this method of hunting is common.

Reading newspaper articles about the elephant deaths, I couldn't help but feel a personal sense of violation and anger at the way in which the sanctuary had been desecrated. When I was a child, our family made annual trips to the park during winter holidays, and we would spend a week or more at one of the forest bungalows along the banks of the Ramganga. These trips provided some of my formative memories of the Indian jungle, driving in an open jeep at dawn, spotting animals in the mist. Corbett Park is where I saw my first tiger in the wild, as well as leopards and crocodiles, those shy predators that excited my imagination. It was here, too, I saw wild elephants for the first time, a memory that remains vivid after thirty-five years.

My father had stopped the jeep at the side of a forest track, where we could see that elephants had recently crossed. Over the sound of the idling engine I heard them snapping branches as they fed, less than a hundred feet away. The foliage shook and trembled but the elephants were hidden behind a curtain of leaves. We waited for ten minutes, then cautiously got down from the vehicle and began to enter the forest. Immediately one of the elephants stepped into view, a large female holding a switch of leaves in her trunk. A pair of tiny, somber eyes looked down at us with matronly disapproval. The gray bulk of her body swayed from foot to foot with the imposing indignation of a stern headmistress. As she waved her switch accusingly in our direction, I felt vulnerable and strangely guilty for sneaking about the jungle. Each of us held our breath and got ready to dive back into the jeep, but just when I expected the elephant to charge, she stuffed the leaves into her mouth and turned away complacently, as if she had convinced herself that we no longer merited her displeasure.

Years later, reading about elephant poaching in Corbett Park, I felt an immediate impulse to go back. More than anything I wanted to locate those animals again and confirm their presence. The cruel deaths of those tuskers seemed to threaten the sanctity of the Ramganga valley. Beyond the outrage and revulsion that I felt was an enigmatic sense of loss and separation, the knowledge of extinction.

Within a few months Corbett Park was in the headlines again. This time a forest ranger had been shot dead and three guards wounded when they tried to apprehend a gang of poachers. As before there was a brutal and mindless savagery to these deaths that seemed so alien to my memories of the protected forests and peaceable grasslands. This time the victims were not elephants but men, equally innocent, their lives cut short by human predators acting out of greed and cowardice. It seemed as if even this tiny strip of jungle, a final remnant of the sprawling forests that once bordered the Himalayas, was not safe from the violence of this new millennium.

Copyright © 2004 by Stephen Alter

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Meet the Author

Stephen Alter is writer-in-residence in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies at MIT, and was the director of the writing program at Cairo's American University. He is the author of four novels and a memoir, All the Way to Heaven , as well as another travel book, Amritsar to Lahore , a bestseller in India.

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