Elephants and Kings: An Environmental History

Elephants and Kings: An Environmental History

by Thomas R. Trautmann

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Because of their enormous size, elephants have long been irresistible for kings as symbols of their eminence. In early civilizations—such as Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Civilization, and China—kings used elephants for royal sacrifice, spectacular hunts, public display of live captives, or the conspicuous consumption of ivory—all of them tending toward the elephant’s extinction. The kings of India, however, as Thomas R. Trautmann shows in this study, found a use for elephants that actually helped preserve their habitat and numbers in the wild: war.
            Trautmann traces the history of the war elephant in India and the spread of the institution to the west—where elephants took part in some of the greatest wars of antiquity—and Southeast Asia (but not China, significantly), a history that spans 3,000 years and a considerable part of the globe, from Spain to Java. He shows that because elephants eat such massive quantities of food, it was uneconomic to raise them from birth. Rather, in a unique form of domestication, Indian kings captured wild adults and trained them, one by one, through millennia. Kings were thus compelled to protect wild elephants from hunters and elephant forests from being cut down. By taking a wide-angle view of human-elephant relations, Trautmann throws into relief the structure of India’s environmental history and the reasons for the persistence of wild elephants in its forests. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226264530
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 08/03/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 24 MB
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About the Author

Thomas R. Trautmann is professor emeritus of history and anthropology at the University of Michigan. He is the author of many books, including Dravidian Kinship, Lewis Henry Morgan and the Invention of Kinship, Aryans and British India, and India: Brief History of a Civilization.

Read an Excerpt

Elephants and Kings

An Environmental History

By Thomas R. Trautmann

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 Thomas R. Trautmann
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-26453-0


The retreat and persistence of elephants

IN THE LAST TWO CENTURIES, THE NUMBERS of wild elephants in the world have crashed. Their very survival is a cause for concern.

Population counts of wild animals are inherently difficult, even for animals as large as elephants, and the results are subject to a large element of uncertainty. But the information we have is clear enough: there are still ten times as many African elephants as Asian ones, with population estimates in the order of 500,000 and 50,000, respectively. However, although the African elephant population far outnumbers the Asian, it is declining more rapidly because of poaching for the international ivory market, with very strong demand from East Asia. While the Asian elephant population is better protected by national governments and is even increasing in some places, it too is endangered by the high price of ivory. The future of African and Asian elephants depends upon uninterrupted institutional effort to protect them from the variety of human forces making for their destruction. The survival of wild elephants is uncertain and requires continuous, determined, and effective measures from governments; wild elephants have become wards of the state.

Given the threat, it is helpful to learn everything we can about the causes of elephant retreat. It may be even more helpful to understand the causes of their persistence in face of forces pushing them toward extinction. This book is devoted to the elephant and its relation to humans in India. It focuses on kingship in India and on the places influenced by Indian royal elephant use — from North Africa and Spain to Indonesia — as well as on the environmental entailments of such use. It takes a long view of how the present situation came about over the past five thousand years.

India and China

Because the focus is on India, the Asian elephant will be at the forefront of the book, although the African elephant will feature during discussions of when Indian elephant culture spread to North Africa. An overview of the Asian elephant population in recent times, therefore, is a good place to begin. I give the figures in descending order of the higher numbers of the range.

India has the greatest number by far, about 30,000 of the total of some 50,000. Of these the largest population is in South India, in the forests of the Western Ghats where the borders of the states of Tamilnadu, Karnataka, and Kerala come together. The second largest is in the states of the North East — Assam, Meghalaya, and Arunachal. Tame elephants make up about 3,500 of India's elephant population. The neighboring countries in South Asia also have elephant populations, Sri Lanka containing the largest, with small numbers in Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Nepal. There is no report for Pakistan, whose elephant population today is insignificant. Wild elephants do not recognize international boundaries, of course, and there is considerable movement of elephants back and forth where the terrain allows.

The countries of Southeast Asia also have substantial numbers of elephants, namely those of the peninsula: Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Laos (once a kingdom called Lan Xang, land of a million elephants), Cambodia, and Vietnam. In Indonesia wild elephants are found in the island of Sumatra, but whether Java had wild elephants in historic times is uncertain. Wild elephants are also found in the Indonesian province of Kalimantan and the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo. We know that to supply the rulers of Southeast Asia's "Indianizing" kingdoms there was a considerable maritime trade in tamed elephants in medieval and early modern times, and that the essentially Indian-style use of elephants by kings in Southeast Asia continued after the coming of Islam. In particular, the raja of Sulu was supplied with elephants by the East India Company in 1750, which may be the source of the current wild population. However, it is difficult to distinguish feral elephants that came from the maritime trade from remnant populations of a deeper past: the case of Borneo is still disputed. It is however agreed that the elephants in the forests of the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, belonging to India, are feral descendants of tamed elephants imported for work in the industry abandoned as recently as 1962.

China is also on the list, near the bottom, with 250–200 wild elephants. All of them are in the mountainous province of Yunnan in the southwest, adjoining Myanmar: in other words, in habitat resembling that of Southeast Asia. Their number is so small that China could be left out of the story. But that would be a mistake, for in historic times wild elephants were found more or less throughout China. Moreover, Yunnan has become a center of environmentalism in China, with the protection of elephants at its forefront.

Wen Huanran documented the existence of wild elephants in China over the last 7,000 years, and their retreat to the Yunnan area. Mark Elvin made use of Wen's studies in his magisterial work on the long-term environmental history of China, The retreat of the elephants (2004). Both these are important to the present study in that they establish a point of comparison with India.

Wen's work on elephants was part of a larger project tracking the changing distribution of certain species of plants and animals in the historical record. He says that when elephant remains were found in the Yin (Shang) ruins at Anyang, Henan Province, in the 1930s, they were interpreted as those of imported tamed elephants from Southeast Asia, it being unknown at the time that wild elephants were once distributed throughout China. Several gifts of tamed elephants from kings of Southeast Asia to the Chinese emperor have been recorded in historical texts of the Ming period, which was perhaps the basis of the 1930s conjecture. Only later was the former wide distribution of elephants in China established by paleontology and an examination of the written sources of ancient Chinese history. It then came to be understood that, by stages over the last several thousand years, wild elephants had been killed of or driven away from all the provinces of China except Yunnan, a fact well established yet not widely known outside the country.

Wen's map of elephant distribution in China was developed out of ninety data points from many regions, representing the finds of elephant remains or written references to live elephants or both (Fig. 1.1). From the chronological patterning of these data points Wen interpolated boundary lines representing the northernmost limit of wild elephant distribution at a given time. The lines on the map give snapshots of the distribution at different periods. Taken together they give a picture of the consistent southwestward retreat of wild elephants over the whole course of Chinese civilization till today, when but a few hundreds are left in pockets of Yunnan (Fig. 1.2). Wild elephants once roamed China from about 40° to 19° north latitude, but now the northernmost limit is about 25°.

How to interpret the retreat of elephants in China? Wen argues that climate was the prime cause, reinforced by human action — forest clearance for agriculture, and ivory hunting. In his view the evolution of the Asian elephant has given it attributes that make it an especially sensitive indicator of changes in its environment: principally its large size and consequent need for large quantities of food and water, but also the slowness of its reproductive cycle (two-year gestation, single birth, long interval between births) and its vulnerability to cold. Being highly specialized by its size, the elongation of its trunk, and the structure of its teeth (development of tusks from incisors, reduction of teeth numbers to four massive molars at a time), its requirements of warmth, sunlight, water, and food are high and its ability to adapt to changes in its environment relatively low. The overall direction of climate change in China over the past 7,000 years or more, according to Wen, has been from warmer to colder, although within that trend there have been shorter periods of reversal. The climate pattern matches the southward shift of the northern limit of the wild elephant range, which at times went up or down on account of minor reversals in the overall trend. Writing from a natural history perspective over a fairly long period of time, Wen puts climate at the fore among the causes of elephant retreat in China. But human activities, a close second to climate change, caused ecological damage that put the elephant in its present endangered condition. The wanton capture and killing of elephants in the historical period — that is, the span of Chinese civilization — has been calamitous for them, Wen argues.

Elvin accepts this argument and the special status of the wild elephant as the equivalent of the miner's canary for environmental history. He reproduces Wen's map early in his book to set the stage. He pays due respect to climate change but gives greater weight to the human causes of environmental degradation. While Wen's orientation is in the direction of natural history, Elvin's is more toward human history.

Elvin focuses on deforestation and the expansion of cultivation, which he tracks in great, indeed extraordinary, detail through a wide range of Chinese sources, both literary and governmental. In his analysis humans waged a 3,000-year war upon elephants, and the elephants lost. Right from the beginning, in the culture of the Zhou dynasty, from which classical Chinese civilization emerged, there was a "war against wild animals generally." Is this put too strongly? Charles Sanft analyzes imperial statutes from the Qin and Western Han periods which decree seasonal limits on the taking of wildlife, prohibiting it during seasons of growth (especially spring and summer) and permitting it in times of fallow. The proscriptions are against the taking of pregnant animals, foals and fetuses, eggs and nests of birds and fish, the felling of timber, and hunting by setting fire to grasslands. The regulations, he argues, show the existence of a conservationist intent, although it was not effective in preventing the environmental degradation that Elvin makes so evident. This finding alters the story insofar as Elvin's formulation of the "war" concerns human, especially royal, intentions. But it does not alter his book's general argument about the results of human action on the environment.

Elephants function in Elvin's narrative as bellwether and symptom of a general environmental degradation. This he emphasizes at the outset to establish the prime fact of elephant retreat. Elephants serve as a leading example of his more general object of study: the environment as a whole in its decline before the forces of Chinese civilization. Once elephant retreat has been placed in evidence, the book goes on to identify the human agents and processes responsible for the general distress of wildlife in China, of which the elephant is taken to be the emblematic species. The war against elephants was fought on three fronts: first, the clearing of forests for farming; second, the defense of farmers' crops through the extermination or capture of elephants; and third, the hunting of elephants for their ivory and trunks (considered a delicacy by gourmets), for war, transport, and ceremonial uses. In my reading of the evidence on the relation of king to elephant in China, the use of elephants for war was rare and seems to have been practised only by non-Han peoples. Unlike India's well-developed culture of the war elephant, in China the war elephant never became an institution.

Elvin surveys the rich written record of the environment in Chinese history, philosophy, literature, and religion, and indeed devotes three long chapters to ideas of nature and the emergence of a proto-environmentalist attitude in these writings. He concludes that though the vast written record of China's past is hugely informative for environmental history, attitudes of reverence for nature were largely ineffective as conservation measures. This is an important point with wide implications, worth quoting at length:

Finally, the history of values and ideas as outlined here presents a problem. A problem not just for our understanding of China's past but for environmental history generally. The religious, philosophical, literary and historical texts surveyed and translated in the foregoing pages have been rich sources of description, insight, and even, perhaps, inspiration. But the dominant ideas and ideologies, which were often to some degree in contradiction with each other, appear to have little explanatory power in determining why what seems actually to have happened to the Chinese environment happened the way it did. Occasionally, yes. Buddhism helped to safeguard trees around monasteries. The law-enforced mystique shrouding Qing imperial tombs kept their surroundings untouched by more than minimal economic exploitation. But in general, no. There seems no case for thinking that, some details apart, the Chinese anthropogenic environment was developed and maintained in the way it was over the long run of more than three millennia because of particular characteristically Chinese beliefs or perceptions. Or, at least, not in comparison with the massive effects of the pursuit of power and profit in the arena provided by the possibilities and limitations of the Chinese natural world, and the technologies that grew from interactions with them.

So, characteristic beliefs and perceptions of nature have very little effective play in the environmental history of China. The real motor, Elvin persuasively shows, is the pursuit of power and profit, a finding with profound implications for historians of India, whose written sources are mainly generated by religious specialists. That said, when China's land-use pattern is compared to that of France, as in Elvin's book, or with that of India, as in this one, the Chinese pattern seems more than a simple effect of the pursuit of power and profit. It appears to be a fundamental choice or preference about how land should be partitioned among its uses: what I shall call a land ethic — a dominant ideology in its own right, however much the texts may propound its opposite.

The striking difference between India and China in this matter, I propose, lies not in literary, philosophical, or religious ideas, but in the relation of kings to elephants. To come right to the point, Indian kingdoms and the Indianizing kingdoms of Southeast Asia are states in which wild elephants were captured and trained for war, whereas the use of the war elephant never took root in China. Indeed, we may say that though Chinese kings were exposed to warfare using elephants, they refused to adopt it as a battle technique. An India–China comparison on this matter will involve examining many differences, including the garden-style agriculture of China and its intensive reliance on human labor, as against Indian agriculture with its reliance on domesticated animals and the pasturing of grazing animals. We can use the history of the war elephant to shed further light on the subject: it helps explain the contrast between on the one hand China where elephants have largely retreated, and on the other India and Southeast Asia where wild elephants, though largely in retreat over recent times, have persisted.

Elephants and horses

The distribution of Asian elephants today, and the former range from which they have retreated, is shown in Fig. 1.3. In it we see that the former distribution of Asian elephants includes the larger part of China, as Wen has documented. It also includes large territories of India and Pakistan, making up the western half of the Indian subcontinent, and a slender territory westward, reaching Syria.

The retreat of elephants, then, shows a dramatic shrinkage at the eastern and western extremities of the range, so that they are now restricted to the countries in the middle, i.e. those of South and Southeast Asia, and the province of Yunnan in China. Within these the present distribution is highly partitioned into isolated islands of elephant habitat within an ocean of human habitation. The retreat mapped here occurred in historic times, which is to say it happened during the period of those early civilizations that have left written documents. From this archive we can, to some extent, trace the causes and tempo of their decline, which coincided with the expansion of the earliest literate civilizations that record it.


Excerpted from Elephants and Kings by Thomas R. Trautmann. Copyright © 2015 Thomas R. Trautmann. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Contents List of illustrations Sources and credits Preface 1. The retreat and persistance of elephants 2. War elephants 3. Structures of use: caturanga, vahana, vyuha 4. Elephant knowledge 5. North India, South India, Sri Lanka 6. The Near East, North Africa, Europe 7. Southeast Asia 8. Drawing the balance, looking ahead Bibliography Index

What People are Saying About This

Mahesh Rangarajan

“Elephants may be ubiquitous across cultures of Southern Asia, but their presence has a literal and metaphorical past that may hold clues to their continued survival in these often densely populated lands. Trautman’s tour de force spans much of Asia, and his story stretches into the Egypt of the Ptolemeys. At its core is the story of three millennia of taming and centuries of honing this huge animal as a war machine. India emerges at the center of the story for its pioneering role in elephant taming, keeping, and its royal protection of elephant forests over two thousand years ago. No reader will ever view the animal or its human benefactors (or exploiters) again without reference to this fascinating work.”

Romila Thapar

“The elephant in Asia is remembered as a royal mount, but it was more effectively used as a crucial constituent of the army, not to be replaced until many centuries later by artillery. Trautmann, drawing on his impressive and extensive scholarship, provides a unique perspective of the Indian past, analyzing the connection between kingship, the elephant in warfare, and the environment.” 

Richard P. Tucker

“In Elephants and Kings, Trautmann’s singular range of erudition traces the military, political, and cultural roles of royal war elephants from their origins in ancient India across the wide region from the Mediterranean through Southeast Asia. Graceful prose, startling insights, and beautiful illustrations mark this extraordinary fusion of political and environmental history.”

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