Thirteen Things About Elephants [#24]


“Did I ever tell you how I shot a wild elephant in my pyjamas? How he got into my pyjamas I’ll never know.” ~ Groucho Marx

It so happens that I tend to love all animals, but elephants are really really special. Their longevity is impressive, living up to 70 years old, and of course their physique is imposing; their sheer size and weight, that trunk with some 40,000 muscles, not to mention their big brain which makes them so smart. Lately, Rosie the elephant in Water For Elephants single handedly rekindled my elephantine passions. As a result, I’ve been trying to sketch elephants this past week or so, which is more difficult than I thought. Here is some elephant trivia:

1. The African and the Asian elephants are the only two surviving species of what was in prehistoric times a diverse and heavily populated group of large mammals including mammoths and mastodons. Today’s elephants are threatened by hunting and habitat destruction.

2. An easy way to tell African and Asian elephants a part is by looking at their ears. African elephants have very large ears while Asian elephants have much smaller ears.

3. In Buddhism, the Elephant is a symbol of the strength of the mind and embodies the boundless powers of the Buddha which are miraculous aspiration, effort, intention, and analysis. Ganesha, one of the best-known and most worshiped of the Hindu deities, is widely known as the Remover of Obstacles. His image, with the distinctive elephant head, is found all over India.

4. Jumbo The Elephant was a very large African bush elephant from French Sudan, born in 1861. He was eventually sold to P. T. Barnum in 1882 for $10,000. His name, “Jumbo” eventually entered popular jargon to signify “very big”. Jumbo was indeed very big — his height was claimed to be approximately 4 meters (13 ft) by the time of his death — but his size is often greatly exaggerated in depictions of him. My father had this image of him when I was a small child and I took care of framing it since (click to enlarge).

5. “I have a memory like an elephant. In fact, elephants often consult me.” ~ Noel Coward

6. Much of elephant behaviour points to their extraordinary intelligence. Their brain is larger than any other land mammal’s. Much like humans, elephants use and make tools and show a range of complex learning skills and behaviors. In elephants, the large amount of cerebral cortex, especially in the temporal lobe, and the well-developed olfactory system, structures associated with complex learning and behavioral functions in humans, may provide the basis for such complex skills and behavior. Here’s an interesting BBC Science & Nature article about elephant intelligence. The saying that elephants never forget has been backed by science: see this BBC News article.

7. Fossil records suggest that the elephant has some unlikely distant relatives, namely the small, rodent-like hyrax and the “sea cow”, better known as dugong.

8. Hansken (1630 – 1655) was a female elephant that became famous in early 17th century Europe. She toured many countries, demonstrating circus tricks. This chalk sketch is one of four made by Rembrandt when he saw her in Amsterdam in 1637 (click to view larger). In the 17th century, it was believed that elephants had very advanced intellectual abilities. Following Pliny, it was thought that the elephant was the nearest to man in intelligence, and that elephants could understand speech, follow orders, and had a sense of religion and conscience. Pliny even reports that an elephant had learned to write words in the Greek alphabet. Hansken didn’t qiote live up to these expectations, but she still had a few tricks in her bag.

9. “My roommate got a pet elephant. Then it got lost. It’s in the apartment somewhere.” ~ Stephen Wright

10. An elephant joke is almost always an absurd riddle or conundrum that involves an elephant. Sometimes they involve parodies or puns. Elephant jokes were a fad in the 1960s, with many people constructing large numbers of them according to a set formula. Elephant jokes are often made up of a series of connected riddles, resulting in compounded absurdity. Here are some examples:

Q: How many elephants will fit into a Mini?
A: Four: Two in the front, two in the back.
Q: How many giraffes will fit into a Mini?
A: None. It’s full of elephants.
Q: How do you get two whales in a Mini?
A: Along the M4 and across the Severn Bridge.
Q: How do you know there are two elephants in your refrigerator?
A: You can hear giggling when the light goes out.
Q: How do you know there are three elephants in your refrigerator?
A: You can’t close the door.
Q: How do you know there are four elephants in your refrigerator?
A: The Mini is parked outside.

There was an old man in France who used to get up every morning at five A.M. He would then go and sprinkle a white powder on the roads. When he was asked what he was sprinkling on the roads, he answered that it was elephant powder. The person then remarked “But everybody knows that there are no elephants in France!” to which he replied “I guess it must be working then!”
It was a boring Sunday afternoon in the jungle so the Elephants decided to challenge the Ants to a game of soccer. The game was going well with the Elephants beating the Ants ten goals to nil, when the Ants gained possession. The Ants’ star player was dribbling the ball towards the Elephants’ goal when the Elephants’ left back came lumbering towards him. The elephant trod on the little ant, killing him instantly. The referee stopped the game. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? Do you call that sportsmanship, killing another player?” The elephant replied, “Well, I didn’t mean to kill him — I was just trying to trip him up.”

11. Hanno (1510 – 1516) was the pet white elephant of Pope Leo X (born Giovanni de’ Medici), and the subject of the book The Pope’s Elephant: An Elephant’s Journey from Deep in India to the Heart of Rome by Silvio A. Bedini. He was the gift of King Manuel I of Portugal on the Pope’s coronation. He became a great favourite of the papal court. Trained to kneel, dance, weep, and trumpet on command, Hanno led parades, entertained at public festivals and was commemorated in paintings, poetry, and sculpture. For Pope Leo’s detractors however, the elephant became a symbol of Roman corruption. Two years after he came to Rome, Hanno suddenly fell ill, was given a purgative, and died on June 8th 1516, with the pope by his side.

12. A white elephant (also known as albino elephant) is a rare kind of elephant, but not a distinct species. Although often depicted as snow white, their skin is normally a soft reddish-brown, turning a light pink when wet. They have fair eyelashes and toenails. The expression “white elephant” is also used to refer to a rare, expensive possession or gift that is a financial burden to maintain.

13. Did you know there are elephant painters? As in: elephants who paint? If you don’t believe me, just watch this or this!

“When eating an elephant, take one bite at a time” ~ Creighton Abrams

Elephant sketch and “Jumbo” photo by Smiler
Sketch of King Manuel I riding Hanno, from title page of Leitura Nova. 16th century.
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