BOSTON — Last month, an elephant stepped on my foot. Ouch! I gave her a gentle push with my hip and she stepped away. Happily for me, Juju the elephant is a one-year-old baby and only comes up to my waist. I wriggled my toes (no harm done) and continued patting her thick gray-brown hide.
Juju lives in Indonesia, an Asian country made up of many islands spread along the equator. She spends her days playing and learning at a government-run center where trainers teach elephants work skills - like how to drag logs - as well as tricks.
Elephants are part of everyday life across Asia. They work on farms. They carry people from place to place. They even help workers on building sites. (Elephants have been used for this in America, too. In 1914, elephants helped to build the Long Beach Boardwalk on New York's Long Island.) In many Asian countries, elephants are also important to the culture. In the past, some nations even fought wars over them!
But though elephants occupy a special place in Asia, they are having a hard time these days. Hunters want their long, ivory tusks to make jewelry and their skin for shoes and bags. Elephant herds also need lots of room to wander. But as Asia becomes more crowded, elephants are running out of space.
For a long time, Juju's ancestors didn't have to worry about such things. They had all the space they wanted, and there weren't many people around to cause trouble. That was 55 million years ago, when Asian elephants first appeared in Africa. They roamed from the Middle East to China, munching on grasses and avoiding hunters.
Now, Asian elephants are found only from India to Vietnam. Unlike their larger, bigger-eared cousins in Africa, Asian elephants have developed a close relationship with human beings. Indian carvings 5,000 years old show elephants with cloths draped over their backs, a sign that they were trained. Rulers and emperors from China to Sri Lanka (an island off the coast of southern India) kept stables of elephants for hunting, work, and war. But elephants were also important for cultural and religious reasons.
In countries like Sri Lanka and Nepal, elephants take the lead in festivals and ceremonies. In India, Ganesha is the elephant-headed Hindu god of wisdom. Buddhists believe that white elephants are sacred. (White elephants are albinos, rare animals born with little or no coloring in their skin.) Nations have gone to war over white elephants.
What it's like to pat a baby elephant
When I was a little girl, my family lived in Africa for many years, so I often saw elephants. One of my favorite books was about a little elephant named Babar, who grows up to become King of the Elephants. But Juju was the first elephant I've ever gotten close to. It was very exciting. She had tough leathery skin covered with bristly black hairs and her toenails were the size of bottle caps. She was very friendly and wound her trunk - which is both her nose and her upper lip - around my legs and waist. She kept poking my camera. "What's this?" she seemed to be saying.
"Elephants are very curious and very smart," said her trainer, a man named Sammi who wore flip flops and track pants. (Many people in Indonesia use only one name.)
Sammi will teach Juju how to work on a farm. She will also learn to play with a ball and balance on a log. When she's grown up, the government will loan her to farmers who need help with their crops or to timber companies. In some places, though, unemployed elephants are a problem. When Thailand banned logging in 1989, thousands of elephants were put out of work.
Juju may also appear in a circus, or help scientists do research in the jungle. It is easier to watch wild animals when you are riding an elephant, because elephants don't disturb other animals.
But for now, Juju mostly plays and eats - up to 100 pounds of fruit, milk, and grass every day! At age 1, she weighs about 800 to 1,000 pounds. She'll weigh almost 10 times that when she's fully grown. (I'm glad she stepped on my foot sooner, rather than later!)
The No. 1 problem for elephants
Hunters have always been a big threat to elephants. But today there's a bigger threat. Farmers burn forests to grow crops, and others cut them down to make room for houses and roads. That means less room and less food for elephants.
"This is probably the No. 1 threat, the loss of habitat," says Heidi Riddle, president of the Elephant Managers Association, a global nonprofit group of handlers, administrators, and researchers.
Only about 50,000 elephants remain in Asia, according to the World Wildlife Fund. But in every Asian country, people are working to protect elephants like Juju. And people around the world are helping, too.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society