The irresistible elephant

For most Americans, an encounter with an elephant takes place in a zoo or at a circus. Both settings are pure artifice, and witnessing such a magnificent beast swinging its trunk in a pen or doing headstands in a pastel tutu can leave you with feelings that range between awe and sorrow.

Still, who among us can resist the lure of the pachyderm? Certainly not Eric Scigliano, who, in slavish devotion to a self-professed addiction to "elephalia," journeyed overseas to places where elephants have a richer history of myth, labor, and wildness. Scigliano's travels took him to the epicenter of wild and working elephants: Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma (Myanmar), and India, where the world's second most populous nation is home to the largest number of Asia's 35,000 to 40,000 wild elephants. (No doubt the animal's survival is linked to its sacred status in India, where some 3,000 elephants are used in festivals.)

The result of Scigliano's efforts, "Love, War, and Circuses," is an impressive historical and cultural study that takes the genre of science writing to a level where passion, research, and reportage converge to create literature.

On the subject of circuses, Scigliano is more sentimental than radical. "I'm one of those kids who never outgrew the circus, who loves both the tinsel splendor of a three-ringer and Cirque du Soleil's rarified pantomimes." Even in that diminished, captive state, the author writes, the exotic ancestor of the mammoth can bring the most jaded to his knees in wonderment.

"Just seeing an elephant can have that effect, even in a digitally transmitted, simulated, and manipulated age; it enlarges our sense of the world's possibilities. Of course, a moth or a spider can also enlarge that sense, but we must look closely and know what we're looking at. An elephant forces us to look."

Size does matter, but if it's only girth that grabs our attention and empathy, why is there not the same worldwide wonderment for hippos or giraffes? To answer that question, Scigliano makes a provocative claim regarding humankind's millenniums-long relationship with the elephant: "It is a relationship unique among the planet's species, more influential, and in some ways closer, than humankind's relationships to dogs, horses, and cats."

Scigliano, who fell in love with elephants as a boy in Vietnam, explains how they inhabit a place in most religions. Hindus worship the elephant god Ganesha, a reverence that has expanded to the Buddhists and Jains, from Afghanistan to Japan. Thais view the embodiment of their nation's values in the image of "chang pheuk," or the white elephant.

Some scientists have argued that elephants transformed dense African jungles into more hospitable savannas, opening the doors for human occupation. Scigliano likens these massive foliage gobblers to "evolutionary nursemaids," providing not only "food, clothing, shelter, and material for tools and art, but also the landscape conditions in which Homo sapiens could emerge, thrive, and embark on its march of conquest."

Scigliano holds up Burma as perhaps the best example of successful habitat management. The country holds rich, unspoiled tracts of Asian rain forest and 80 percent of the planet's old-growth teak reserves. This is ideal terrain for wild elephants, which are protected, and it also provides domesticated elephants with work rather than beggary and neglect. Logging is done selectively, in 30-year rotations, using elephants instead of trucks, for a gentler impact on the land.

Our treatment of these giants has always been corrupted by greed for territory and ivory. From the "elephant holocaust" in the late 1880s that rivaled the North American buffalo slaughter, to the scores of habitat-deprived modern "beggar elephants" that wander the streets of Thailand's Bangkok, a bleak future emerges along with the obvious question: In our thrust toward profits, will we pay back our longtime allies with renewed compassion and a bit of permanently sustainable habitat? Scigliano correctly concludes, "When their lives are done, ours will be diminished too. The world will be a small and meager place when it has room only for us."

• Stephen J. Lyons is the author of 'Landscape of the Heart' (Washington State University Press).

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