Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Biology, Books for the News

World Elephant Day


Tuesday, August 12th, is the inaugural “World Elephant Day,” initiated by a number of elephant conservation organizations, each working in collaboration toward “better protection for wild elephants, improving enforcement policies to prevent the illegal poaching and trade of ivory, conserving elephant habitats, better treatment for captive elephants and, when appropriate, reintroducing captive elephants into natural, protected sanctuaries.”

Caitlin O’Connell, the author of Elephant Don: The Politics of a Pachyderm Posse, recently posted at National Geographic about the loss of Greg, the iconic elephant whose rise and reign as a don among his peers was chronicled in her book. Finally reconciling that fact that she hadn’t seen Greg in four years with the increasing likelihood of his death inspired O’Connell to post a formal obit, of sorts, in which she reminisced on Greg’s presence, absence, and legacy. In part:

Four years after what most probably marked the passing of the don, I can’t ignore the impact that his absence has had on this male society, and just how similar their social dynamics have been to a human society after the loss of a great figure head. In 2012, the first season without the don, there seemed to be competing factions, Prince Charles leading one camp and Luke the other. The interesting thing in that dynamic was the fact that both these characters had been bullies and had previously shown no interest in taking the next generation under their elephantine wing. But in the absence of Greg, they both changed their tune and had amassed an impressive following. But by 2013, both of these building strongholds had collapsed with barely a trace of the loyal following they had built for themselves.

By 2014 it was hard to imagine that such a tightknit social group of male elephants existed. Long gone were the days of Greg’s conga line amassing on the horizon and coming in to spend hours together and the social club that was Mushara.

And now, here we are in the last quarter of the 2015 season, and there is barely a trace of the don’s social fabric that he has so carefully stitched together and vigorously maintained. It was hard for even me to remember the way things were.

A faculty member at the Stanford University School of Medicine, O’Connell has been chronicling the lives of African male elephants for the past twenty-three years, including Elephant Don and an earlier work, The Elephant’s Secret Sense, both of which are published by the University of Chicago Press. As one of our foremost experts on elephant behavior and communication, her posts for National Geographic‘s Voices blog are an excellent foray into the issues faced first-hand by these majestic creatures, as well as an anthropological chronicle of the day-to-day lives of a particular group of elephants living at Etosha National Park in Namibia. You can read more about Greg’s story in Elephant Don—in addition to her blog posts for NG and numerous popular books and articles about elephant communities, O’Connell runs a Tumblr, Elephant Skinny, filled with anecdotes and images that pick up where Elephant Don leaves off (most recently with the birth of Athena, daughter to Mona Lisa, pictured below).


To read more about World Elephant Day, click here.

To read more by Caitlin O’Connell, click here.