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Review of Elephant Reflections


By R McNeill Alexander

Elephant Reflections. Karl Ammann and Dale Peterson. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2009. Pp. 272. ISBN. 978-0-520-25377-3 (hb). £23.95.

This is primarily a picture book. Two hundred pages of high-quality photographs of African elephants are sandwiched between a seven page Introduction on the joys and problems of watching and photographing elephants; and a fifty page account, designed for general readers, of some of the highlights of elephant biology. The authors, a wildlife photographer and a science writer who has accompanied him on some of his elephant-photographing expeditions, have both won high praise for their previous work.

Most of the photographs were taken in Kenyan National Parks, especially Samburu and Amboseli, but a few are from other African parks and countries. They are presented in groups, starting appropriately with pictures of a baby elephant getting onto its feet for the first time. Next comes a series of close-ups emphasising the variety of texture of elephant skin: the hatching and cross-hatching formed by wrinkles on the legs, the circles around the elbow, the rings around the trunk and the irregular polygons on the chest. This theme is followed, rather surprisingly, by the theme of colour. We think of elephant skin as gray, but some of the images in this section show subtle tinges of blue or brown, some show elephants turned orange by the rising sun and others show them dramatically spattered by white or yellow mud. The title of the next theme, “Perspectives”, seems simply to mean that the animals are a long way from the camera, a welcome change from the very close viewpoints of many of the earlier pictures and of a few that follow immediately.

In a section called “Portraits”, Karl Ammann tries to get us to appreciate elephants as individuals. One on “Behaviour” shows us drinking, feeding, play, scratching, wrestling matches between rival males and copulation. Several images of “Associations” show elephants accompanied by egrets, which remove troublesome parasites from their skin and also eat insects disturbed by the elephants as they move through grass. Others show less friendly associations, such as an elephant quarrelling with a rhino at a water hole.

The value of the photographs is largely artistic, but they are followed by text about science. Predictably, there is a lot about the work of the behavioural scientists who discovered the structure of elephant society and are widely known for their semi-popular books; Iain Douglas-Hamilton and Cynthia Moss. There is an account of the remarkable discoveries of Katy Payne and others who have shown how elephants communicate over distances of several kilometres, by low-frequency sounds (below the range of human hearing) that are transmitted through the ground as seismic waves. These are, perhaps, the scientific topics that will interest many readers most. They are followed by passages on the anatomy and evolution of elephants, that suffer seriously from lack of illustration. It is far easier to appreciate the difference between the molars of African and Asiatic elephants from a picture, than from a mere description. How many readers can be expected to visualise the early elephants known as gomphotheres, without the help of an illustration? And a photograph would have helped readers to realise how small the dwarf elephant fossils from Malta are. I appreciate that the authors wanted to avoid any possible confusion between the art photographs that are the principal component of this book, and additional pictures that might have been used to illuminate the text, but surely some way could have been found of making the distinction clear.

The text continues with such topics as the mechanics of elephant trunks, and the dissection of mammoths deep-frozen in Arctic ice. There is a discussion of the intelligence of elephants and of their apparent grief for dead companions. Finally, there is a shocking account of the ruthless behaviour of poachers who kill elephants for their ivory, of the damage they have done to African elephant populations, and of the heroic efforts of Richard Leakey and Kenyan game wardens to bring the poaching to an end.

Despite the substantial scientific content, this is essentially a picture book. Two hundred pages of photographs of elephants is more than most readers will want to digest in a session. This is a book to leave on the coffee table and browse occasionally.

Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin, 71 (Winter 2009/10), pp. 87-88]

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