Sunday, November 11, 2012

Elephants, elephants do we really want to lose them?

Elephants are one of the most iconic and charismatic animals on the planet. Their image is everywhere and there are probably not many people who do not know what an elephant is or looks like. Their big ears, long trunks and general large size make them very unique. There are few species which invoke as much emotion in humans as elephants, and that is why they are so popular in stories, animations and mythology. The elephant is a national symbol in many Asian countries, including Thailand, and a symbol in different religions. Their image is also popular for ornaments, wall decorations, toys and jewellery, and they are used for logos by many companies. You can’t get away from the image of an elephant…….. they are everywhere. In this blog, I shall survey the different images of elephants and identify where they are found.

Elephants as a national symbol

In Thailand, the elephant is the best known national symbol and has been associated with Thai people for many centuries. Elephants were historically used in transportation, in wars and in logging. The symbol of the elephant even became part of the national flag from 1855 – 1916, depicting a white elephant on a red background.

Elephants in Religion

The elephant is very important in religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. For example, in Hinduism, Ganesh is represented by the head of an elephant and is one of the best-known and most widely worshipped deities. The image is found throughout India and Nepal. Another elephant image within Hinduism is Airavata, a mythological white elephant who carries the Hindu god Indra. Airavata has 7 trunks, 4 tusks and is completely white.

Elephants in Literature

There is an array of children’s literature that features elephants as main characters.  These stories can certainly be regarded as being amongst children’s favorites. Two stories that come to mind include ‘Elmer the Patchwork Elephant’ and ‘Barbar’. The story of Elmer is a wonderful tale about a colorful patchwork elephant who wants to fit in with the other elephants, ‘his friends’, and so he paints himself grey. When grey, the other elephants don’t recognize Elmer and they no longer accept him as one of their own. Elmer is saddened because of this and experiences what it is like to be an outcast. Only when it begins to rain and the grey paint starts to rinse off, do Elmer’s friends start to recognize him as his ‘true colors’ start to come through. His friends are delighted as they loved him for his multi-colored skin, for his fun personality and for his differences. To celebrate Elmer and his return, they paint themselves like Elmer and all become multi-colored patchwork elephants. This story is very popular among children and has sold 5 million copies around the world.

Another popular elephant literature character is Babar the elephant who features in a series of stories. Babar is an orphaned elephant whose mother was shot by a hunter. After fleeing to the city from the jungle, Babar is befriended by an old lady who buys him clothes and starts to educate him. After a few years, Barbar’s cousins find him in the city and help him return to the jungle and elephant realm. A council of elephants announce that Babar would be a suitable king as he has lived among men. The stories are about Barbar’s rule as king and the different adventures he has.

Other popular elephant characters in books include, Horton the Elephant in ‘Horton Hears a Who’ and Hathi in ‘The Jungle Book’.

Elephants on the big screen

It’s not only books that feature elephants, as they have featured in many films and animations including: ‘Water for Elephants’,` Ice Age’, ‘The Man With The Golden Gun’ (a Bond film), ‘The Temple of Doom’ (an Indiana Jones film), ‘Alexandra’, ‘A Passage to India’, Lord of the Rings, ‘City Lights’ (a Chaplin film) and ‘Gunga Din’.

The most well known animation featuring an elephant is ‘Dumbo’. This animation is another popular story about an elephant, in this case called Dumbo, who is delivered by a stork to Mrs Jumbo, a veteran of the circus. Dumbo is ridiculed because of his enormous ears and thus called `Dumbo’. He is assigned to the circus’s clown acts which makes him very unhappy. His only friend and self proclaimed mentor, Timothy the mouse, realizes that Dumbo can fly using his ears, and then teaches him to do so. One day, during a show, Timothy makes Dumbo fly around the circus. Here, he finally strikes back at his tormentors as he amazes the audience. After this performance, Dumbo becomes a media sensation, Timothy becomes his manager and Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo are given a private carriage on the circus train

Elephants in advertising and politics

The elephant is also the most used animal in the field of logo design. Their distinctive shape and strong contour make them a popular choice for many companies. Below are a few examples of elephant-based company logos.

People often associate images of elephants with toughness and durability, and for many, especially in the East, the elephant is considered to be a symbol of good luck.  In the USA, the elephant is even used as a logo for the Republican Party, despite elephants being a non-native animal. Not only are elephants a political symbol but they are also a symbol for popular alcoholic beverages including Chang Beer and Amarula.

Elephants as ornaments and toys
People like to decorate their houses with elephants. They are popular ornaments and a popular symbol in Fen Sui. They are also a symbol of good luck, wisdom, fertility and protection, which is why they can be found in so many people’s homes.

You can go into any toy shop and be 100% sure of finding a stuffed elephant toy or a game featuring an elephant. Kids love the image of an elephant because of their characteristic and almost fantasy- like appearance. 

Without doubt, therefore, elephants are iconic and popular, their image is found everywhere, they serve as national symbols and are even a symbol in religion. So, why is it that elephant populations are severely endangered both in Africa and Asia? We are losing elephants at an extremely rapid rate. How have we let this iconic animal lose vast amounts of its habitat, be stolen from the wild, be killed for raiding farmlands and become the tragic victim of violent and bloody poaching to facilitate the lucrative trade in ivory.  Everyone loves the image of the elephant but, in a few years time, possibly the only places where we will be able to see the elephant will be in books, in zoos, on the television or as toys and ornaments. We won’t be laughing when we watch Dumbo try to fly, as we will realize that there are no more elephants left in the wild and we, as the human race, will have let this beautiful, strong and iconic species disappear.  It’s imperative that we don’t let this happen and that we act now before it is too late. We need to educate people and spread the word about how these beautiful creatures need our help. 

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