World Elephant Day

So often in life an individual can highlight a cause, be a positive or negative symbol of an issue affecting thousands of others.  Through that one person or, in this particular case, one animal, we can learn about and identify with their joy or suffering.  It is a powerful and unforgettable experience.

Today is the 34th anniversary of the death of Pole Pole, an elephant my husband Bill and I knew well.  Some people know the story but, for those who don’t, I will just tell you a little about her life which led to her premature death.  It was 1968, and Bill and I were making a film in Kenya – ‘An Elephant Called Slowly’.  We filmed in Tsavo National Park in Kenya where David Sheldrick was Senior Warden, and where his wife Daphne had begun her renowned work with orphaned elephants.

At that time she had two teenage elephants, but we needed a little one for our story and David mentioned he knew of one in a trapper’s yard in Nairobi.  She was a terrified and traumatised little two year old, having been taken from her family in the wild. But within two days David had calmed her.  Without doubt she was the ‘star’ of the film and we loved her beyond words.

Filming over, we asked if we could buy her and give her to Daphne.  This was agreed – but.   The ‘but’ was horrifying.  It was possible only if the authorities caught another elephant in her place – as the Government of that time had promised to give a little one to London Zoo.  Another family distraught, another little elephant doomed for a life in captivity, in a strange land amongst strangers?  It was impossible.

Pole Pole was in London Zoo until her untimely end.  It was tragic to see her there.  The moment Bill and I visited her in 1982 – following a letter from Daphne that alerted us to a potential problem – is engraved on my memory forever.

She was a poor-looking thing, dry skin, only one partially broken tusk – and alone.  We couldn’t believe it was the same animal.  She was slowly pacing up and down the compound, a few visitors looked on.  Then we called her, ‘Pole Pole’.  She stopped, came towards us and put out her trunk to touch our hands.  Even now I can hardly bear to think of it.

We tried to help her, and found a Reserve in South Africa who would give her a home and an experienced ‘elephant person’ to go with her.  To no avail.  However, the zoo said they would move her to Whipsnade, where there were other elephants.

The day for the move arrived.  A travelling crate had been in place for several days and, apparently, she went calmly into it.  Unfortunately she was kept standing in it for so long she collapsed and later, having had a damaged leg which was examined under anaesthetic, she was ‘put down’. I was told that she had lost the will to live.

Pole Pole’s story tells us everything that’s wrong with keeping elephants in zoos.  They are social, family animals and should never be alone.  Unfortunately we know that, just in Europe, there are at least 40 elephants who exist in this way.  Elephants can walk up to 80 km in a day choosing their food, exploring different paths, planting the forests of the future with the seeds in their dung.  They are creatures with a purpose.

And, of course, in mentioning the way we control and dominate these wise and wonderful animals, I must not forget what they experience when they are in the circus.  Not only is their confinement even more severe, but they are made to perform inane tricks under the lights of ‘The Big Top’, on command.  It would drive any creature mad.

My plea to all those who still keep elephants in zoos and circuses is to show some respect and humanity towards them.  Help end the horrific ‘trade’ in elephants, whereby they are captured from the wild and sent to zoos – often in the Far East.  Not all survive.

End the fearful ivory trade.

End the breeding of elephants in captivity – show some compassion and respect for this most sensitive and wisest of creatures.

What a legacy Pole Pole will have left, if all I hope for comes true. World Elephant Day will have a new meaning.

Virginia

One Response to “World Elephant Day”

  1. Donna Mackenzie Says:

    ‘An Elephant Called Slowly’ is such a delightful film though, knowing the subsequent fate of Pole Pole, it still makes me cry, especially at the end when she’s following the car. Hope her story continues to inspire and help all our dreams for elephants come true before too long.

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