Book review: Elephant Company offers compelling details

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Cover of book about elephants in Burma in WWII and pre-war period

Marvelous.  For nonfiction, Vicki Croke has spun quite the yarn about Jim Williams (aka Bill Williams), elephant logging expert, and his life and times in the jungles of Burma.  Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II (published in 2014) reads almost like a novel.

In 1921, Williams signs on with the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation as a forest assistant in the teak logging industry in Burma.  He supervises uzis who are the Burmese elephant handlers with multiple teams of elephants throughout his assigned territory.  He must contend with Harding, an older, grizzled Brit who likes giving newbies a hard time.  Williams is very sensitive to the needs of elephants and the Burmese people, often behaving more like biologist or sociologist than a corporate field manager.  He sets out to learn everything he can about elephants and their culture.  Eventually, Williams earns Harding’s respect.

Readers learn a great deal about working elephants in the process.  In Burma, the Asian elephant is domesticated up to a point—as somebody in the book suggests—domesticated for eight hours a day.  After working their shift, they go off to forage on their own and spend time with their elephant families.  In the morning they grudgingly report back to work, but seem to enjoy the cat-and-mouse relationship with their handlers.  We learn about elephant anatomy (for example, they can’t lie on their sides for long because of how their chest and lungs are configured), their habits (such as taking their time before river crossings until one female always steps forward to lead them across), but more importantly, their generosity of spirit, exhibited most vividly by Bandoola, the elephant hero of the book, who establishes a very close working relationship with Williams over the years, performing every logging and wartime assignment with enormous strength, responsiveness, and discernment.

Williams also meets a British woman, which isn’t an easy thing to do in the jungle, and they marry.  They are very compatible and both happy.  They experience hardships in the field, but like Williams, she is hale and hearty, and starts having children.

Then the war comes.  For those of you who are more interested in military history than in elephant husbandry, this book may not meet your expectations.  It takes a long time before this book gets to World War II.  When it comes, it is focused at first on the evacuation of women and children, which the elephants help with as pack animals.  The military wants to continue using elephants in that way, for hauling heavy loads during the war.  But Williams convinces them that elephants are smart enough that their skills be put to better use as master bridge builders.  That is the elephants’ primary contribution to the Allies in Burma during the war.  Do not read this book expecting a 20th century version of Hannibal’s elephant cavalry charge.  These are transport and engineering elephants, not cavalry elephants.

Croke’s respect for Williams, Bandoola, and elephants in general is evident throughout the book.  At a couple of points, the praise is laid on a bit thick, but it is difficult not come away with a similar respect for those depicted in the book.  For me, the highlight was the opportunity to learn about elephants and their interactions with humans in such fascinating detail.

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Video: Lullaby puts elephant to sleep

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According to the comments on this YouTube video, the elephant handler, Lek, is singing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” in Thai.  It seems to relax Faamai, a female Asian Elephant.  They say music soothes the savage beast, but Faamai seems very gentle to start with.  The video comes from Elephant News, a Thailand-based partner of the Elephant Nature Park and Save Elephant Foundation:

Book review: Savanna charms

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Secrets of the Savanna

After studying lions in Botswana and writing their better known Cry of the Kalahari, naturalists Mark and Delia Owens left for Zambia.  There the Owenses dedicated themselves to further animal research, mostly into the lives of a dwindling elephant population.  The 2006 memoir Secrets of the Savanna recounts their work and the close shaves they had there.

Poaching leads to fewer elephants, a larger number of orphans, and a dissolution of typical elephant society.  The authors document how the absence of adult females and matriarchs results in earlier pregnancies for orphaned females.  They tell us the story of the orphaned Gift, who becomes a mother too early and whose daughter suffers from her inexperience.

The Owenses also tell stories of their youth as they correspond to elements of the animal kingdom.  For example, Mark relates his father’s death and his own wanderings outside the U.S. to solitary males in other species like lions and elephants.  Delia tells a story of fun and safety in numbers as a teenage female and relates that to life in the elephant herd.  Their share sweet passages about their respective upbringings in Ohio and Georgia.

But like all social mammals, the couple realizes that it’s time to migrate home.  As they plan to leave Zambia, corrupt officials make plans to swoop in and take over their research station.  The research project has created jobs and given locals alternatives to poaching for ivory.  The corrupt officials want to end the research program so the locals will have no alternative but to poach again on their behalf.  It’s a frightening prospect, but the book ends on an optimistic note as one of the local program supporters is able to restore aspects of the project.

Secrets of the Savanna is a well-written book with charming scenes and prose.  While the subject matter of the threatened elephants is gut-wrenching, the Owenses plant enough seeds of hope for a rebound in the population.

Recommended.

Lab seeks artificial womb for mammoths

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asian elephant calf in the womb

It would be too controversial to implant a woolly mammoth embryo in an endangered Asian elephant surrogate.  Therefore, an artificial mammoth womb must be created.  So says Dr. George Church, the Harvard biologist on a mission to resurrect the mammoths.

Scientific American reports that “editing, birthing and then raising mammoth-like elephants is a huge undertaking. Church says that it would be unethical to implant gene-edited embryos into endangered elephants as part of an experiment. So his lab is looking into ways to build an artificial womb; so far, no such device has ever been shown to work.”

The creation of a mammoth-like uterus would be quite the scientific accomplishment since scientists have yet to master that with existing animals…

Elephant sanctuary in Brazil reviews toxic plant risks

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The Global Sanctuary for Elephants is developing a new refuge for elephants in Brazil, involving everything from installing steel pipe fences to assessing whether the local flora pose any health risks to elephants.

GSE reports that five countries in South America have banned elephant performances in circuses and shows.  This has resulted in elephants literally being sent to pasture, sometimes with inadequate care.  The goal of GSE is to complete a 2,800 acre natural refuge for a small herd of elephants.  Elephant Sanctuary Brazil is said to be the first and only elephant sanctuary in South America.

On their blog, GSE recently reported on an interesting consideration, which is that toxic plants could pose a risk to elephants who grew up without being exposed to that vegetation.  But GSE looked into it and found that elephants seem to have an instinctive understanding of which plants are dangerous even though their mothers never taught them to avoid them.  Check out what they learned from an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee:

http://www.globalelephants.org/elephants-and-toxic-plants/

The sanctuary will offer the opportunity to researchers to learn more about this behavior.

Zoo makes Kevlar caps for elephant’s tusks

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Oh Billy.jpg

The Denver Zoo called an aerospace engineer for help with dental problem.  Bill the elephant kept wearing down his tusks which could lead to infection.  Zoo staff needed a solution other than metal caps that would distract the playful Billy.  The result was a lightweight, ivory-colored cap made of fiberglass and Kevlar.  Kudos to the team in Denver for their innovative solution to maintain Billy’s health!  From the Denver Post:

Denver Zoo develops advanced technology to repair elephant tusks

Now, the zoo is being contacted by zoos across the country, asking for tips of the tusk trade.

By Elizabeth Hernandez The Denver Post

Posted:   02/12/2016

Billy had the elephant equivalent of a cracked tooth that needed a crown.

The solution — part dentistry, part engineering — patched up Billy and could help zoo animals around the world.

Billy, a 7-year-old Asian elephant who came to the Denver Zoo in 2013, is considered a kid at heart who loves digging in the dirt with his tusks, eating melons, tossing logs around and swimming. The pachyderm’s playful spirit started taking a toll on his tusks — modified teeth that continuously grow throughout elephants’ lives.

When zoo staff members Rachael Chappell and Dennis Donovan and zoo veterinarian Betsy Stringer noticed wear and tear on Billy’s tusks last April, they wanted to take action before the inner tusk became exposed and infection set in.

The team knew they would have to cap Billy’s tusks to protect them, but pre-existing caps were a cumbersome eyesore, often made of an eye-catching metal that would distract a young, inquisitive elephant like Billy.

“We decided it’s 2016, and we’re the Denver Zoo,” Donovan said. “Rachael mentioned they make carbon fiber wedding rings that are durable, and it just went from there.”

They contacted a local aerospace engineer who designed a lightweight, nonintrusive cap in about two weeks that would be fitted to Billy’s left tusk and would take the brunt of his horseplay.

The cap — made of fiberglass layers — matches Billy’s ivory and looks like the head of a cotton swab stuck on the end of his tusk.

“Billy’s very ‘Ooh, shiny object,’ ” Chappell said. “With this cap, he’s less likely to mess with it.”

Other benefits of the innovation include the ability to X-ray Billy to check on his tusk growth, which is not possible with the typical metal cap…

Scientist: Mammoths can live again in 7 years

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woolly-mammoth-with-Asian-elephant-shape

In five years, scientists could create a “cold-resistant elephant” (mammoth) embryo.  Gestation in the womb of an Asian elephant surrogate would take another two years.  So says Dr. George Church, a Harvard University biologist.

The mammoth midwives would use CRISPR technology, a breakthrough in DNA sequencing, to mirror Asian elephant genes to the genome of the woolly mammoth.  Church makes it sound simple:  “We could easily make tens of thousands of these elephants.”

Although the genetic basis for the cold-resistant elephants would be the mammoth, Church says that the goals are to protect Asian elephants and to stabilize Arctic habitats.  The Asian elephant population is dwindling for deforestation and herpes.  Having elephants graze in the tundra would reduce carbon emissions by keeping soil temperatures low.

Here’s an excerpt of what Church said in an interview with the Huffington Post:

CRISPR turned out to be easier than expected. The growing of embryos is harder to predict. I would say it will probably take us five years to work out the embryo development part, and then it takes at least two years to go through full gestation. So we might be seeing the first new baby elephants in seven years. Maybe a decade. That’s pretty soon…

I call them cold-resistant Asian elephants. What are unambiguously woolly mammoths are the DNA we’re drawing inspiration from and literally moving from the computer back into Asian elephants. What the hybrid will be called will be up to popular decision making that’s outside of my realm. I’m not going to call them mammoths unless somebody insists. They’re elephants with mammoth DNA.