It all begins with an indecipherable journey. An enigma that unfolded over a year and a half, covered a route of more than 500 kilometers and kept scientists and specialists from all over the world on tenterhooks. In March 2020, in the Chinese province of Yunnan, 14 Asian elephants advanced to the north of the Xishuangbanna Nature Reserve and crossed agricultural areas and small villages until, one fine day, they decided to return as inexplicably as they had left.
Some scientists claim that the pachyderms’ mysterious journey was caused by the gradual disappearance of the areas that usually separated them from humans. Others argue that the elephant that was supposed to lead the herd became disoriented. Faced with doubt, or rather with the many doubts still floating in the air, it is possible to explain this enigmatic wandering in another way, by considering the mobilization of hundreds of people who for months were in charge of feeding the 14 elephants and redirecting their steps to prevent them from invading the cities and causing some catastrophe.
If we avoid the temptation to reduce the elephants’ journey to the status of a scientific curiosity, we are left with a complex mechanism. A provocation in the form of a Russian doll. A tale that reveals stories and journeys of other times. Some as memorable as the one made by General Hannibal in 218 B.C., through the snowy Alps, with the suicidal purpose of invading Rome.
The historian Titus Livius tells that Hannibal crossed the Alps with 30,000 soldiers, 12,000 horses and 37 war elephants. One of those elephants was Suros, a large Syrian elephant with a single tusk, which was none other than Hannibal’s elephant. That made him the only pachyderm to survive the ice crossing. Suros was Hannibal’s support. His center of gravity. The platform that offered him an expanded view of the battlefield. The eyes that compensated for the absence of his right eye.
For several centuries, elephants were the terror of the enemy cavalry, which would retrace their steps before colliding with the approaching masses. Elephants were then a sophisticated weapon, which appeared in the distance like a walking wall and represented, at short distances, the ultimate psychological strike. What we often forget is that elephants were once involuntary travelers, bought in Asia or Africa to be used in these wars.
Gifts, juggling and glances
In 798 Emperor Charlemagne received a white elephant named Abul-Abbas as a gift from the caliph of Baghdad. That gesture inaugurated a long tradition of similar diplomatic gifts. Thus, the Portuguese monarchy gave the elephants received by Pope Leo X in 1513, King Louis XIV in 1664 and Archduke Maximilian of Austria in the mid-16th century. This last pachyderm came from Asia and was named Solomon. This is told by the writer José Saramago, in his novel The Elephant’s Journey (2008).
Gradually, the gift elephant gave way to the buffoon elephant, which also represented the demand for this type of entertainment by the popular classes. The story of the elephant Hasken illustrates this phenomenon. Hansken was born in 1630, in Ceylon, and arrived in 1633 in the Netherlands, after a journey of seven months. Prince Frederick Henry kept her in his royal stables along with other exotic animals and later gave her to a relative. The elephant was passed from one owner to another for years until she was finally purchased by a showman named Cornelis van Groenevelt.
Van Groenevelt taught Hansken to carry a bucket with his trunk, wield a sword and fire a gun, and took him around Europe, from town to town, as a popular attraction. In 1637 they arrived in Amsterdam, where Rembrandt had a chance to see the spectacle. He then made a detailed sketch of the animal, with an obvious interest in the textures and folds of the elephant’s skin. The sketch served as a study for a 1638 etching by Rembrandt, entitled Adam and Eve in Paradise.
After years of touring and performing, traveling through Denmark, Estonia, Latvia and Italy, Hansken collapsed in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria in November 1655. He was 25 years old. His last minutes were captured in three drawings by the artist Stefano della Bella. The endless travels, Hansken’s cohabitation with his many owners, the tricks of the fair and the sad spectacle of his agony, had been captured by Rembrandt with clairvoyant acuity.
To look at the etching Adam and Eve in Paradise is to understand that Rembrandt had understood it all. Rembrandt imagined Hansken as a creature of creation, small and yet superior, frolicking in the sun while observing from the background with the characteristic intelligence of elephants. He observed everything and observes us in everything, full-bodied and naked. In ambition and cruelty, in candor, generosity, empathy and vileness. In what Nietzsche called human, all too human.
Hansken is the eye that returns Rembrandt’s compassionate gaze on the world. The artist establishes, from the presence of the little elephant, a narrative model that makes possible the portrait of the human from the animals that surround us, like the dog Buck that stars in The Call of the Wild (1903) or the donkeys that are at the center of the cinematographic odysseys of Balthazar’s Chance (1966) and Eo (2022). These animals see us and allow us to see ourselves, to laugh at our miseries and to be ashamed of ourselves.
A long road
With Hansken begins a sad and long tradition of carnival elephants, which reached one of its most famous milestones in August 1994, with the death of Tyke: the elephant who, after fatally attacking her trainer and injuring another worker at the Honolulu International Circus, was killed by the police in the Hawaiian capital. This event opened an international debate on the use of wild animals in circus and film shows.
The largest animal on the surface of the Earth is also the animal of the great questions. The great philosopher. The one who knows how to appreciate the creative power of questions above the reassuring effect that almost always accompanies the answers. We still do not know why more than 400 elephants died in Botswana, between March 2020 and January 2021, or why 14 of them undertook a journey of more than 500 kilometers in China, also in March 2020.
However, we know that elephants have an exceptional memory and intelligence, that they communicate with each other in various ways and that in recent years they have learned to be born without tusks to avoid ivory traffickers. Perhaps, after having been war animals, gift animals and circus animals, they have decided to undertake a long journey to test the possibilities of our empathy. Maybe we passed the test in China, a couple of years ago. Maybe.