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It is just bad behaviour on my part, I must admit, when I, as a wildlife scientist, point fingers at other people’s ignorance about wildlife, issue unsolicited comments and corrections at errors they make, poke fun even.
The past is an immense area of stony ground that many people would like to drive across as if it were a motorway, while others move patiently from stone to stone, lifting each one because they need to know what lies beneath. Which means that Elephas maximus Linnaeus, 1758, as the species is named, fully and formally, refers at the first instance to the African elephant. It is the idea of history itself, that Saramago examines from his fictional vantage point, using the lens of literature. Perhaps Linnaeus, in his enthusiasm to describe the elephant, paid insufficient attention to history.
Fortunately for us ignorant retrospective liars about elephants, Asian and African, the taxonomists are still on our side. Still, after the conundrum posed by Linnaeus’s error, what a distinguished and artful conclusion to arrive at, for Asian elephants!
And what, one wonders, too, will happen now, to the poor African elephant foetus in the jar?
Or perhaps, it will remain a mute witness, as the elephants do on their own journeys through landscapes of Asia and Africa, when we subject them to our scrutiny, amusement, benevolence, entertainment, affection, harassment, and exploitation. For the first time in the history of humanity, an animal was bidding farewell, in the literal sense, to a few human beings, as if he owed them friendship and respect, an idea unconfirmed by the moral precepts in our codes of conduct, but which can perhaps be found inscribed in letters of gold in the fundamental laws of the elephantine race.
This entry was posted in Asian elephant, people, science and tagged African elephant, art, essay, literature, research, Saramago, wildlife on 14 January 2014 by T R Shankar Raman. Elephant d'Afrique Elephant d'AsieLes elephants sont des gros mammiferes herbivores que l'on peut trouver en Asie et en Afrique. A drawing of an elephant I saw on an overnight safari trip in Aquila reserve, South Africa. Still, it is hard to resist at times, especially when it concerns animals as wonderful and legendary, and, yes, as large as elephants.
A website or newspaper reports on a serious issue involving elephants and people in the fragmented landscape of forests and fields and cities in southern India, but uses a photograph of a large herd of African elephants marching through open savanna.
The study in question, by Enrico Capellini of the University of Copenhagen and an international team of scientists, found that something long believed to be true about Asian elephants, their very identity as Elephas maximus established by Linnaeus in his historic work Systema Naturae, was the result of an error. Which means that I might now have to suppress my smug, superior erudition on telling Asian from African elephants and instead eat my own words.
It must be said that history is always selective, and discriminatory too, selecting from life only what society deems to be historical and scorning the rest, which is precisely where we might find the true explanation of facts, of things, of wretched reality itself.


The elephant foetus that Linnaeus labelled was obtained at his behest by the Swedish royalty from the collection of Albertus Seba, a Dutch pharmacist interested in natural history and trader in animals collected from various parts of the world. Waving their bewildering box of rules about names and naming of animals, called the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, they have provided a face-saving way out. Hansken was a female Asian elephant, brought to Europe courtesy the right company this time, the Dutch East India Company, from Sri Lanka, with the fortuitous result that the type locality mentioned by Linnaeus for Elephas maximus can now remain the same. This is Elephas maximus (Sketch by Rembrandt, Courtesy: British Museum via Wikimedia Commons). A newly-designated specimen, the skeleton of Hansken, whose fleshed-and-blooded portrait was made by Rembrandt himself!
The foetus could become a museum celebrity, to be probed and pinched and peered at further.
As they will continue to do while we struggle to come to terms with elephants with whom we have lived for thousands of years. It is particularly hard to stay quiet when someone is talking or writing about Asian elephants, Elephas maximus, but uses a painting or photograph or example of the African species, Loxodonta africana. Seba obtained the elephant foetus from the Dutch West India Company, which traded in Africa and regions west across the Atlantic. In 1664, John Ray, an English academic who quit Cambridge to pursue natural history and travel through Europe, saw and wrote about “…the skin and skeleton of an elephant which was shown in Florence some 8 or 10 years ago and died there”, a specimen that Linnaeus, too, was aware of.
Arriving in Europe in the 1630s, she was taken as a travelling curiosity through varies cities, including Amsterdam, where in 1637, she was sketched by a person no less than Rembrandt! In Saramago’s part of the world, in Portuguese and Spanish and Catalan, is not the word for story and history the same? Struggling to understand the elephants for who they are, to respect their identities and individuality, and to give them the admiration that they deserve, we continue to seek answers on our own terms. Le plus lointain ancetre des elephants ( le numidotherium ) remonte a 50 millions d'annees. A reputed Indian scientist suggests making fences with disused railway tracks to separate people from elephants here in India because it has worked in Addo National Park in Africa, and the authorities take the suggestion and run to install another barrier in an already sundered landscape.
His words in this delightful novel came to my mind in the last few days, oddly enough, after reading about the results of a recent scientific study on elephants. The specimen—long considered as the first taxonomic specimen and permanent benchmark for Asian elephant—turns out to be (you guessed it!) that of an African elephant.
Linnaeus, however, believed and declared the locality of origin of the elephant as Ceylon (Sri Lanka), which may have been the case if the source had been the Dutch East India Company. If Linnaeus had paid more attention to history, as to biology, one would perhaps have not had to wait 250 years for an analysis of ancient mitochondrial DNA to establish that the elephant originated in a part of Africa where Dutch traders were active in the 17th century.


To find and pin down the new name-torch carrier, the scientists have pulled out, not a rabbit from a hat, for that is not hip in science, but what is perfectly de rigueur: a skeleton out of a closet. The skeleton remains today, much as Ray described it, in the Natural History Museum of the University of Florence.
As Solomon enters Austria, Subhro, too, is passed on with the elephant to Maximilian, who with a sort of Germanic disdain, renames the elephant Suleiman and rechristens his mahout, Fritz. L’elephant a une longue trompe pour boire et pour se doucher et lui servant aussi de defense, il peut aussi porter des troncs d'arbre avec sa trompe. To sell news or products or opinions, the African is pulled in place of the Asian, again and again and again. A study probing more than three centuries into the past, pulling specimens out of museums, flipping open the pages of an historic book of the eighteenth century, in which Carl von Linne or Linnaeus, the father of modern biological taxonomy, formally classified the elephant, bestowing the scientific name Elephas maximus, for the very first time. Published in November 2013, the study weaves brilliant scientific and archival detective work, delving into ancient DNA and protein molecules, into museum records, artwork, and archives, to conclude that Linnaeus had it wrong.
A genuine Asian elephant skeleton, confirmed by anatomical and DNA analysis, which Linnaeus himself had referred to, will now be the specimen-designate for Asian elephants.
The scientists have verified from anatomical and molecular analysis that the skeleton is that of an Asian elephant. Cummings, after the doting fingers of prurient philosophers have pinched and poked, and the naughty thumb of science prodded the elephant-that-never-was, now: will it rest encased in its alcoholic tomb? I applaud their patience, their achievement, but it is Saramago’s subtle humour that rings in my ear. Will it be quietly mourned, yet spurned, like a miscarriage, spawned by Linnaeus, of an anonymous mother? Il peut aussi charger et pietiner ses predateurs, mais il faut qu'il soit en groupe, car il est tres rare qu'il fasse cela tout seul.
There are inscriptions and woodcuts, coins and frescoes, depicting Solomon in Europe, and Hansken is immortalised by Linnaeus and Rembrandt, but clearly the elephant is the centre of attention, not the mahout on its back.



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