Thursday, 22 March 2018

No 58 - Rhinos vs Elephants: Myths and realities

For at least two millennia, the notion has persisted that the rhinoceros and the elephant are sworn enemies. Really? One can see why the idea is attractive: the world’s two heftiest land mammals, animal superhero hulks, if you like, having it out in the arena of WWPachyderm. But is there much to it outside the arena of the imagination?

            In her book Rhinoceros (Reaktion Books, 2008), Kelly Enright traces it all back to a Persian myth about a bad-tempered, isolated, one-horned creature named the Karkadann. Elephant, not knowing of the Karkadann’s habitual anger, comes ambling by. They hate each other at first sight. They fight, the Karkadann ducking under the rearing elephant and piercing its stomach. The elephant collapses on top of the Karkadann, irretrievably trapping it. At which point a huge bird arrives, plucks both of them up, carries them off to its nest, and feeds them to its babies. Fortunately for everybody no such gigantic bird exists, but the motif of the rhino stabbing the elephant in the stomach would be renewed centuries later. Enright includes an illustration of the fight from a 1550 copy of the Persian text Ajo’ib al-Makhluqat (“Wonders of Creation”), but doesn’t speculate on how old the legend itself might be. One of Wikipedia’s sources notes the appearance of the Karkadann – the name is derived from a Sanskrit word meaning “Lord of the plains” – in a tenth-century tract by  Al-Biruni.

Bishan Das, "Emperor Babur shoots a rhinoceros", c. 1590.
Centuries on, the Indian Mughals tried artificially to pit captive elephants and rhinos against each other, with what success I don’t know.  It’s possible that the impression of the pachyderms’ enmity was exacerbated by some Mughals’ habit of hunting rhinos from elephant-back. The invading British followed suit, naturally, and in his compendious British Cyclopedia of Natural History (1837), one Charles Partington described exactly such forced hunting encounters, adding that “nobody has ever recorded, and probably nobody ever saw, a battle between an Elephant and a Rhinoceros in the state of wild nature.”

            The ancient Greeks and Romans were also fascinated by both elephants and rhinos, and in his Natural History Pliny compared the two. The elephant was, in his view, closest to man in intelligence: it understood languages and was trainable, while its enemy the rhino just irascibly sharpened its horn on hard stones, preparatory to poking the elephant in the stomach. Pliny didn’t claim to have witnessed any such encounter – and when the Romans, with their characteristic blood-lust, put an elephant in the arena with a rhino, they seemed entirely uninterested in fighting each other.

            Both creatures disappeared from European life for a millennium after the Roman period; artists’ impressions became increasingly distorted and improbable, until imperial travel brought a few captive animals to the menageries of the rich and powerful.  In 1515, Muzafar II of Gujarat sent King Manuel of Portugal an Indian rhinoceros. Manuel did the manly thing and put the rhino-elephant enmity to the test. Once again, no dice: the two animals just moved warily away from each other. (I’ve found only one scholarly article relating to this meeting and its implications – in Portuguese.)

Anonymous, 'Genuine portrait of a live rhinoceros ... Paris"
Clara - 1749 (detail)
Nevertheless, artists who began attempting portrayals of elephants and rhinos couldn’t let the idea go. In 1741 a Bengal rhino named Clara was adopted as a pet by a director of the Dutch East India Company, brought to Europe and shown to King Louis XV in 1749. An anonymous engraver commemorated the occasion with a portrait of Clara, with now conventionally exaggerated ‘armour-plated’ hide – and a rhino-elephant tussle going on in the background.

Similarly Peter Kolb, who visited the Cape in 1730 and should have learned better, but was largely concerned to recycle hoary myths about Africa, reproduced a bad copy of an Albrecht Dürer engraving of a rhino-elephant fight, complete with obligatory horn puncturing the obligatory tummy.

Hendrik Hondius, "A rhinoceros fights an elephant", Dutch, c.1610.
In the West, this legendary rivalry would persist right into the twentieth century, to reappear in popular form in de Brunhoff’s Babar the Elephant stories: the bad-tempered rhino Rataxes, seeking revenge for having a firecracker attached to his tail, leads a whole rhino army against the elephants, but is really rather dim-witted and the rhinos are defeated by Babar’s superior elephantine intelligence. This same desire to see the biggest animals in conflict ramifies into numerous websites and publications which speculate fruitlessly on which would win in a fight. And one Isabel Thomas has produced a whole children’s book entitled Elephant  vs Rhinoceros.

Africans had their own legends about rhino-elephant conflict.  Cobus van der Vlies, in his book Southern Africa Wildlife and Adventure, relays an unsourced and rather unspecific legend:

Folklore has it, that when the Great Spirit created Rhino, he was very jealous of Elephant and attacked him wherever he found him. Not having horns, Elephant was defenceless against Rhino, and many were killed. Elephant went to the Great Spirit and asked to be given horns, so that he could defend himself against these attacks. The Great Spirit told Elephant that to give him horns, would make him, as the largest animal, much too dangerous, but consoled Elephant by giving him beautiful tusks. To prevent Rhino from killing any more elephants, the Great Spirit took Rhino’s horns from his head and placed them in a row on his nose. He also took away Rhino’s sharp eyesight and replaced it with very poor eyesight, to prevent him from aiming and thus still being able to attack Elephant.

Kelly Enright also records two African stories about the rivalry. One concerns the relative size of dung-bolls; another is an Ndebele tale in which Rhino, wounded by Elephant in a fight, borrows a quill from Porcupine to sew up his wounds. He loses the quill, and thinking he’s swallowed it, spends the rest of his days looking in his poo for it. Both stories serve as explanations for why the rhino habitually scatters its dung about.  And no rhino dies.

With the advent of the national park in the twentieth century, animals could be monitored, scientifically studied, and photographed by tourists more comprehensively than ever before. So one would imagine that if elephant-rhino battles were true or widespread, someone would notice. Social media, notably YouTube and Instagram, do indeed throw up two or three incidences. And I mean two or three.

There is, prominently, one film clip which shows a couple of minutes of non-contact, show-off, argy-bargy between an elephant and a rhino, with the latter quickly deciding on a judicious retreat. This sort of thing probably happens fairly regularly, when a female rhino is sheltering a baby, or a bolshy young male elephant is strutting his stuff. I’ve observed similarly wary but respectful manoeuvrings between elephants and crusty old ‘dagaboy’ buffalo bachelors. Unfortunately, this particular clip has been repeatedly recirculated and successively pumped up into some mythic titanic battle “in the African jungle”.

This exaggeration isn’t helped by a slew of other images you can find, via Google, of slashing, blood-spattered battles between elephant and rhino, pictures which only a dunce would fail to see are crudely photo-shopped and clearly fake. Unhappily, these revolting bits of gratuitous violence seem rather popular.

In fact, fatal rhino-elephant encounters are very, very rare, and have probably occurred only under unusual circumstances. The single genuine instance of a fatality I could find was filmed by a couple in an unnamed park: an elephant male, possibly in musth, attacked a mother rhino, rolled and crushed her; she died after three days, leaving a half-grown calf. Like apparently random and gratuitous murders among humans, there is probably a back-story, some build-up of tension, a fright, a hidden injury or toothache bothering the elephant – to which no human was privy. Again, sadly, this aberrant incident has been sensationalised out of all proportion: the elephant is “testosterone-fuelled”, “crazed”, “brutal”.

Of course, the most famous rhino fatalities were those of 1999 in the Pilanesberg reserve – and these occurred as the result of a single management miscalculation. Young male elephants translocated from Kruger into a strange place, with little life experience other than post-cull trauma, and no supervision from older elephants, “ran amok” and tried to mount and/or kill a number of black and white rhinos. A kind of elephantine Lord of the Flies. Some “rogues” were shot, but long-term, remarkably, the importation of  some adult elephants reined in the wayward behaviour. It taught us a lot about the power and intricacy of elephant family dynamics.

You will also find numerous shallow and sensational retellings of the Pilanesberg aberration on the Internet, which are best ignored. Notably, the Pilanesberg case is the only such noted by Raman Sukumar, India’s leading elephant expert, in his comprehensive book, The Living Elephants. The best accounts are by elephant expert Rob Slotow, who has published several detailed studies of the problem. Slotow observes that other rhinos have in fact died under attack from elephants in Umfolozi-Hluhluwe and elsewhere; these incidents, too, were consequences of translocation. If there is ever fatal competition over grazing or browsing resources, in which (according to Graham Kerley in his chapter in Scholes and Mennell’s Elephant Management) aggressive elephants might play a role “analogous to predation”, this would appear to be infrequent and almost certainly the result of human-imposed constraints on the animals’ ranges and therefore relationships.

In short, rhino-elephant conflict happens, but extremely rarely, and even more rarely without our having interfered at some level. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.


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