The Complexity of Elephants

by Inga Yandell

As christmas approaches children everywhere are writing Santa with their lists—but few I imagine, will be expecting an elephant with wings?

Award-winning children’s author Susanne Gervay, captures the beautiful complexity and culture surrounding elephants, in her new book ‘Elephants Have Wings’—a perfect christmas gift for curious young minds.

Brimming with detail, fascinating facts and colourful illustrations, ‘Elephants Have Wings’ invites children to explore the history, culture, and complexities of elephants. A deep respect and expanded view of these impressive creatures encourages readers to cast fresh eyes on elephants. Imparting the value of an ancient species with long-held ties to society, Susanne conveys a charming tale that endears children to elephants and their enduring legends. Such is the context to instil in our youth, the virtues of curiosity—both for culture and conservation.

I asked Susanne to share her thoughts on the importance of art and story in conveying natures fragile state and engaging young minds and hearts in the efforts of wildlife preservation. In her words…

Elephants are the gentle giants of the world. They are like humans with small families of up to four babies, but they do take 22 months to have a baby elephant. They live nearly the same life span as humans and can continue for more than 70 years like in the Old Testament. ‘The days of our years are threescore years and ten’ (Psalm 90.10). They are intelligent with memory that spans many years, communicate, care for their families. When a baby elephant cries, their family protects and caresses them. They hug, wrapping their trunks around each other. Elephants have enormous capacity for love, intelligence, and show grief, joy, anger and play. Loyal to their families and tribes, they form deep family bonds in their herds led by the oldest female elephants. What moves me the most is the respect elephants pay to those who has passed away. They pay homage to the bones of their dead, gently touching the skulls and tusks with their trunks and feet. As elephants pass a place that a loved one has died, they will pause silently in memory.

Elephants are part of the lives of so many young people growing up. They offer warmth, strength, safety. As a child I slept with my soft grey elephant. Dr Seuss’ Horton the elephant was my companion. Horton protected the world and me from danger. Pressing my face against the fence at Taronga Zoo, I adored watching the elephants in their pseudo Indian compound. I rode with a gaggle of children on rickety seats strapped to the elephant’s back. What greater excitement than Ashton’s Circus coming to town. Everyone piled into the Big Top circus tent marvelling at elephants doing amazing tricks. As a child I thought the elephants loved giving rides and performing tricks. It hurts to think that they may have been treated unkindly.

When I was ready to explore the world as a young adult, I embarked on the obligatory trek through Asia and India. Elephants permeated the land, cultures and lives of the peoples. Throughout India there were temple elephants where elephants participated in Hindu festivals. Buddhist and Hindu temples abounded with images, bas-reliefs and sculptures of elephants. The exquisite kalaga tapestries of Burma (Myanmar) created with gold threads, beads, sequins, glass stones depicted the Ramayana and the Jataka stories with complex images of the white elephant of enlightenment. In Chiang Mai, I feed baby elephants with bananas. Elephants worked hard in the logging industry. They lived a double life of labour with often brutal treatment and also veneration.

The elephant is sacred throughout India and Asia, integral to Buddhism and Hinduism in their many forms, culture, folklore and traditions. Buddha was re-incarnated into a white elephant and at his birth, a white elephant appeared in the sky. The Garuda, a large mythical bird-like creature, in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology, was created from the cosmic egg that hatched the eight elephants supporting the universe. Ganesh, venerated and loved Hindu Elephant God, is Lord of Obstacles and Beginnings. In Hindu mythology the flying white elephants bring monsoon rains to refresh the land. According to legend, while Buddha’s mother was pregnant, she dreamt a white elephant entered her womb.

In Islam too, the elephant is venerated as Muhammad was born in the Year of the Elephant (Arabic: عام الفيل, ʿĀmu l-Fīl). The story of the blind men and the elephant told in Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufi Islam, Jainism and other Asian-Indian sects challenges humanity to seek truth and peace.

On my travels, I journeyed to Africa where elephants are integral to the land, culture, folklore and beliefs in spirits. Portrayed as powerful, strong, kind and noble, the elephant is seen in the ritual objects of ancestor veneration and African rites of passage. The Ashanti of Ghana honour elephants, giving dead elephants the burial rites of human chiefs.

Elephants today are being threatened with survival with loss of their habitats, hunting them for game, illegal killing for their ivory tusks. Elephant numbers have dropped by 62% over the last decade. The Asian elephant is an endangered species with less than 32,000 in the wild. Taronga Zoo in Sydney is working with other international zoos to help conserve and save elephants.

Elephants have worked for humanity and are fundamental to our cultural and spiritual life. Today international zoos, governments and organisations are working to save the elephant. However the threat to them continues.
I created ‘Elephants Have Wings’ with artist Anna Pignataro, to invite young people to discuss the traditions, complexity and beauty of the elephant over the millennium. The extraordinary painting of the Divine Elephant protecting two children in a landscape of elephants symbolically melds all living creatures into the tree of life.

As elephants have brought wisdom to the world, we must be wise. As elephants take us on a spiritual and philosophical journey of truth, we must seek truth. As elephants have protected us for generations, we must protect them now.

Elephants Have Wings by Susanne Gervay illustrated by Anna Pignataro.
Ford Street Publishing, ISBN: 9781925000399 (hardback), 9781925000405 (paperback).

Susanne Gervay is an award winning children’s author recognised for her work on social justice. Her books are endorsed by Variety, Room to Read, Life Education, the Cancer Council, The Alannah and Madeline Foundation, The Children’s Hospital Westmead among others. Director of the Sydney Arts heritage hotel, The Hughenden, she was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for children’s literature and professional organisations.;

Elephants Have Wings

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Inga Yandell
Explorer and photo-journalist, passionate about nature, culture and travel. Combining science and conservation with investigative journalism to provide educational resources and a platform for science exploration.
Inga Yandell

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