Wednesday, June 18, 2008

African Elephant Domestication #3

1936Poster, originally uploaded by bucklesw1.

This photo is of the poster RBBB used in 1936 to advertise its new African elephants, though only three made it to the show and of them only two were the real forest or "pigmy" elephants. But the poster is accurate in showing that five were supposed to come to the show. Moreover, it pictures a man who might pass for Commandant Laplume who headed up the captures in the Congo.


The huge male pictured with Howard Bary (first photo) may be one and the same as that sought by RBBB agent McCormick Steele when he was sent to Africa in 1954. He was looking for huge tractable elephant for the circus. In late October 1954, Steele arrived at Jean de Medina’s okapi camp at Epulu in the Ituri Rainforest of the Belgian Congo. There he found 18 okapi and 16 work elephants. Alas , he was told by Medina that the largest elephant they had, standing some 11-feet, had recently been put to death because he had killed his cornac (mahout).

At that size, he sounds like the one with Bary in the 1947 photo. Steele reported back to RBBB that at Medina’s camp they had no remaining elephants over 9 feet. This comports with our knowledge that forest elephants are much shorter than the savannah elephants

Steele kept looking for a huge domesticated forest elephant but could never find one as tall as he wanted. Closest he came was a bull named “Sasa,” (or “Sassa”) a beautiful, gentle animal with long tusks. It was owned by a Mr. Costa, a young Portugese logging and sawmill operator, who kept the animal at his spread located some 19 miles from Stanleyville.” A report about the show‘s prospects for getting Sasa appeared in the December 1954 Billboard. However, Costa would not part with him and besides “Sasa” was only some 7.5 ft at the shoulder. Steele also learned that there were no huge tuskers at Gangala na Bodio.

In the end Steele left Africa without securing a big elephant. However, he did get the highly coveted okapi from Medina at Epulu. It was a male named Arabi and it was flown by Sabena World Airlines from Stanleyville to Hamburg, Germany for quarantine. It took a lot negotiating with the Belgian authorities but Steele succeeded in getting the first okapi for a circus anywhere.

Alas Arabi could not be shown with the Big Show. Owing to Dept. of Agriculture regulations it could only go to a USDA approved facility. Why? Because it was a wild imported ruminant and a possible carrier of hoof and mouth disease. Only a USDA licensed permanent zoo could show such an animal, not an itinerant show like RBBB. A deal was made whereby RBBB sent Arabi to the Brookfield zoo with the understanding that if he sired a calf then RBBB could take it. That was OK with USDA. And RBBB did indeed get Aribi’s first calf in 1960 but by then the menagerie exhibit was shown only in the Garden

For an African elephant to feature in its 1955 edition, the show then turned to animal dealer Fred Zeehandelaar. He imported a bush elephant from Tanganyika (or Kenya), but he was only a punk. We knew him later as Diamond, and he was delivered to RBBB during its 1955 date in Detroit. And he did grow to the size coveted by the circus but not until after the show had given him to the Knoxville zoo in 1963.

By the end of the 1950s much of the agricultural work in the Belgian Congo was mechanized so there was little need for the African elephants. However, some were still at Gangala when the Belgian Congo obtained independence in 1960. There then ensued some of the worst unrest and civil war ever seen anywhere. It was a bloody mess, and except for a few breaks, is still going on. I have heard that the remaining elephants at Gangala were simply slaughtered during the initial fighting, a sad ending to an interesting chapter in elephant husbandry.


Bob Cline said...

Another fantastic piece of animal research from an incredible Historian. Thanks Richard!

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more with Bob -- Richard this was a fabulous write up. Your late "brother," Chang Reynolds, used to tell me years ago that you were quite the menagerie historian -- this once again proves that sage observation by Chang.

Bill Schreiber

Wade G. Burck said...

I can only add agreement to Bob and Bill's statement. RJR is truly an encyclopedia of captive animal history. A living, breathing wikopedia.
Wade Burck