War Elephants

War Elephants

War Elephants

War Elephants


Elephants have fought in human armies for more than three thousand years. Asian powers boasted of their pachyderm power, while the Romans fielded elephants alongside their legendary legions but were, perhaps, too proud to admit that mere animals contributed to victory. Elephants have gored, stomped, and sliced their way through infantry and cavalry with great success. They have also been cut, speared, bombed, and napalmed for their efforts. This is the story of their largely forgotten role in the history of warfare.

Generals throughout recorded history have used elephants as tanks, bulldozers, and cargo trucks long before such vehicles existed. Until gunpowder began to reduce the utility of elephants in battle during the 17th Century, these beasts built roads, swung swords, or simply terrified opposing forces. Although some believe that elephants were mere gimmicks of warfare, Kistler discredits that notion. His book hopes to give elephants the credit they deserve for the sacrifices they have endured. Elephants have long fought for and served human masters, but it is now the elephants themselves that must be protected.


Before addressing the many intriguing questions about the elephant as an individual fighter, as a scientist and conservationist, I am obligated to consider the big picture. To the elephant expert, reading a book as panoramic as this—the multitudes of animals and the vast expanses encompassed—is staggering. Today we have become accustomed to thinking of small and shrinking populations of three Endangered Species (only about forty thousand wild Asian elephants remain, and the two African species have declined dramatically though they still number 440,000–600,000).

Until recently the modern literature has referred to only two species, the Asian elephant (Elephas maximns) and the African elephant (Loxodonta africana), conventionally described as comprising two subspecies, the savannah elephant and the forest (or pygmy) elephant. In 2004 taxonomists determined that, beyond significant morphological differences, the two subspecies did not interbreed to any significant level and thus each was a full species; the African savannah elephant remained L. africana while the African forest elephant became L. cyclotis. The distinction transcends academic quibbling because, of the two African species, almost certainly only the forest elephant ever fought in wars. Forest elephants are much smaller than their savannah cousins, about the size of the Asian elephant and sharing with it some characteristics that many biologists believe to show a high degree of convergent evolution.

At the time the battles in this book were fought, North Africa and the Middle East still had abundant grasslands. African forest elephants certainly reached the shores of the Mediterranean and even the Asian elephant came very close. A sobering thought today is that—whether through hunting or habitat destruction or climate change—elephants have become extinct over nearly all the huge swaths of land that hosted so many battles and campaigns.

The wild elephant populations required to supply the armies of this book must have comprised a huge supply pool. Wilderness is key to elephant warfare because it is safe to assume that nearly all of the . . .

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