Exotic Travelers: On September 22, We Celebrated Elephant Appriciation Day

In one of the old Indian poems there is a line: "Without elephants, there is no splendor in the kingdom." These animals served in the Indian army, drove rajahs, helped simpler people in their daily work. Exquisite decorative items and ornaments were carved from their tusks, and they themselves were a royal gift – in the truest sense of the word.

Elephant with Rabbit Ears

In Russia, these amazing animals were heard about in ancient times. But, judging by the images that have survived to our days, sometimes people did not have a very good idea of what they actually looked like. Sometimes it was a cross between a horse and a lion. But there are also more reliable portraits – for example, a stucco elephant that somehow landed on the relief of the orthodox St. George Cathedral in Yuriev-Polsky, which was built as early as 1234. However, even there, not everything is going smoothly with the anatomy –eagle-like claws have grown on the elephant's legs, and the ears are more like a hare's.


Medieval European ideas about the anatomy of elephants. Photo: National Library of Great Britain

One of the first of our compatriots who saw the amazing animal firsthand was the merchant Afanasy Nikitin. In the 15th century, he reached India – earlier than any of the famous European navigators. Nikitin found himself on such a long journey involuntarily: when he was a day's journey from Astrakhan, local criminals robbed his ships loaded with precious furs and hunting gyrfalcons. The merchant had taken the goods to trade in the Shirvan land (now it is the territory of Dagestan) for future profit, and therefore could not return to his homeland empty-handed. So he had to go on "The Journey Beyond Three Seas", which he described in detail in his travel notes.

"The Indians serve as infantrymen and walk... quickly. They are naked and barefooted. In one hand they carry a shield and a sword in the other. Other subjects carry long straight bows and arrows. In battle they always use elephants. <...> To the trunk and to the tasks of the elephant they tie huge forged swords, weighing a kantar each. The elephants are clad in armor plates and on their back they carry howdahs, and in each howdah there are twelve men in armor, armed with guns and arrows."

Afanasy Nikitin "The Journey Beyond Three Seas "


War elephants invariably made an indelible impression on travelers from distant countries. A war elephant. The European image of the 13th century. Photo: National Library of Great Britain

However, to look at an elephant, it was absolutely not necessary to go so far. Pyotr Potemkin, who went as an envoy to Spain and France in 1667, and to Vienna in 1674, saw these animals in the royal menageries: "There are a lot of buildings in the interesting royal courtyard, and there are a lot of buildings in the gardens, and there are a lot of fruit trees in the gardens… There are a lot of lions, beavers, elephants, lynxes, and other animals in the menageries."

It is not surprising – the eastern rulers, wishing to express a kind attitude towards a "colleague", often sent him an elephant as a gift. Russian tsars also received such gifts. For example Ivan the Terrible was sent it by one of the Iranian shahs (scientists argue whether it was Shah Tahmasp or Shah Abbas). Heinrich von Staden, who lived in Moscow at that time, wrote about this event: "The Grand Duke (Ivan Vasilyevich the Terrible) was presented with an elephant along with an Arab who looked after this elephant. The Arab received a large salary in Moscow <...> The elephant stood usually in a shed, and around the shed was a tyn."

The first of the Romanov dynasty, Tsar Mikhail, also received the animal as a gift – there were written mentions from 1625 and 1626 that the drivers "entertained the sovereign on the elephants", for which they were rewarded.

Elephant in Boots

The character of Krylov's famous fable was also a royal gift – in 1839 it made a long journey from Bukhara to St. Petersburg. It must be said, that the path was not easy for it. The elephant wintered in Orenburg, and in May started travelling along a specially designed route. The instruction for the employees accompanying the outlandish guest read: "Upon arrival in Samara, you will have to go from it with the elephant to Simbirsk, through the village of Terengu, bypassing the county town of Sengilei shown in the route, in order to avoid an inconvenient mountainous road."

No matter how hard the officials from the Border Commission tried to take into account all the subtleties, they overestimated the strength of the elephant. According to their plan, the animal had to pass 50-60 versts a day. As a result, in Samara, the elephant’s legs had to be treated – they were completely worn down on the infamous Russian roads. Having slightly recovered, it went on, but noticeably weakened, to Simbirsk, and there it became ill. The escorts got scared, nursed the beast for a week, and then decided to send it down the river, especially since all the deadlines had been disrupted and the elephant risked spending the winter on the road. During the "cruise", the royal gift got stronger and eventually safely reached the addressee – however, instead of August 1, it arrived on October 3.

In Tsarskoye Selo, a special Indian-style pavilion was built for it, and a suitable diet was selected. Here is what Fyodor Litke, who served as the mentor of Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich at that time, wrote about it in November 1839: "We paid a farewell visit to the elephant ... a very clever and kind animal. It was born from a tame couple in Bukhara, as far as I know... and was sent to the sovereign from the khan as a gift. The gamekeeper, in whose hands it remains, said that yesterday it had been roaring, spinning… It eats 2 pounds of flatbread a day, which is baked for it with butter and sugar, and 6 pounds of hay, and drinks two tubs of water."


New elephants appeared every now and then in Tsarskoye Selo: the royal elephant in 1892. Photo: Encyclopedia of Tsarskoye Selo

The Bukhara ruler liked the idea of the gift, and ten years later he sent another elephant to Russia, which the officials, keeping in mind their previous experience, immediately decided to deliver by water transport. The distance for pedestrian crossings was much more sparing – 30 versts with indispensable daytime rest. In addition, official instructions were sent in advance along the elephant's route "so that decent quarters for people were allocated for overnight stays and rest, and spacious courtyards and, if possible, covered sheds or canopies for the elephant, and, if possible, white bread and hay were prepared for the elephant; so that there would be no stopping at the passes; and measures would be taken to prevent riots from people gathering out of curiosity, from whom it is strictly forbidden to demand money for this."

Ten years had passed. The Emir of Bukhara stubbornly continued to send elephants to Russia. Another gift lived in Orenburg for almost a year, after which it moved towards the capital. It was already traveling comfortably: it had traveled a significant part of the way on a ship, where a canopy was "arranged closed from all sides, since the elephant is afraid of large fires in general and without such a canopy can be frightened at night by sparks sometimes thrown out of the steamer's chimney, and from the bright glow that appears from time to time above it then". For the walking part of the way, special shoes were sewn to the beast to protect the soles from damage. This elephant lived in Tsarskoye Selo for four years, and then Emperor Alexander II gave it to the Moscow Zoo.

In August 1896, the last of the "gift" elephants arrived at the royal court from Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). Nicholas II and his children dearly loved the animal, as evidenced by numerous archival photographs. Sadly, it seems, the elephant shared the tragic fate of the imperial family and was killed during the revolution of 1917.


Nicholas II and the elephant in Tsarskoye Selo Photo: Encyclopedia of Tsarskoye Selo

Save the Elephants

However, even during the years of upheaval, the Moscow Zoo did not remain without elephants. In 1924, an Indian elephant Jin-Dau from the Bukhara Republic settled there. In addition, distinguished audience was entertained by a family of Asian elephants – a couple Shango and Molly with two calves. In 1939, African elephant Nonna joined their company.

Jin-Dau and Shango survived the Great Patriotic War at the zoo. Despite the problems with food, the zoo staff made sure that their wards did not have problems with feed, independently adjusting the supply of hay from the fields near Moscow. During one of the raids, a bomb hit the elephant enclosure, and it caught fire. The elephants did not lose their heads, got out of the dangerous room and began to pour water on themselves from the ditches, simultaneously extinguishing an incendiary bomb that had fallen nearby.

The current inhabitants of the elephant enclosure are called Pamir and Pipita. In fact, they were supposed to live in Cuba, where they were sent from Vietnam in the company of seven other baby elephants – as a traditional gift. When the ship, which had already crossed two oceans, was approaching its destination, it turned out that the animals had no vaccinations against foot-and-mouth disease. In Cuba, this disease had never been encountered, and in order to avoid the risk, the authorities categorically refused to accept the baby elephants.

Alas, over time, the need to save elephants has not gone away. The majestic animals have been suffering for centuries because of their tusks – ivory products have long been valued. In 1989, the UN decided to ban the trade of this rare material around the world, but the situation continues to deteriorate. According to statistics, over the past 30 years, the number of African forest elephants has decreased by 86%; the situation with savanna and Indian elephants is slightly better, but not by much.

Environmentalists are sounding the alarm. Indian elephants are listed in the Red Book of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as being endangered. African elephants have completely changed their status since 2021: the forest elephant is on the list of animals on the verge of complete extinction, and the savanna elephant is on the list of endangered species. If things go on like this, our descendants will be able to see elephants only in pictures and at some point will get confused whether they had claws and what exactly the ears looked like. We can only hope that the rare species will be preserved.

Olga Ladygina