Review of ‘Coming of Age With Elephants: A Memoir’

Coming of Age With Elephants: A Memoir
By Joyce Poole

Joyce Poole has devoted most of her life to Africa's elephants. She has lived so long in Kenya, she says, that, although American by birth, "in my heart I am African." Her scientific work has earned her a considerable reputation in the field of behavioral ecology, and she has immersed herself so deeply into elephant society that she sometimes finds herself looking at the world "through the eyes and ears of the elephants."

The daughter of a Peace Corps executive, Poole spent much of her childhood in Africa. By the time she was 11, Poole had decided to become a biologist. In 1975, after her freshman year in college, she returned to Kenya to work on an elephant project in Amboseli National Park.

For Poole, fieldwork was "like reading a long novel that you don't want to end"; her next seven years were astonishingly productive. She spent months assembling a catalog of the bulls, following them closely--and fleeing madly when the elephants thought she was being too intrusive in her attempts to record male-male aggression or collect fresh urine samples. (She wanted to measure the urine's testosterone content to confirm her discovery that African elephants, like their Asian cousins, went through a sexually aggressive phase called "musth.") In an academic performance that matched the bravura of her fieldwork, she finished her PhD in 1982.

Poole's personal life, however, wasn't going nearly as well. Her father was killed in a car accident in 1978. A lover abandoned her. Finally, on a picnic in the Ngong Hills near Nairobi in 1984, she and a fellow researcher were raped. And, while she stuck with her work in the park, things were going badly for the elephants, too.

The root of the problem was ivory. Prices were skyrocketing, poachers were slaughtering, and officials in the Kenyan government were making fortunes from the illegal trade. The extent of the corruption finally became clear to Poole in 1988, when an aerial survey of Tsavo National Park indicated that 5,000 to 7,000 of Tsavo's elephants had been killed during the previous eight years--an appalling average of about two deaths per day. Worse still, the park's own rangers were participating in the destruction of the elephants.

Elephant scientists have known for decades that these animals have elaborately structured social lives. Senior females, "matriarchs," lead small families constituted into clans, which relate to each other, to groups of males and to the landscape around them in complex ways. Young elephants learn these patterns from their elders. Poachers were doing more than killing individual animals. By selectively targeting mature adults, they were destroying the foundations of elephant society.

Harassed in her day-to-day field studies and disillusioned by the corruption she had encountered in the parks, Poole left Amboseli to work on stopping the ivory trade. The business, both legal and illicit, was making many important Africans rich. The key to the problem was to have elephants declared an endangered species. Finally, in October 1989, Poole and her colleagues achieved this end, and the ivory trade now has been largely stopped.

What looks like a happy ending for the animals is paralleled by a happy ending for Poole. Her friend and supporter, Richard Leakey, appoints her to coordinate the Kenya Wildlife Service's elephant program, she has a baby, and at book's end she is surrounded by friends in a home of her own on the edge of Kenya's Rift Valley.

But Poole warns us that elephants remain threatened by both political and economic forces, and the similarities between her story and the elephants' make us wonder about her future as well. It is a measure of success, on many levels, that we genuinely care how these twin stories will turn out.

John R. Alden, an anthropologist and reviewer, lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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