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Title: Elephant
Original Title: Eléphant
Volume and Page: Vol. 5 (1755), pp. 499–502
Author: Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton (biography)
Translator: Malcolm Eden [University of London,]
Subject terms:
Natural history
Original Version (ARTFL): Link

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Citation (MLA): Daubenton, Louis-Jean-Marie. "Elephant." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Malcolm Eden. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2009. Web. [fill in today's date in the form 18 Apr. 2009 and remove square brackets]. <>. Trans. of "Eléphant," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 5. Paris, 1755.
Citation (Chicago): Daubenton, Louis-Jean-Marie. "Elephant." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Malcolm Eden. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2009. (accessed [fill in today's date in the form April 18, 2009 and remove square brackets]). Originally published as "Eléphant," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 5:499–502 (Paris, 1755).

Elephant, elephas , the largest of all quadruped animals and one of the most original in the way the different parts of its body are formed. If we consider the elephant relative to our idea of correct proportions, it seems ill-proportioned and badly designed, so to speak, due to its huge, short body, its straight, ill-formed legs, its rounded, twisted feet, its large head, small eyes and big ears. It could also be said that the clothes that seem to cover it have been cut and made even worse. Its trunk, tusks, feet, etc., make it look as extraordinary as its large size. A description of the different parts of its body, and details of how they are used, will arouse no less wonder than the surprise caused by their appearance.

In 1668 the king of Portugal sent an elephant from the kingdom of Congo to the king of France. It was seventeen years old and measured six and a half feet from the ground to the top of its back. The elephant lived in the menagerie at Versailles for thirteen years and only grew a further foot, no doubt because the change in climate and food had stunted its growth; so it measured just seven and a half feet when the gentlemen of the Royal Academy of Sciences carried out their description of it.

The animal’s body measured twelve and a half feet round; it was almost as long as it was high. From its forehead to the top of its tail it was eight and a half feet long, and three and a half feet from its belly to the ground. By measuring the legs of its skeleton, it was found that the forelegs were four and a half feet long and the hind legs four feet eight inches, but when the animal was covered with its flesh and skin, the hind legs seemed shorter than the forelegs since they were less separated from the mass of its body. An elephant’s legs look more like a man’s than most quadrupeds’ since its heels touch the ground, and its feet are very short. This particular elephant’s feet were so small that they could not be distinguished from its legs, which fell straight to the ground without curves, with its toes covered with skin. The soles of its rear feet were ten inches long and the soles of its forelegs, fourteen inches; it had a patch of hard skin like the sole of a shoe, which was hard, solid and one inch thick, and which stuck out as if it had been crushed by the weight of its body, and formed a few ill-formed toenails. Although there were three toenails on each foot, five toes were found on the skeleton, but they were covered by skin, and there was no relation between them and the toenails. The hard skin, which we have compared to the sole of a shoe, also formed other extensions that could have been taken for toenails. This part might well vary in different individuals, as we will show further on. The elephant’s tail was thin and pointed, and measured two and a half feet; there was a tuft of long, coarse hair, three or four inches long, at the end. The elephant was female; the outer orifice of the womb was located in the middle of the belly, near the navel, at the end of a conduit that formed a protrusion stretching from the anus to the vulva, and which contained a two-and-a-half-foot-long and two-inch wide clitoris, which, before the animal was dissected, could have been taken for a penis, since this organ is similarly situated in most quadrupeds. On the elephant’s breast were two udders with small teats. Its head was large; it had two humps at the back of its head with a dip in between. Its neck was short, its forehead wide, it had small eyes and a narrow mouth, which was almost hidden beneath the chin; its lower jaw was very pointed and its ears were proportionally twice as big as a donkey’s. Its ears were three feet high, two feet wide and only a sixth of an inch thick; they were somewhat oval in shape and were stuck to the head like a man’s and extended backwards. It can be seen by their dimensions that no animal has ears as proportionally large as the elephant’s . At the animal’s death its trunk was five feet three inches long, nine inches wide at the base, and three inches wide near the tip. The tip widened out like the top of a vase, forming a projecting edge, the underside of which was thicker than the sides. The edge protruded at the top, like a sort of finger; all the protruding edge formed, as it were, a little cup, at the bottom of which were its nostrils; the base of the trunk therefore begins from the place that corresponds to that of the nostrils in other quadrupeds. The elephant’s tusks were two feet long and four inches in diameter near the base; they curved upwards slightly and began at the upper jaw, five inches above the edge of the lip; the elephant only had eight teeth, four on each jaw, two on each side; the longest tooth was four inches long and an inch and a half wide. It had hair or bristles growing on its skin that are bigger than a wild boar’s; the hairs were black and shiny, were the same size from the root to the end, and looked as if they had been cut. The hairs were sparse and grew only on certain parts of its body, namely, on its trunk, eyelids and from one end of the tail to the other, up to the tuft of hair at the tip. The bristles on the trunk were an inch and a half long. The skin had two kinds of wrinkles; some were lines traced like we have on our hands; others were raised up like those on the hands of old or thin people. The wrinkles made the elephant’s skin look highly unattractive, since it was covered with a grey-brown epidermis, that was thick in several places, callous, covered with grime, and as if torn by many cracks in its skin. See the Memoirs for the Use of the Natural History of Animals written by Mr Perrault, third part .

Elephants are found in Asia and Africa. Asian elephants are the biggest; they are said to grow up to thirteen, fourteen or fifteen feet high, or even more, from the ground to the top of their backs. Tusks weighing 160 pounds have been seen; they no doubt belonged to Asian elephants , since it is affirmed that some elephants weigh 200 pounds. It is claimed that an African elephant weighing 125 pounds has been found; the English brought one back from that part of the world measuring over eight feet and weighing 90 pounds. African elephants are said to be usually nine or ten feet long, and eleven or twelve feet high. On the island of Ceylon there is a large number of elephants , according to Captain Ribeiro, History of Ceylon, 1701. The biggest ones are nine cubits from the tip of their feet to their shoulders. Several writers agree in saying that the elephants from this island are better made, more courageous and more instinctive than the others, although they are smaller. Elephants are brown in colour; there are a few white ones in India, but they are very rare.

Elephants can stretch and retract their trunks, directing the tips upwards, downwards, sideways and backwards. Their trunks are flexible in all directions, and they can move them as they wish and according to their needs, since they use them like an arm or a hand. With their trunks elephants can grasp anything they want to lift or carry along, using the projecting edge at the tip or using the extension of this edge, which looks like a sort of finger. Elephants can pick up the smallest things. It is above all with the help of this ‘finger’ that they show a skill one would scarcely believe such a massive animal capable of. Last, it is with their trunks that elephants bring all nourishment, both solid or liquid, to their mouths. But to understand the mechanism used to this effect, we need to recall that the two openings of an elephant’s nostrils are at the bottom of the cavity that is found at the tip of its trunk; it is therefore through this organ that the elephant breathes, and several travellers have considered the trunk as a highly extended nose. The air passing through this trunk during inspiration and expiration means the trunk can be used for suction, and gives it the force to project anything that is in the cavity. When the animal applies the ends of the extremity of its trunk to an object, and holds its breath at the same time, the object remains stuck to the trunk, and will follow any movement it makes. This is how elephants can pick up objects weighing as much as two hundred pounds. When it is thirsty, it dips the end of its trunk in the water and, by breathing in, fills up all the cavity of its trunk with water; it then curves the trunk downwards to put the tip in its mouth. The animal could easily make the water flow from the trunk into its mouth by a movement of expiration, but in this way it could not swallow the water without its entering the larynx, because the movement of expiration necessarily presupposes that the epiglottis is raised. The elephant therefore plunges its trunk past the epiglottis and into its throat; one can hear a loud noise made by the water leaving the trunk and going down into the esophagus. Moreover, no suction movement can be seen in the lips, which proves that water is pushed by expiration and not attracted by suction. In the same way elephants eat grass, tearing up the grass with their trunks and carrying bunches of it to the back of their mouths. These observations have led people to assume that elephants also suck their mothers’ milk with their trunks, but no one has ever seen an elephant doing so; nor has anyone seen an elephant taking anything directly with its mouth, apart from swallowing what is puts into it with its trunk. Elephants can spurt out water from their trunks at a great distance and direct the water wherever they want. It is said their trunks can hold several buckets of water. When the elephant is taken into battle, a chain or a bare sword is tied to the end of its trunk, which it uses with a good deal of address to strike the enemy.

The elephant has a good deal of instinct and docility. It can be tamed so easily and can be trained to do so many different exercises that it is surprising that such a heavy animal should so easily adopt the habits it is given. To drive it, people sit astride its neck. The driver holds a large, iron rod with a highly sharpened point at one end and a very strong and sharpened hook at the other; the point is used like a spur, and the hook replaces the bridal, since the driver pricks the animal’s ears and face to steer it. Women, as well as men, can ride them, but it is said to be extremely uncomfortable and it would be better to ride ten leagues on a horse than just one on an elephant . They are also made to carry towers in which several armed men can be placed. These towers, at least those of which Pietro della Valle writes in his Travels , are as long and as wide as a large bed and placed across the elephant’s back and can contain six or seven people seated in the Levantine fashion. There are others in which ten or twelve warriors can be placed. To carry noble women and great lords, elephants bear richly decorated pavilions instead of towers, in which passengers can sit or lie down. Elephants take up all kinds of burdens, down to little pieces of cannon on their carriages. According to Thevenot ( Voyage in Levant ), the strongest elephants can carry over three thousand pounds. These animals are so sure-footed that they hardly ever stumble. They can cover a good deal of ground in very little time because of the length of their legs. At a walking pace, they can catch up with a man running. When they are spurred on, they can cover in a day what usually takes six days. Elephants run like horses, galloping, and cut through water as fast as a rowing boat with ten oars. When chased by an elephant , one can elude it only by continually changing direction, since they cannot turn to one side as easily as they go straight ahead. Elephants bend their front legs and even their hind legs. To load them, one climbs up, and the elephant helps with its trunk. When travelling they seldom lie down, but the rest of the time they lie down at night and get up again with great ease. Elephants are highly useful and very helpful for the services they render, but are expensive to feed. Thevenot, in his Voyage in Levant , says that in Delhi , apart from the meat they are fed and the alcohol they are given to drink, elephants are nourished with flour meal, sugar and butter, and each one consumes at least half a pistole’s worth a day. Father Pierre de Laval says in his Travels that an elephant eats one hundred pounds of rice a day; they will eat anything they are given, especially biscuits. A single elephant can eat in a day what would suffice to feed thirty men in a week; yet some have been seen to go without food for eight or ten days. Wild elephants live on grass, fruit and tree branches, and can chew quite large pieces of wood.

Elephants are very peaceful animals and are only irritated when provoked; then they prick up their ears and trunks; they can overturn men or throw them long distances with their trunks, tear up trees and pick up whatever gets in their way. When they have thrown a man to the ground and they are very angry, they can drag him with their trunks under their forelegs, and tread on him or kill him by hitting him and stabbing him with their tusks. With such repeated blows of their tusks they can also knock down walls and strike things their trunks cannot reach. They are afraid of fire; their fury can be quelled by throwing flaming fireworks at them. The elephant , so big and so strong, is exposed to the annoyances of the vilest insects; flies irritate them by stinging them in places where the skin is cracked; this is why elephants take care to throw dust over their bodies with their trunks or roll in the earth after bathing. They never go long without bathing, either to get rid of the crust that the dust has formed on their skin or to soften their epidermis, which has a tendency to dry out. People rub them with oil to prevent their skin drying. By wrinkling up their skin elephants crush the flies in the skin’s cracks. Their most dangerous enemies are the rhinoceros, the lion, the tiger and snakes, but especially the tiger, since it seizes the elephant by the trunk and tears it to pieces. Negroes hunt elephants because they sell their tusks and eat their meat.

When elephants are in heat they become enraged, but according to Tavernier, this seldom happens to tame elephants . It is claimed that the female piles up leaves with her trunk so as to make a bed, lies down on her back when she wants to receive the male, and calls him with her cries; that their coupling only takes place in the most out of the way and isolated places, and that a pregnancy lasts ten years. Others say that elephants only conceive once every seven years, and the gestation period last a year, eighteen months, two or two and a half years; each litter is said to have a single foetus. Still others maintain that there are three or four foetuses, and that the mother feeds them with her milk for seven or eight years. However, all these facts are highly uncertain, and have only been observed in domesticated elephants , since they do not mate, and it is hardly possible to follow wild elephants closely enough and long enough to make such observations. The elephants’ life span is scarcely better known. They are said to live up to three, four or five hundred years, and that they grow during half their lives. Others affirm that they only live for 120, 130 or 150 years, etc.

The elephant has been placed in the category of fissiped animals in the methodical division of quadrupeds. It does indeed have five toes on each foot, but they are completely joined and hidden beneath the skin. The nails are not really nails; they do not resemble toes, as explained above, and their number varies, since the elephant in Versailles had only three on each foot, while another from India that was shown in Paris had four of them. Yet Father Tachard notes that all the elephants he saw in Siam had five nails.

Opinions differ concerning the elephant’s tusks. It was once thought that most females had none, and that the males’ tusks were very short; that they came out of the lower jaw, and were shed each year. But the tusks of the female elephant at Versailles were attached to the upper jaw; they were long, and did not fall in the thirteen years it lived in the menagerie. Some writers have claimed that the tusks are teeth; others have maintained that they should be seen as horns, and indeed they are made of ivory ( see Ivory), and can be softened by fire, which is not true of the ivory in teeth; the bone from which the tusks emerge is distinct and separated from the bone that the teeth emerge from, which proves they are genuine horns.

Many tales could be told of the elephant , if we related everything said of its instinct and all the details of the ceremonies practiced by different peoples who have a good deal of veneration for this animal. We would see that the love of what is fantastic has made people believe that the elephant has virtues and vices, that it is chaste and modest, proud and vindictive, that it loves praise, that it understands what is said to it, etc . Whole nations have made long and cruel wars, and thousands of men have slit each other’s throats for the conquest of the white elephant . One hundred officers look after an elephant of this colour in Siam; it eats on gold plates, is taken for walks beneath a canopy, and is housed in a magnificent pavilion with gilded panels. Several kings of the East prefer the title of possessor of the white elephant to any other. But this will suffice on this subject, which is far removed from the natural history of the elephant .

Wild elephants live in herds. There are several ways of catching and taming them. In the kingdom of Siam, men climb up onto female elephants and cover themselves with foliage so as to go unnoticed by the wild elephants they seek out in the forests. As soon as they think they are within reach of some males, they make the females they are riding cry out; the males respond to these cries with terrifying howls, and draw near to the females, which the men steer on to paths that are enclosed by fences. The males follow the females, and as soon as one has entered the path, two sliding doors drop down, one in front of the wild elephant and the other behind it, so that it finds itself trapped, and can neither go backwards nor forwards nor turn around. It lets out horrible cries and makes surprising efforts to break free, but in vain; attempts are then made to calm it down and tame it, by throwing buckets of water over its body; oil is poured onto its ears and tame male and female elephants are brought to it and they stroke it with their trunks. Meanwhile, ropes are put under the wild elephant’s belly and finally a tame elephant is brought near. A driver steers the captured elephant forwards and backwards to show it what to do; then the sliding door is removed, and the elephant walks to the end of the path. When it gets there, two domestic elephants are put at its side, and are tied to it; a third walks in front, pulling it by a rope, while a fourth follows it, giving it great blows with its head to make it go forwards. In this way the wild elephant is led to a kind of shed, where it is tied to a large pillar that turns like a ship’s capstan. There it is left alone and given time to calm its fury. The very next day it starts to go with the tame elephants , and in fifteen days it is completely tame.

The king of Siam has yet another way of hunting elephants , but it requires a good deal of equipment. First, as many wild elephants as possible are attracted into a spacious park that is surrounded by large stakes, with wide openings at regular intervals. Females are used to attract the wild elephants or else they are frightened by the sound of trumpets, drums, oboes and, above all, by fire in different parts of the forest, causing them to go into the park. When they have arrived, they are surrounded by war elephants so as to prevent the wild elephants from crossing the fence; next, as many of the strongest tame elephants are brought into the park as there are wild elephants . The tame elephants are each mounted by two hunters, who carry large ropes with nooses, the ends of which are tied to the elephants . The drivers of each elephant make them charge at a wild elephant , which immediately runs towards the openings of the park to escape; but it is pushed back by the war elephants that make up the outer circle, and while it is walking around the park, the hunters throw down their nooses so skilfully in the places where it must put its feet that in very little time all the wild elephants are tied up. They are put among the tame elephants to lead them, as in the hunt mentioned above.

In Pegu more art but fewer people are used in hunting. Several females are trained in what they must do in an elephant school; their genitals are rubbed with a highly fragrant oil, which the males can smell from far off; the females are led into the forests and soon the wild elephants arrive from all directions, and follow them; they then walk along a path in a park that is surrounded by large stakes placed at such a distance from each other that a man can pass between them, but not an elephant , except through the park entrance, where there is a large opening that is closed by a portcullis. Between the stakes, there are also several doors, each communicating with stables, and which can be closed using sliding gates. When the tame females have entered the park with the wild elephants , the portcullis is dropped to shut the large opening; the females then enter the stables and the sliding gates are lowered. The elephants, finding themselves alone and trapped, become enraged; they chase the men who are in the park to make the necessary manoeuvres, but the men escape between the stakes, which the elephants strike with their tusks. But they often break their tusks rather than the stakes. They give loud cries, they weep, they moan and make all kinds of efforts for two or three hours; finally their strength fails them, they give up, with the sweat running all over their bodies; their trunks drop to the ground and a good deal of water comes out of it. Once they are in this state, the females are taken from the stables and led into the park, where they mingle with the wild elephants . Soon they go into other stables that are meant for these elephants, each wild elephant following a female and entering the stable after them. But they find themselves alone, since the females leave through a back door, and the stable doors are immediately closed on the wild elephant , which finds itself trapped. It is tied up and kept there. Four or five days go by without its wanting to eat or drink, and finally it gets used to captivity, and after eight days it is completely tame.

In Patania, which is in a kingdom dependent on Siam, a large tame elephant is led into the forest. As soon as a wild elephant notices it, it comes to attack; the two elephants cross trunks, trying to overturn the other; while the trunk of the wild elephant is thus neutralised, its forelegs are tied up, so that it no longer dares move, because it is afraid to fall, and then it is easily tamed through hunger.

Traps are also laid to make wild elephants fall into a ditch, where they are tied up with ropes. The elephants are tamed in a short time. Three days are enough, if they are deprived of food or if they are prevented from sleeping. They are more easily captured when they are very young. See The First Voyage to Siam , by Father Tachart ; Memoirs for the Natural History of Animals , which has already been cited; and several travellers accounts from which this article has been taken. See Quadruped.