In a way, our modern understanding of extinction starts with the elephant.
It was while studying fossilized teeth of two different elephant ancestors, the mammoth and the mastodon, that scientists first became aware of the fact that species could die out and become forever extinct. In 1796, French naturalist George Cuvier compared mastodon and mammoth tooth fossils to the teeth of modern African and Asian elephants, positing that the teeth belonged to species that were “lost” in the past. This was a bold, new revelation—one that stood in stark contrast to attitudes of the time. The massive consumption of ivory in the 1800s was unprecedented; with delicate fans, billiard balls, hair combs and ivory veneer piano keys being made of the tusks elephants use as tools for eating, drinking and breathing.
In a Connecticut newspaper, published the same year as Cuvier’s hypothesis, one observer wrote:
The Elephant is the largest, the strongest, the most sagacious, and the longest-lived of all brute creation. The species is numerous, does not decrease, and is dispersed over all of the southern parts of Asia and Africa.
Elephants were indeed seen as innumerous. By 1850, American manufacturers were killing the animals in droves. A billiard ball company boasted it had brought down 1,140 elephants.
But at the same time, the burgeoning American conservation movement was gaining momentum. One champion, President Teddy Roosevelt, designated five national parks during his eight years as commander-in-chief. In February 1909, Roosevelt convened the North American Conservation Conference, the first ever international meeting on conservation policy.
Dubbed the “conservation president,” despite his reputation as an avid hunter, Roosevelt “embodied the dilemma of how to both use and preserve nature,” advances a new exhibition “Elephants and Us: Considering Extinction,” now on view in the Albert H. Small Documents Gallery at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
If fact in March 1909, just one month after the conservation conference, Roosevelt led a Smithsonian Institution expedition to Kenya, killing 512 animals, including eight elephants, as part of an effort to bring taxonomic specimens to a new Smithsonian museum, known today as the National Museum of Natural History, which opened its doors June 20, 1911. The practice of displaying taxonomy in museums to help the public understand the need to preserve these species was just taking shape.
By the 1950s, nearly 250 elephants were killed every day. In 1973, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was signed. The international agreement was made to regulate wildlife trade in order to ensure the survival of a species. By 1978, African elephants would be protected under CITES, however, it would later be found that the legislation was inadequately protecting the now endangered species.
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the African Elephant Conservation Act into law, banning the importation into the U.S. of all elephant ivory, with the exception of hunting trophies. Within the first days of the law’s implementation, under President George H.W. Bush in 1989, more than a dozen countries followed suit, introducing similar bans.
The document—and many other historic goods and artifacts that represent the history of elephant conservation and ivory consumption—are on now view in the show.
“This exhibition places the human-elephant relationship in the context of American history,” says the show’s curator Carlene Stephens. “Within a timespan of about 150 years, Americans transitioned from being mass consumers of ivory goods to enacting legal measures aimed at supporting elephant conservation. Yet these recent efforts may not be enough to counter centuries of consuming ivory.”
The worldwide demand for ivory goods, however, remains high, and efforts to stop poaching and protect elephants continue. The illegal ivory trade is bolstered, in part, by the very thing meant to protect it because it is still legal to sell ivory if it can be shown that an item preceded the African Elephant Conservation Act. It is no simple task to discern manufacturing dates, however. Still, conservationists and world leaders are sending a clear message: there is zero tolerance for harvesting these creatures for their tusks.
In 2013, 2015 and 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service crushed tons of ivory goods seized from tourists, illegal traders and smugglers. Their intent was to devalue black market ivory. The practice drew criticism from museum curators who remain concerned about preserving the cultural heritage of indigenous artisans, who have been carving ivory for centuries. In 2015, two museum curators including one from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art were asked to examine confiscated ivory and found two intricately carved African side flutes among the loot. One they suspected was the handiwork of a specific Nigerian tribe. In a 2015 interview with Smithsonianmag.com senior curator Bryna Freyer compared the experience to deciphering the puzzle of cultural history to a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle.
“When this stuff is lost, we lose a chance at better understanding the people who made the object,” she said. “You think OK, we’ll get rid of [these pieces]. It’s not going to make a difference, because there are 498 other pieces. But you never know which is the piece that’s going to really help you understand.”
Illegal ivory trade is just one adversary in the modern fight for elephant preservation. But habitat destruction, poaching and climate change all threaten the charismatic megafauna’s survival, even at a time when scientists are still working to understand their natural history and biology. In some places, elephants are dying faster than they can reproduce; an African elephant’s gestation period is almost two years long.
That’s one reason why researchers at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo are closely studying elephant reproduction. In an effort to think about elephant preservation in a new way, they are essentially asking: How do we make more elephants? As well as, how do we keep the ones we have?
The forward-looking research is highlighted in the new exhibition with the display of enrichment toys used at the Zoo to keep the elephants active. In previous work, they found that stress is a major reason for failed breeding in captive populations. One way to lessen their stress is to engage them in activities that stimulate their minds and ultimately, keep them happy.
So, yes, our understanding of extinction may have begun with elephants and their ancestors, but as we fight to save this species, they are powering our understanding of conservation success.