Sunday, October 19, 2008

....Elephant Museum....

The Lilah Callen Holden Elephant Museum, which opened December 1985, tells the story of elephants from their ancestors to the present day using exhibits on art, circuses, religion, war, history and pre-history.

The circular building, located next to the Elephant Exhibit, centers around an 8' tall & 13' long mastodon skeleton, which is on extended loan from the Smithsonian Institution. Exhibits include models of circus, work, and ceremonial elephants; ivory objects; circus tricycle; and history of Packy and our elephant herd.

The museum is named for Lilah Callen Holden, a long-time Oregon resident and elephant lover who died in 1983. Her family donated more than $100,000 for the museum as a memorial to her commitment to the zoo's Asian elephant program.

Elephants in Religion
Elephants are sacred creatures in two of Asia’s largest religions, Hinduism and Buddhism. In Hinduism, the god Ganesha takes the form of an elephant. Ganesha is the Hindu god who takes time to care about people’s everyday needs and worries. According to Hindu legend, he is also the scribe who wrote down the sacred text of the Mahabharata.

In Buddhist legend, the Buddha is supposed to have appeared to his mother during a dream before being born in the form of a white elephant carrying a lotus flower. For this reason, white elephants were revered as descendants of Buddha. Their rarity meant that when one was found, it was presented to the ruler of the region as a positive omen. The elephants were kept in the vicinity of the ruler’s palace and treated as a deity. But taking care of them often became a financial burden, so rulers would often give them as gifts to other rulers in a backhanded way of weakening their rivals. This is where the term ‘white elephant’ came from.

The Ivory Trade
Elephants have been hunted for their ivory for thousands of years. But in the 1970’s and 1980’s the killing became much worse due to political and economic instability in Africa. Over half of Africa’s elephants were killed in the 1980’s. The population decreased from 1.3 million in 1979 to only 600,000 in 1989. People could earn about half a year’s salary by killing one elephant for its ivory. Then in June 1989 the United States banned the import of ivory. Later that year in October the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) banned all international trade in ivory. Following the bans, world ivory prices fell 60-85%. Elephants are still threatened by ivory hunters today, but not as alarmingly as during the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Elephants in the Circus
Elephants had been used to entertain princes in India as long ago as 1,000 B.C. Circuses, however, developed from the tradition of traveling entertainers in Eastern Europe. The two did not come together until the 1870’s when PT Barnum purchased an enormous African Elephant named Jumbo from the London Zoo. Jumbo became probably the most famous elephant ever. The word jumbo originates with him. He traveled the United States as part of the circus and was the first and only elephant thousands of people saw. After the initial splash made by Jumbo, elephants continued to be a popular part of circus events because their intelligence allowed them to perform complicated tricks.

Work Elephants
For centuries, elephants have been used as work animals in Asia. Before the advent of modern machinery, elephants were the only creatures strong enough to perform many tasks. They were used in logging, mining, construction, and other heavy industries. Each elephant had its own handler, called a mahout. The mahout and the elephant would often meet each other when they were very young, and would grow up together, so that the elephant trusted its handler. Elephants were especially useful because of their remarkable intelligence. Most elephants can learn and remember over 100 commands. A prod called an ankus was used to direct the elephant.

War Elephants
Just as humans have used elephants for work, they have also been used for war. In ancient India, a princes strength was measured by how many elephants he possessed. Elephants were the equivalent of tanks in modern warfare, crushing opposing troops and bulldozing defenses. Usually work elephants would be conscripted with their handler, or mahout. On their backs, elephants would carry a large wooden box called a howdah from which archers would fire arrows into surrounding troops. The most famous wars involving elephants were the Punic Wars, fought between the Roman Empire and the kingdom of Carthage, in present day North Africa. In those wars, the famous military leader Hannibal fought the Romans using elephants, and even invaded the Italian peninsula from the north, marching elephants over the Alps during the second Punic War.

Elephants in the Wild
Elephants in the wild live in large family groups called herds, usually consisting of related females and their offspring. A dominant female called a matriarch, who is usually the oldest or most experienced member of the group, leads the herd. Males only join the herds to mate. Elephant herds roam over vast areas in order to find enough food to eat. It’s estimated that elephants eat as much as 400 pounds of food and drink 50 gallons of water each day. For this reason, elephants in the wild depend on having very large territories over which they can traverse. However, human settlement has fragmented elephant habitat creating problems for both elephants and people. Elephants are cut off from their feeding areas, while humans have their fields and crops trampled by elephants seeking out other locations for feeding.

Elephants in Captivity
In the last 25-30 years, more has been learned about elephants than in the last 5,000 years. This is largely because of the fact that elephants have been subject to intensive study at zoos across the world. The Oregon Zoo has been at the forefront of many discoveries. Until only recently humans knew next to nothing about the reproductive biology of elephants. But through the work of the Oregon Zoo and elsewhere, we know much more about elephant breeding cycles, the length of gestation, and how elephants rear their young.

Elephant Artwork

Few creatures have inspired cultures throughout the world as much as elephants. That inspiration can be seen in the artwork on display at the Lilah Callen Holden Elephant Museum. The museum is home to African artwork like a beaded elephant mask, made by the Bamileke people of Cameroon. Next to it on the wall is a carved wooden elephant mask made by the Bamoun Tribe of Cameroon. Also on display is a bronze elephant sculpture from the Upper Volta region of West Africa in present day Burkina Faso. From Thailand, the museum displays a pair of intricately carved teak doors decorated with elephants.

Elephants have not just inspired traditional artists. Three prints of elephant drawings made by the famous surrealist Salvador Dali hang in the museum. So too does a painting of Wooly Mammoths by well-regarded Portland area artist Tom Hardy. Of historical interest is the engraving made from Nicolas Marechal’s original sketch of an elephant, which was made at the Natural History Museum in Paris in 1801. Marechal made sketches of every animal in the museum’s collection that were then published in a catalogue – one of the first such zoological texts ever published.

Elephant Ancestors

Elephants are not native to the Americas. But their ancestors lived here thousands of years ago. Mastodons, like Wooly Mammoths, are related to modern elephants. Mastodons are believed to have become extinct sometime between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago. The Mastodon skeleton at the Oregon Zoo is thought to be around 7,000 years old. It was excavated from a sight at Churches Corner, in Hillsdale County, Michigan. Other Mastodon skeletons have been excavated in Oregon, including in the Portland area.


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