Amboseli bull ... smaller than the one described here

Amboseli bull ... smaller than the one described here

On November 12th, 1955 a “rogue” male elephant in Angola committed a very grievous offense, and for that offense he lost his life. From the tip of his trunk to the extended tip of his tail, he measured 33 feet 2 inches. The circumference of his front feet was 5 feet, 7 inches … his rear feet were 5 feet, two inches. He was estimated to weigh 16,000 pounds. And that was his offense. He was the largest elephant in the world, which meant, of course, that he could not be allowed to live.

His outsized footprints had been discovered by a Hungarian businessman and big game hunter named Jose Fenykovi in 1954. After obsessing over the enormity of the animal for a year, Fenykovi launched an expensive hunting expedition for the sole purpose of finding the great animal. His efforts were completely and painfully successful. He wrote a very proud article about the glorious hunt, which was published in the June 4, 1956, edition of Sports Illustrated magazine. A summation of the key events of that auspicious day is offered below. Warning … they are not for the squeamish or faint of heart.

Fenykovi notes that the elephant was discovered at about 9 am, in company with a smaller, but still enormous partner. He describes the animals as “quite calm” and “lolling under some tall trees.” And why the hell would they not be calm? The huge elephant was probably 60 years old based on the physical description, and had probably never been seriously threatened at any time in his life. Even if he had sensed the presence of the hunters, it’s doubtful that he could have imagined the wrath that was about to descend on him. Then:

“Leaning my arm on the trunk (of a tree) I aimed at the chest of the largest. The bullet from the .416 Rigby raised a dust of dry mud from the skin of the animal, proof of a hit. At once I shot a second bullet in the same place, and I heard the discharge of my other .416, fired by Mario.” — SI, 4 June 1956

The bewildered animals then apparently fled into a forest, but not before Fenykovi and his companion “put two bullets into the smaller one.” Fenykovi described the ease of tracking the elephant by following the constant gush of blood from his trunk, “a sure sign that I had got him through the lungs.” The war party trailed the wounded animals by jeep through the disproportionate Angolan heat for several hours and spotted them again in the late afternoon. At about 6 pm the majestic animal was finally destroyed in a gruesome carnage of dust and blood. According to Fenykovi, at least 16 heavy caliber rounds were pumped into the animal before his suffering ended.

And how unbearable that suffering must have been. According to the article, the first salvo was launched at about 9 am. Despite the punctured lungs and the blood filled air passage, the elephant was able to flee through the heat and dust for about nine more hours before he was again located and administered the coup de grace. No mention was made of the smaller companion elephant except that he’d earlier veered off from his partner and fled in a different direction. I suspect that after the confirmed death of the giant, the smaller, critically wounded animal was deemed unworthy of further pursuit. One can only imagine his slow and agonizing end, certainly a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time … and in company with the wrong friend.

Being the good and generous soul that he was, Fenykovi determined that his prize should be placed on display in a large museum. And indeed that’s what happened. The remains of the animal are now the centerpiece of the rotunda display in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. It is impressive. The animal alone is phenomenal, but his placement on an elevated foundation makes him all the more prominent. His posture is slightly threatening, with tail up in alarm, trunk extended and ears flared. If memory serves, there is a placard on the display that names the hunter and the country that was home to the animal.

The link to the Smithsonian page below describes the elephant as “rogue.” But what exactly does this mean?

To me it implies a problem elephant … an ill-tempered marauder who damages homes and crops, or kills and injures humans. But in all my reading on the internet, I found no evidence that this enormous animal had ever fit that description or fallen into that category. Fenykovi described the location of the hunt as remote, where no man had visited before or since … so how could he have been a problem for homo sapiens? He was also apparently socially peaceful, as further evidenced by the Fenykovi article. “Problem” or “rogue” elephants aren’t the type who “loll” calmly with other large males. They are enraged, testosterone inflated fighting machines who take on any and all comers.

So what’s the point? The animal is already dead, and I think most informed people would describe the current purpose of his carcass as “educational.” I have no real problem with that. But in light of the escalation in elephant poaching in Africa and the inordinate pressure on wildlife and habitat everywhere, couldn’t we educate a little further? As part of the display maybe an additional placard or two could be mounted … one with a brief description of the current poaching problem and another with a dispassionate analysis of how the great elephant was destroyed, and what the last few hours of his life must have been like.

I’ve admired the formidable Fenykovi elephant in the Smithsonian many times over the years. He is the first object seen upon entry, an imposing welcoming committee of one to what is surely one of the world’s great museums. I’ve often wondered about the series of events that delivered him to the rotunda, and now I’m almost sorry I took the time to look into it. It is a pitiful story indeed, and my view of him will be much more somber and respectful when I visit again. In fairness to this magnificent animal, I think his story should be shared in greater detail.

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