When looking at historic records of all kinds—from prehistoric cave drawings and ancient rock art in Africa and India, from poetic narrations of travelers to hunter memoirs and press stories about zoos, from reports of mystical graveyards to museum warehouses collecting bones—notions about elephants in the West have come a long way. These ideas (their transformation; their persistence) tell perhaps more about how Western cultures have understood themselves than about the actual lives and potential histories of proboscideans. In Elephant Trails: A History of Animals and Cultures (Johns Hopkins UP, 2021), Nigel Rothfels follows the paths of concrete elephant lives, their struggles and their deaths, in order to produce a history of one particular elephant, that which inhabits Western mentalities up to the present and which is composed as much of fantasy as thick skin.
In this conversation, Dr. Rothfels expands on some of the tenets of this book, as well as the trails that he himself followed in order to better understand how present notions about elephants in the West have been historically configured. This is a history of ideas about the magnificent animal we call the elephant, threaded with stories of flesh and blood.
Marcela Hernández, PhD candidate in Philosophy at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, is currently writing a dissertation on animals and gestures in films. She can be reached at email@example.com