Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Combined Circus' "herd of pygmy elephants" arrives in Springfield, Mass (1937)



Three "pygmy elephants" of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Combined Circus - named as Nuba, Bull and Loka - were reported by the Springfield Republican (Springfield, Mass.) of 18 June 1937 as arriving in town.

The first thing I noted from the photographs of these elephants (and from posters of them featuring drawings that I've seen, I'll add links later) is that the tusks look dodgy. They're way to long and straight for an African elephant (savannah or forest), reaching almost to the ground. They look like prosthetic add-ons that would fit over the very small tusks juvenile African elephants would have. (There's also a possibility that the circus had found some African savannah elephants showing "precocious tusk growth" – there's a photo of this in Pygmy Elephants.)

Two of these elephants are probably the same two specimens of "Abele" referred to in Exploration du Parc National Albert, Mission S. Frenchkop (1937-38) by Serge Frenchkop (Brussels, 1943). As I describe in Pygmy Elephants, discussing elephants in and around the Belgian Empire's National Parks system, Frenchkop's report notes that "Major Offermann distinguishes another, third type of Elephant, l'El├ęphant Nain (dwarf elephant) known in the region of the Elephant Domestication Station with the vernacular name of "Abele", and which lives to the North of Api and does not measure more that 1m 30 or 1m 40 in height. The general aspect of "Abele" would be that of Loxodonta africana cyclotis, save for the size. This would seem to permit me to suppose that the "Abele" is nothing more than a young "Tembo" [forest elephant in the local language]. M. Offermann who has had the occasion to observe the growth of two "Abele" admits, elsewhere, to these having been sold to America, he could not continue his observations." No mention is made of extraordinary long tusks on "Abele", which you would have thought Offerman would have commented on.

Contemporary posters show that one of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus attractions touring the US around 1936-38 was a "Herd of the Smallest Fully Grown Pigmy Elephants on the Face of the Globe!". This, and the above newspaper article, make me wonder if it's possible that two of these could have been the young "Abele"-type elephants from the area around the Domestication Station whose growth Monsieur Offerman was no longer able to observe.

The African mahouts ride these little elephants in exactly the same way as in Armand Dennis's 1936 documentary film Wheels Across Africa, in which mahouts ride adult African forest elephants from the Domestication Station that pull Dennis's Dodge truck across a river.

Thanks again to Richard Muirhead for finding this article.