ELEPHANT DON, University of Chicago Press, April 6, 2015
Available for purchase on Amazon.
Elephant Don: The Politics of a Pachyderm Posse
Meet Greg. He’s a stocky guy with an outsized swagger. He’s been the intimidating, yet sociable don of his posse of friends—including Abe, Keith, Mike, Kevin, and Freddie Fredericks—but one arid summer the tide begins to shift and the third-ranking Kevin starts to get ambitious and seeks a higher position within this social club. But this is no ordinary tale of gangland betrayal—Greg and his entourage are bull elephants in Etosha National Park, Namibia, where, for the last twenty years, Caitlin O’Connell has been a keen observer of their complicated friendships.
In Elephant Don, O’Connell, one of the leading experts on elephant communication and social behavior, takes us inside the little-known world of African male elephants, a world that is steeped in ritual, where bonds are maintained by unexpected tenderness punctuated by violence. Elephant Don tracks Greg and his group of bulls as O’Connell tries to understand the vicissitudes of male friendship, power struggles, and play. A frequently heart-wrenching portrayal of commitment, loyalty, and affection between individuals yearning for companionship, it vividly captures the incredible repertoire of elephant behavior and communication. Greg, O’Connell shows, is sometimes a tyrant and other times a benevolent dictator as he attempts to hold on to his position at the top. Though Elephant Don is Greg’s story, it is also the story of O’Connell and the challenges and triumphs of field research in environs more hospitable to lions and snakes than scientists.
Readers will be drawn into dramatic tales of an elephant society at once exotic and surprisingly familiar, as O’Connell’s decades of close research reveal extraordinary discoveries about a male society not wholly unlike our own. Surely we’ve all known a Greg or two, and through this book we may come to know them in a whole new light.
“Elephant Don is truly a winner in many different ways. The best way to learn about the magnificent animals with whom we share Earth—or with whom we are supposed to peacefully coexist— is to meet them up close and personal, by name, by social relationships, and by their daily and sometimes hourly ups and downs. By reading the autobiographies detailing the roller coaster of emotions of a pachyderm posse we experience their own and other's life's challenges and we see them as the unique individuals they truly are. In this landmark book we also learn about the ups and downs of doing extremely difficult, highly rewarding, and incredibly important field research. There surely is no one better than O’Connell to tell the stories of the animals she knows so well, to see how what they actually do meshes with extant models and theories, and what it’s really like to conduct this sort of research with a team of incredibly dedicated researchers, all of whom also are unique individuals. I will share this book widely. It is that good.”
- (Marc Bekoff, author of Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals)
“Elephant bulls—those magnificent creatures now in the eyesight of hunters and poachers—were always portrayed as loners. O’Connell has changed this by showing their intensely social nature. Not only do bulls frequently associate, they have subtle ways of communicating status and jockey for position. All of this is complicated by the ‘musth’ wild card characteristic of the species. A fascinating look into the politics of the largest land animal.”
- (Frans de Waal, author of The Bonobo and the Atheist)