Saturday, 7 February 2015

Quite big for pygmies - Fortean Times review of Pygmy Elephants

This first appeared in Fortean Times, FT 320 (November 2014) and is reproduced here with the permission of both the review's author, Dr Karl Shuker and Fortean Times editor David Sutton.

Quite big for pygmies

Unknown animals are not generally as conspicuous as widely
photographed but oddly shadowy pygmy elephants

Pygmy Elephants - On the Track of the World's Largest Dwarfs

Matt Salusbury
CFZ Press (Bideford), 2013
Paperback, 314 pp, illustrated, glossary, bibliography, index, ISBN 9781909488151

The Tasmanian wolf or thylacine is often dubbed the world's most common extinct animal on account of the number of unverified sightings since the last confirmed specimen died in 1936. By that reckoning, pygmy elephants must rate not only as the world's largest dwarfs but also as the world's most conspicuous unknown animals, since alleged pygmy elephants have been filmed in the wild close-up and with a clarity unlike the ill-defined blobs normally characteristic of cryptid images.

Specimens have been kept in major zoos around the world and preserved in museums after their deaths, yet their zoological status has remained controversial. Faced with such a shadowy, scientifically anonymous history given such animals' corporeal presence (a history stretches back over a century in terms of Western knowledge, let alone the countless ages of native knowledge), it is perhaps inevitable that it has taken until the second decade of the 21st century to have an entire book devoted to pygmy elephants.The wait has been worthwhile.

The first four chapters of this fact-fest on pygmy elephants documents the fascinating range of island-endemic prehistoric forms, some of which survived into (semi-) modern times, and the tendency towards dwarfism or gigantism that frequently occurs as a consequence of insular evolution. The proboscidean examples merit a book of their own. Chapter 5 sets the scene for documenting the African pygmy elephant by revealing how taxonomic splitters delineated the African forest elephant from the African savannah elephant. They promoted it to a separate, second African species of elephant in its own right, thus providing a precedent for discovering a 'new' species in the modern scientific age.

Chapters 6-8 are devoted to the African pygmy elephant, documenting its history and recorded specimens. Some researchers have categorised it as a valid species in its own right; others have discounted it as

merely a juvenile form or even a dwarfed, teratological version of the forest elephant. (This mirrors the early scientific history of the pygmy hippopotamus relative to the much larger common hippopotamus). Also included here is a detailed account of the West African water elephant, a semi-aquatic cryptid that has long been a favourite of mine.

Chapters 9- 10 focus upon the kallana, or Asian pygmy elephant, in its permutations and document the bizarre mouse-sized 'water weevil' elephants - small but supposedly deadly mini-beasts that occasionally turn up in dried form on eBay. The author visited India to interview kallana eyewitnesses and obtained photos previously unpublished outside the subcontinent. There is much new information here in addition to the historical literature.

The final chapter considers the likelihood that pygmy elephants exist; the author concludes that they do not. How, then, can the specimens and filmed evidence be explained? To discover how he seeks to resolve this paradox, you'll have to read the book! There are illustrations throughout the text, many of which were new to me.

There is a useful glossary, an illustrated identification guide and a detailed bibliography. But what about websites that were consulted during research and have subsequently vanished? This is a bane for authors in the Internet age, but thanks to an addendum to the bibliography, readers can rediscover these ostensibly lost sources, which is great news.

It's customary to find things to gripe about when reviewing a book, but I found little. One minor source of frustration, however, is that the list of contents does not include page numbers for the chapters (a contents page with numbers is here, sorry!), so the only way to find, say, Chapter 6, is to flick through the book. There is the inevitable sprinkling of factual errors that pop up in any work bristling with facts and figures. To quote just one example: it was Maurice Rothschild, not Baron Walter Rothschild, who purchased an anomalous tusk in an Addis Ababa ivory market in the early 20th century.

Overall, however, this is an absorbing read. I do not agree with all of the author's conclusions about the validity or otherwise of pygmy elephants. However, his diligent compilation, presentation and analysis of the hitherto disparate history and facts about these enigmatic animals, plus his own addition of important new data to their archive of material as exclusively revealed in this book, make it a publication very deserving to be read by everyone interested in such creatures. If you're looking for information on stature-challenged pachyderms, this is the publication to consult.

Karl Shuker

Fortean Times Verdict


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