Thursday, April 7, 2016

North African Elephant

The North African elephant, also known as the Atlas elephant, was either a subspecies of the African bush elephant or a separate elephant species, found in North Africa north of the Sahara Desert until it became extinct in Roman times. It is believed that Hannibal used 37 of these elephants to cross the Pyrenees and the Alps when he invaded Italy in the Second Punic War from 218 to 201 BCE. They were also used by the Ptolemaic Dynasty of Egypt, but Polybius, in the second century BCE, said they were inferior in battle against the larger Indian elephants used by the Seleucid kings. Records indicate that in venatio games sponsored by Caesar Augustus, games involving the hunting and killing of wild animals in Roman amphitheaters, 3,500 elephants were killed. A description of the use of elephants in the Roman Empire notes that about 20 elephants were killed in 55 BCE when Pompey dedicated his theater. Cassius Dio noted that the elephants "were pitied by the people when, after being wounded and ceasing to fight, they walked about with their trunks raised toward heaven, lamenting so bitterly as to give rise to the report that they did so not by mere chance, but were crying out against the oaths in which they had trusted when they crossed over from Africa, and were calling upon Heaven to avenge them." It was the Romans, and their need for animals for blood sport, that caused the extinction of the Atlas elephant. 
Mosaic of Atlas elephant in Volubilis.
We visited Volubilis in Morocco, near the town of Moulay Idriss. It was part of Mauretania and became a Roman client state after the fall of Carthage in 146 BCE. The Emperor Claudius annexed Mauretania in 44 CE and it grew under Roman rule until it fell to local Berber tribes in 285 CE while Diocletian was Emperor. The house of Orpheus in Volubilis has a wonderful mosaic of African animals that includes an Atlas elephant. Seeing it there caused me to ponder how wonderful it would be if the Atlas Mountains still had elephants. The world would be a better place. 


  1. Maybe some day they'll be able to recreate the species from DNA.