By Rachael Lallensack, Smithsonian
In a way, our modern understanding of extinction starts with the elephant.
It was while studying fossilized teeth of two different elephant
ancestors, the mammoth and the mastodon, that scientists first became
aware of the fact that species could die out and become forever
extinct. In 1796, French naturalist George Cuvier compared mastodon
and mammoth tooth fossils to the teeth of modern African and Asian
elephants, positing that the teeth belonged to species that were
“lost” in the past. This was a bold, new revelation—one that stood in
stark contrast to attitudes of the time. The massive consumption of
ivory in the 1800s was unprecedented; with delicate fans, billiard
balls, hair combs and ivory veneer piano keys being made of the tusks
elephants use as tools for eating, drinking and breathing.
In a Connecticut newspaper, published the same year as Cuvier’s
hypothesis, one observer wrote:
The Elephant is the largest, the strongest, the most sagacious, and
the longest-lived of all brute creation. The species is numerous, does
not decrease, and is dispersed over all of the southern parts of Asia
But at the same time, the burgeoning American conservation movement
was gaining momentum. One champion, President Teddy Roosevelt,
designated five national parks during his eight years as
commander-in-chief. In February 1909, Roosevelt convened the North
American Conservation Conference, the first ever international meeting
on conservation policy.
Dubbed the “conservation president,” despite his reputation as an avid
hunter, Roosevelt “embodied the dilemma of how to both use and
preserve nature,” advances a new exhibition “Elephants and Us:
Considering Extinction,” now on view in the Albert H. Small Documents
Gallery at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
If fact in March 1909, just one month after the conservation
conference, Roosevelt led a Smithsonian Institution expedition to
Kenya, killing 512 animals, including eight elephants, as part of an
effort to bring taxonomic specimens to a new Smithsonian museum, known
today as the National Museum of Natural History, which opened its
doors June 20, 1911. The practice of displaying taxonomy in museums to
help the public understand the need to preserve these species was just
By the 1950s, nearly 250 elephants were killed every day. In 1973, the
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna
and Flora (CITES) was signed. The international agreement was made to
regulate wildlife trade in order to ensure the survival of a species.
By 1978, African elephants would be protected under CITES, however, it
would later be found that the legislation was inadequately protecting
the now endangered species.
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the African Elephant
Conservation Act into law, banning the importation into the U.S. of
all elephant ivory, with the exception of hunting trophies. Within the
first days of the law’s implementation, under President George H.W.
Bush in 1989, more than a dozen countries followed suit, introducing
The document—and many other historic goods and artifacts that
represent the history of elephant conservation and ivory
consumption—are on now view in the show.
“This exhibition places the human-elephant relationship in the context
of American history,” says the show’s curator Carlene Stephens.
“Within a timespan of about 150 years, Americans transitioned from
being mass consumers of ivory goods to enacting legal measures aimed
at supporting elephant conservation. Yet these recent efforts may not
be enough to counter centuries of consuming ivory.”
In the last century, the African elephant population has decreased by
almost 90 percent, with an estimated 415,000 remaining as of 2016.
They are considered vulnerable under the IUCN’s Red List.
The worldwide demand for ivory goods, however, remains high, and
efforts to stop poaching and protect elephants continue. The illegal
ivory trade is bolstered, in part, by the very thing meant to protect
it because it is still legal to sell ivory if it can be shown that an
item preceded the African Elephant Conservation Act. It is no simple
task to discern manufacturing dates, however. Still, conservationists
and world leaders are sending a clear message: there is zero tolerance
for harvesting these creatures for their tusks.
In 2013, 2015 and 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service crushed
tons of ivory goods seized from tourists, illegal traders and
smugglers. Their intent was to devalue black market ivory. The
practice drew criticism from museum curators who remain concerned
about preserving the cultural heritage of indigenous artisans, who
have been carving ivory for centuries. In 2015, two museum curators
including one from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art
were asked to examine confiscated ivory and found two intricately
carved African side flutes among the loot. One they suspected was the
handiwork of a specific Nigerian tribe. In a 2015 interview with
Smithsonianmag.com senior curator Bryna Freyer compared the experience
to deciphering the puzzle of cultural history to a 500-piece jigsaw
“When this stuff is lost, we lose a chance at better understanding the
people who made the object,” she said. “You think OK, we’ll get rid of
[these pieces]. It’s not going to make a difference, because there are
498 other pieces. But you never know which is the piece that’s going
to really help you understand.”
Illegal ivory trade is just one adversary in the modern fight for
elephant preservation. But habitat destruction, poaching and climate
change all threaten the charismatic megafauna’s survival, even at a
time when scientists are still working to understand their natural
history and biology. In some places, elephants are dying faster than
they can reproduce; an African elephant’s gestation period is almost
two years long.
That’s one reason why researchers at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo
are closely studying elephant reproduction. In an effort to think
about elephant preservation in a new way, they are essentially asking:
How do we make more elephants? As well as, how do we keep the ones we
The forward-looking research is highlighted in the new exhibition with
the display of enrichment toys used at the Zoo to keep the elephants
active. In previous work, they found that stress is a major reason for
failed breeding in captive populations. One way to lessen their stress
is to engage them in activities that stimulate their minds and
ultimately, keep them happy.
So, yes, our understanding of extinction may have begun with elephants
and their ancestors, but as we fight to save this species, they are
powering our understanding of conservation success.