Frozen forever in an alert, fast walk; trunk raised, scenting; ears fanned out, listening, the great African elephant marks the end of his own era as well as the end of a Smithsonian era. There is something inherently tragic about this creature, and naturalists know it.
Twenty-five years ago he was leading a tranquil life in a remote region of Africa when a hunting party ruthlessly gunned him down. "Before the echo of our shots died away," wrote big-game hunter J. J. Fenykovi, "pandemonium started in the jungle. The crash and cracking of broken trees and branches sounded like an artillery battle."
Finally, after 16 high-caliber bullets had hit him, the then-largest recorded land animal in modern history had fallen victim to a macho trophy hunter. Measuring 13 feet 2 inches from ground to withers, he fell "amidst the carnage of blood, broken trees and trampled brush that had marked his last struggles."
Fenykovi, a Madrid businessman, had spotted the spoor of the animal a year earlier and had returned to get him. Deciding that his great trophy should go to a great museum, the remains of this marvelous creature that may have been a century old finally wound up at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington. It took a miracle of craftsmanship and 16 months of determination to bring him back to lifelike appearance again.
The final indignity he suffered was death at the hand of man. But minor offenses are still thrust upon him, much to the sorrow of museum scientists. Seasonally decorated by the women's committee of the Smithsonian Associates, he has served as a kind of Christmas centerpiece with a hot-pink spread draped over his fragile back. He has had helium-filled balloons tied to his trunk and tail, worn a cardboard "Barbar the Elephant" crown and pulled a sleigh. Cute.
The grand old elephant of the grand old museum has been standing sentinel in the rotunda for 21 years. He has become the symbol of the museum, and a widely recognized landmark to millions of visitors who use him as a kind of assembly place ("Meet you at the elephant").
But symbols change. If such a trophy were taken now it is unlikely that the Smithsonian would even accept it, let alone mount and exhibit it in such a prominent place. Times have changed, too, because of heightened awareness, enlightened sensitivity and the brutal reality that the African elephant is now a threatened species and is being slaughtered for its ivory faster than it can reproduce.
"It would have to fill a gap in the collection for such a gift to be accepted today, and there is no such gap in our African elephant collection," says a Smithsonian spokesman. "Certainly it would require a lot of soul-searching," says museum director Richard Fiske. "We should not be in the business of boosting egos of big-game hunters," says a mammalogist.
In the Juine 4, 1956, Sports Illustrated, Fenykovi wrote about "The Biggest Elephant Ever Killed by Man." Posing next to his aide-de-camp Mario, Fenykovi, plump and smiling and with a belt of huge cartridges sagging around his ample waist, is dwarfed by the fallen elephant that lies on his right side behind him. Mario, standing at his left, has assumed a cocky pose with his left hand on his hip and his cap tilted back at a rakish angle. They are still holding their rifles in the classic white hunter manner.
It is not a pretty story that Fenykovi told.
For most of his life Fenykovi was a prosperous Madrid businessman, but each autumn he abandoned Europe and went to his 1,000-acre ranch in Angola, the vast Portuguese colony on the Atlantic coast of Africa, to shoot big game.
"It was while hunting in a remote area of Angola in 1954 that I got the shock of my big-game hunting life," he wrote. "Examining the muddy shore of a lake, I saw an unbelievably big elephant track. Getting out a tape measure, I found it measured an even three feet in length -- more than a foot larger than the world record trophy.
"As I stood up, a little chill went through my body. I knew I was looking at the spoor of probably the biggest animal living on the surface of the earth."
Knowing that elephants are creatures of habit, and realizing that he did not have the manpower at the time to hunt down such a great beast, Fenykovi planned and waited for the next year when he "knew" that "his" elephant would return to that same lake.
Sure enough, the next year he found the spoor and the hunt was on.
The jungle heat was intense, suffocating. Following the spoor for hours, Fenykovi and Mario spotted two elephants. "They were quite calm," he wrote, "lolling under some tall trees, slowly moving their huge ears in a fanlike motion. The smaller was an enormous beast, but my elephant was beyond my imagination -- a real monster."
Leaning his arm on the trunk of tree, Fenykovi raised his .416 Rigby rifle, fired and raised a crust of dry mud from the skin of "his" elephant. The two elephants ran.
"I could see blood gushing from the trunk of my big elephant," wrote Fenykovi, "a sure sign I had got him in the lungs." The hunting party followed the enormous trail of blood, found the elephant and fired again.
The elephants separated and the chase concentrated on the one that would become known as "The Fenykovi Elephant." After a six-mile run in terrific heat, the best had stopped in a heavy thicket, exhausted and bleeding to death. Fenykovi, also exhausted, asked his aide to go in and finish him off. Five more shots rang out and word came that the biggest game of all had "fallen."
Weighing an estimated eight tons, its hide, which along weighed two tons, could not be lifted by a crew of 23 natives. A truckload of salt was required to preserve it in the field. It took more than a week to transport the skin through 600 miles of trackless wilderness to a railhead. Fenykovi was dealing with a monstrous animal, only a few inches short of the giant prehistoric mammoths.
The Smithsonian eagerly courted Fenykovi's intentions to turn the hide over when he indicated that he was hurt by the British Museum's apparent ingratitude at his earlier gifts of trophies. Museum officials pounced with a long series of friendly correspondence that led to the hide's being acquired on Aug. 14, 1957.
Fenykovi at first suggested that the institution find someone to buy it from him (for $200,000 to cover his expenses) and then donate it to the Smithsonian. He also suggested charging admission to see "his" elephant, and asked the museum to help him publish his adventure book and sell his film to television. All of this was politely rejected, but the Smithsonian did pay to transport the hide from Spain.
An iron slug found in the elephant's left leg proved to be interesting. It was a slug fired from a flintlock muzzle-loading gun of the sort used by slave traders in Africa at least 80 years ago.
"In view of the fact that hunters 80 years ago were only interested in ivory," wrote the Smithsonian secretary of the time, Leonard Carmichael, in a March 1959 memo, "it would suggest that possibly the animal was as much as 100 years old since tusks dod not become valuable until about the age of 20."
In the Fenykovi correspondence with the Smithsonian regarding "his" elephant, the Smithsonian archives have two of the great hunter's Churchill-sized Havana cigars sealed in glass cases. Custon-made for Fenykovi, the cigars are wrapped with bands that picture him sitting on the fallen animal.
Fenykovi took great interest in the mounting of the specimen and was delighted with the results, considered a masterpiece of taxidermy. When the hide arrived it was as stiff as a piece of plywood and almost three inches thick in some places. It would take months of scraping to make it pliable. Smithsonian taxidermists Norman Deaton and the late William L. Brown performed nothing short of a museum miracle in creating the finished exhibit under the most difficult and trying circumstances.
Brown, whose earlier mounting pride had been a hippo, was discouraged when he first saw the skin: "When I look at it, it makes me feel that it would be impossible to do anything with it." But, in retrospect, his accomplishment was far greater than Fenykovi's, who only supervised the killing of the elephant. Brown and his colleagues brought it to life again.
"He may not look it," says Frank Greenwell, a museum specialist in the museum's department of vertebrate zoology, which cares for the elephant, "but he is very fragile. We vacuum to touch his hide. It's cracking in some places. As far as being 'dusty,' that's what they look like in the wild state. We don't want him to look 'brand new.'"
Numerous cracks have developed in the elephant's hide, mainly in its undercarriage. This spring Greenwell worked from a movable scaffolding to seal those cracks. "We injected a special sealing glue," he says, "and baked in a wax over these trouble areas. If this wasn't done, the skin would pull away from the supporting framework." And make the elephant look a bit droopy, too.
Mild museum controversies followed the elephant. Some mammalogists questioned the exhibit's anatomical authenticity, especially the area under the tail where waste is (or was) expelled. Curators were troubled that the anus was not visible, so the exhibits people dispatched a photographer to the National Zoo to gather evidence so that the proper fabrication might be achieved.
It was determined, after examining the evidence, that an elephant's ample wrinkles discreetly accomplish a natural concealment. Others, however, were concerned about the concealment of the genital organs. Those, too, are naturally concealed in the inactive state.
So there he stands, named after the man responsible for his death. He doesn't even carry his original ivory, the height of indignity because this, after all, is why African elephants are killed. In the case of the Smithsonian, the tusks were too heavy, so plastic ones were fabricated. The originals are in the "attic."
But is he the largest, as the Smithsonian used to claim?
The Guinness Book of World Records lists one E. M. Nielsen Jr., an automobile dealer of Columbus, Neb., as having shot the record elephant, not 20 miles from where Fenykovi got his. The Neilsen elephant, downed in November 1974, measured 13 feet 8 inches -- six inches taller than Fenykovi's.
Nielsen left the carcass, bringing home only one ear, two front feet and two tusks.
That's all that's left of the largest recorded land animal ever killed by man in modern times. His feet have been recycled into footstools.
Good luck, Loxodonta africana.