Attenborough and the Giant Elephant


David Attenborough goes through historical records to look at the life story of Jumbo, possibly the most famous elephant who ever lived. He was thought to be the biggest elephant on Earth in his time, the late 19th century, and was a star attraction in London Zoo and later P.T. Barnum’s circus in the United States. A team of scientists also examine Jumbo’s remains to see what more they can learn about him.

Jumbo the elephant has certainly made an impact on popular consciousness. His name has become a slang term for elephants and a term for big things, such as Jumbo Jets. His original name was probably inspired by the Swahili word for “hello”, which apparently is more like “jambo” than “jumbo”, but in any case his name has stuck. If you ask people to name an elephant it would probably be him, or Dumbo, the famous Disney film. Jumbo has a connection to that too, he doesn’t appear in the film, but he is implied to Dumbo’s dad (Dumbo’s mother is after all called Mrs. Jumbo, and Dumbo’s original name is Jumbo Junior).

Jumbo’s story began in Africa, and unfortunately the most likely thing that happened, in fact it’s almost certain, is that when he was just a calf humans will have chased him and his mother until they gave up from exhaustion, then his mother will have been killed, and they will have taken the calf away to be sold to a zoo. This happened many times to elephant calfs in this period of history.

Jumbo went to several zoos around Europe before arriving in London Zoo on the 26th of June 1865. He was looked after for the rest of his life by a keeper, Matthew Scott. Scott wrote an account of his time with Jumbo, and said when the elephant came to the zoo he was ill from disease and parasites, and Scott wanted to care for him. They definitely formed a strong bond.

As Jumbo grew he got very big. As an African elephant, he would have been the largest animal most customers of the zoo will have seen. Most elephants in zoos were Asian elephants, which were smaller and easier to domesticate than African ones. There was also the invention of photography, at the time quite new and exciting technology which would have allowed Jumbo’s image to spread even further.

Jumbo carried children on his back, including Queen Victoria’s children, and he was fed with sticky buns. He would also have been fed hay, and was occasionally given whiskey and beer to calm him down.

The present day scientists analysing Jumbo’s teeth stated that they were in a terrible condition. They were rotten and some hadn’t formed properly. This, they said, would be down to Jumbo’s diet. All the sugar from the sticky buns will have rotted his teeth, and the fact that Jumbo’s diet wasn’t varied would have caused problems too. Elephants in the wild eat grass, and also bark and twigs which help strengthen their teeth. Jumbo was quite likely in a lot of pain from toothache.

Jumbo had a “Jekyll and Hyde” personality, in that by day he was calm, by night he had fits of bad temper. He snapped his tusks off on iron gates, and ground them down on the stone.

The owner of London Zoo in Jumbo’s time, Abraham Bartlett, thought the elephant’s night rages were caused by musth, when young male elephants enter in a state of testosterone fuelled aggression, to show off to females they want to mate with, and to other males that they will fight them. But the conclusion the present day scientists made was that Bartlett was wrong. For one thing, Jumbo’s aggression wasn’t directed at keepers, but to himself and his surroundings. For another, there have been examples of elephants in more recent times behaving in this way, such as the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee for old circus elephants. Elephants which came there were aggressive and agitated at first and had worn down their own tusks. The difference with them and Jumbo though was that they were female, so it can’t have been musth which caused their behaviour. What they had in common with Jumbo is they were in captivity and often had no other elephant company, elephants being very social animals the loneliness would have distressed them. Their behavior changed for the better once in the sanctuary and mixing with other elephants and allowed a bit more freedom. They wouldn’t be able to survive in the wild if they were released there, so it’s the best that can be done.

Despite Jumbo’s popularity Abraham Bartlett was worried Jumbo may attack members of the public, so decided to sell him. There were protests, apparently even from Queen Victoria herself, but eventually Jumbo was bought by P.T. Barnum, owner of The Greatest Show On Earth travelling circus in America in 1882.

When they tried to transport Jumbo, they put him in chains, which he ripped off, and then he sat down so they couldn’t put him on the wagon! However, he started to co-operate when Matthew Scott reassured him, and it was eventually agreed that Scott would go with Jumbo to America and the circus.

P.T. Barnum claimed Jumbo was about 13 feet/4 metres tall. Barnum had a history of exaggerated or even fake attractions in his circus, he will have said things which would draw the most attention and get people interested to come to the circus, so it’s no surprise that Jumbo wasn’t as big as he made out. However, Jumbo was about 10 feet/3 metres tall, which is significantly taller than a male African elephant of Jumbo’s age, which was 24 when he died. Some in the wild can grow taller than Jumbo’s height, but they are mostly older, so Jumbo could well have been a record breaker had he lived longer, as he still had a lot of growing to do, elephants can keep growing until they are in their 40s.

Despite his height, Jumbo was underweight, and that was due to his diet and his body having to extract as much as it could from the limited fuel it was getting. Analysis of his bones by the scientists shows that his joints were strained and more like an elephant in its 40s or 50s. This was likely caused by him having to give rides to people on his back so much. Towards the end of his life, he couldn’t even lie down.

Jumbo made a lot of money for Barnum though, and he considered him his star attraction. In 1884 Jumbo led a parade of elephants over the Brooklyn Bridge, it was a publicity stunt to show the bridge was strong and safe.

Jumbo died aged 24. He was killed in an accident which happened on September 15th 1885 in Ontario, Canada.

The circus animals were loaded onto a train, with Jumbo being one of the last to go on. Just as he was getting loaded on, a freight train came towards him. P.T Barnum told reporters Jumbo ran headfirst into the freight train, heroically sacrificing himself to save Matthew Scott and a smaller elephant called Tom Thumb. This, obviously being a good story, was the version that was most widely reported at the time. However, the evidence simply doesn’t match up with this story. A photograph taken of Jumbo’s body a day after shows damage to Jumbo’s side, not his head, and a drawing from 3 days after shows the train hitting Jumbo as he was being loaded on. There was no damage found on his skeleton, so Jumbo probably died from internal bleeding, which unfortunately means it wouldn’t have been a quick death. Matthew Scott was said to have run over as Jumbo took his last breath, sobbed uncontrollably, and never really got over the loss.

Jumbo’s life story is certainly interesting, but it is also tragic. He was very popular with people who came to see him, and he became very iconic, famous and remembered, but it is not the life he should have had. Human selfishness for entertainment and to make money, coupled with, at best, ignorance at how their treatment of Jumbo will have effected his health caused him to suffer. It’s definitely good that many circuses no longer include performing animals.

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