Looking at the efforts and resources the Ptolemies employed on the search and hunt of African forest elephants from the East, where it is the Red Sea, it seems essential to understand what were the reasons that made them withdraw from this search. It is though not an easy question to answer bearing in mind the sources that we have available and the few archeological sites excavated in the area.

The search of the elephant seemed to have aimed two main priorities. This is according to various modern scholars and some ancient writers such as Diodorus, Pliny the Elder or Arrian. First of all, elephants were employed in battles for centuries before the Greeks arrived to Egypt and to East Asia. With the arrival of Alexander the great, the Greeks started to use elephants on war. The Seleucid dynasty continued using them as they had an easy source from India. Ptolemy I obtained them following victories against Perdiccas at 321 BC and against Demetrius at the Battle of Gaza in 312 BC. With the formation of the Seleucid kingdom though and the lost of Ptolemy access to the East, the Egyptian dynasty was forced to look at alternatives to obtain the majestic animal. The first of the Ptolemies to focus on this was Ptolemy II Philadelphus, who decided to create a trade route, bringing these animals from the East shores of the Red Sea. The way it was done was by navigating along the coast from city ports such as Philotera or Ptolemais of the Hunt, where elephants were hunted, then transporting them to other ports such as Berenike or Arsinoe and from there through the desert to reach Thebes or other Nile cities.

The amount of resources that the Ptolemies spent in building and maintaining these routes, including the building of whole towns, fortifications and ports, such as Berenike, Ptolemies of the Hunt or Arsinoe, the food supplying necessary for maintaining this complex system, new ad hoc boats or elephantegoi, which were able to navigate shallow waters and to carry heavy loads such as numerous elephants and hunting teams, demonstrates the importance elephant hunting had to the Egyptian kingdom.

The second reason for elephant hunting it is believed it was ivory. This precious material might have been of great value during the Ptolemy empire and its search seems to have become a priority to the dynasty. The amount of items that were made from ivory: statues, chairs, beds, sceptres, hilts, scabbards, chariots, carriages, tablets, book-covers, table-legs, doors, flutes, lyres, combs, brooches, pins, scrapers, boxes, bird-cages, floors…, gives probe of its importance at the time. There are scholars that believe ivory and not elephants, was in fact what they mostly wanted (Casson L. 1993). In less than 100 years the Ptolemies moved further to the East, opening new ports where the eastern African horn is, modern Eritrea and Somalia, which might be directly related to the exploration and scarcity of these animals. Bearing in mind the drop in ivory prices suffered at some point during Ptolemies times and the amount of ivory that the Ptolemies received from their southern tributaries Kushite kingdoms, it is not unreasonable to believe that ivory trade forced them to move souther to find elephants. The hunting and killing of vast numbers might have been behind the need to search new spots to find them. The number of elephants that the Ptolemies had, which would not have been over 150 elephants, seems also to point out to ivory rather than elephants for the scarce of resources in some areas in less than 100 years.

Routes to connect Egypt with India through the Red Sea were also opened, allowing the trade for incense or mahouts, who were experienced elephant tamers. Gold might have also been another precious material coveted by the Ptolemies. The Kushite kingdom traded and tributed to the Ptolemies ivory and gold during Ptolemies control over the South east, so it is not unreasonable to think that gold was another of the reasons which moved the Ptolemies to get control over that area.

Then, we might ask what made the Ptolemies to withdraw from that area and to stop searching for these precious materials and animals. One of the reasons that might have played a key role was that the Seleucids lost control over Bactria and Parthia, which left them without access to Indian elephants. Ptolemies search for elephants seemed to have started as a response to Seleucids’ Indian war elephants so it is plausible to believe that once the Seleucids lost control over the East, Ptolemies felt there was no need to hunt them anymore.

A lost of interest on elephant hunting might have been a key factor also because African forest elephants were smaller than the Indian ones and which might had not been possible to arm them with turrets. There are records of Indian elephants carrying turrets and using them for parades and wars. However, even this statement cannot be confirmed at this moment. Scholars are contradicting themselves on whether African forest elephants actually carried turrets or not, not just in Egypt but also in Carthage or Rome (Charles M. 2007 and 2008, Rance P. 2009), or whether different techniques were used for wars involving fast elephant charges without turrets or heavy turreted elephants for battle fields.

It might have been that the Ptolemies started breeding elephants at Thebes and other Nile cities and therefore did not require the Red Sea trade routes, a source that was said to require an extraordinary financial and human effort. If this was the case and breeding techniques were effective enough, most probably the Ptolemies would have been keen to reduce costs declining the East route. It could be that costs were higher than intakes.

It seems though odd that the Ptolemies would have stopped controlling an area that was giving them also valuable financial resources such as gold or ivory. Surely this must have been precious material that financed their wars against other Hellenistic kingdoms. Besides this, the Ptolemies not only had created a route to obtain elephants, ivory or gold by controlling the Eastern desert and the Red Sea, but they also had the only access to a trade route with India and Arabia for incense and other products.

The Nubian Kushite kingdom, which had challenged in the past empires such as the Ancient Egyptians and threatened Persian control over Egypt, might have been a source of trouble for the Ptolemies. Perhaps pirates navigating the Red Sea such as the Nabateans or locals such as the troglodyte or the Asachae might have played an important part on weakening the Ptolemies over the control of this area. Fortifications found on various ports, which obviously aimed at protecting travellers from local threats, confirms that the Ptolemies operated on dangerous and unsafe routes since Ptolemy II. This surely resulted on the need to employ resources on maintaining these trade routes. This hypothesis though is neither so clear at this point. Further archeological research in the area might be needed to confirm or reject this alternative.

Therefore, responding to whether we could discern which factors were responsible for the decline in elephant hunting, I would say that there are some factors that might have affected but we are not in a position to confirm which ones did play an essential role on its decline.


Primary sources:

Arrian. Indica. Sections 13 and 14.

Diodorus Siculus. Bibliotheca Historica. Book 3.40-41

Pliny the Elder. Natural History. Book 8.8.24-26

Secondary sources:

Burstein, S. (1996) “Ivory and Ptolemaic Exploration of the Red Sea:  The Missing Factor,” Topoi, 6: 799-807.

Burstein, S. M. 2008. ‘Elephants for Ptolemy II: Ptolemaic Policy in Nubia in the Third Century BC’. In Ptolemy II Philadelphus and his World, McKechnie, P. and Guillaume, P. (eds.), Lieden: Brill: 135-147.

Casson, L. 1993. ‘Ptolemy II and the Hunting of African Elephants’, TAPA 123: 247-260.

Charles, M. 2007. ‘Elephants at Raphia: Reinterpreting Polybius 5.84-5’, The Classical Quarterly 57 (1): 306-311.

Charles, M. B. 2008. ‘African Forest Elephants and Turrets in the Ancient World’, Phoenix 62 (3/4): 338-362.

Gowers, W. 1947. ‘The African Elephant in Warfare’, African Affairs 46 (182): 42-49.

Rance, P. 2009. ‘Hannibal, elephants and turrets in Suda (Theta) 438 (Polybius Fr. 162B) – an unidentified fragment of Diodorus”, The Classical Quarterly 59 (1): 91-111.

Sidebotham, S. E. 2011. Berenike and the Ancient Maritime Spice Route. London: University of California Press.

Sidebotham, S. E., Hense, M. and Nouwens, H. M.. 2008. The Red Land: The Illustrated Archaeology of Egypt’s Eastern Desert. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.