Globally, elephants are the largest extant terrestrial animals that can reach heights of four meters and weights up to seven tons. They are considered a keystone species, which are “a species that have a disproportionately large effect on its environment relative to its abundance” and without them the ecosystem would be dramatically different or cease to
exist altogether. These mammals mainly tend to live in tropical non-arid climates with low temperatures that remain at around 17 degrees Celsius, and while it is predominantly assumed that elephants live in grasslands, they can also be found in deserts, forests
Thus, of all the places to image an elephant living, Mongolia with the coldest capital in the world that rivals temperatures in Antarctica is probably on the list of least likely locales. However, an elephant did once live in Mongolia during the 20th century. This elephant was regarded as the “Precious Elephant of the Mongol State” and belonged to the 8th Bogd Javzandamba, the last monarch and theocratic religious head of Mongolia.
Bogd Khaan’s elephant (named the king’s little brown elephant) or referred to simply as the “brown elephant” was purchased between 1912 and 1913 from a Russian circus for 2,200 rubles. 2,200 rubles today equal 37 USD, but when accounted for inflation, the price is estimated to have the same value as 22,500 USD, approximately 53.8 million MNT, today.
The fund to purchase the elephant was part of a loan Mongolia received from Russia, of which 50 percent of the money was used to purchase the elephant. The elephant was purchased and brought back to Ikh Khuree (today’s Ulaanbaatar) by a delegation led by the Chin Van Khanddorj, a prominent 20th century Mongolian independence leader and former Minister of Foreign Affairs.
It took almost a year to transport the elephant to Mongolia. For the first three months, the elephant traveled by train to the city of Kyakhta, but for the remaining eight months, it had to traverse on foot. Most likely, eager and impatient to see his elephant, archival documents state that Bogd Khaan rode out early in the morning with his retinue to meet his elephant and the delegation traveling with it.
Once in Mongolia, the little brown elephant lived a luxurious life. Bogd Khaan had brought the elephant in order to obtain the “Seven Precious Possessions” a king must possess, which also included a “Precious Horse”. Both the elephant and the horse were outfitted
with specially tailored, designed and commissioned ensembles and attires, which were richly adorned with symbols, imagery, and ornaments that had religious significance. These are now displayed in the Bogd Khaan Palace Museum and at the Treasury Fund Museum, a part of Mongol Bank.
Because the elephant was initially bought from and trained at a circus, certain sources say that it would be donned with its specially-made attire and perform during certain festivities.
It is easily presumable that Bogd Khaan loved his elephant and not just because elephants have deep symbolic meaning in Buddhism (Buddha’s mother is said to have dreamed of a white elephant before giving birth to him). This fact is illustrated in several of Bogd Khaan’s childhood toys, particularly small figures of elephants and the “Peace and Happiness” gate in front of the Bogd Khaan Palace Museum, which was one of Bogd Khaan’s primary residences, still exhibits numerous engraved white elephants.
Contemporary texts and art from the time also describe and show the special enclosure Bogd Khaan had built for his elephant. For example, paintings by the famous Mongolian artists B.Sharav render the elephant’s enclosure near the palace grounds complete with the chain used to rein in the elephant. The little brown elephant itself can be seen in B.Sharav’s painting “Red Palace” where he is depicted being walked by his attendant.
In regards to attendants, three monks were assigned to care for the elephant. Certain sources even say that Undur Gongor, the tallest man in Mongolia standing at 2.36 meters, also worked as the elephant’s attendant, which would have seemed fitting for a man of his
Elephants have a voracious appetite, which is natural for their size. They can consume up to 600 pounds of food within 16 hours. This is consistent with records that state that the king’s elephant was fed up to 21 to 22 steamed ‘mantuu’ dumplings, one kg of boiled
butter and 3 buckets of red plums.
Archival documents report that the elephant died in 1926, two years after Bogd Khaan’s death in 1924, and shortly before the Winter Palace was turned into the museum it is today. Elephants can live up to 70 years in the wild. Bogd Khaan’s elephant lived in Mongolia for about 12 years, and estimating that it lived for up to 10 to 15 years in Russia and considering the year it took to bring it to Mongolia – it died at around the age of 23
to 28 years.
It is regrettable that the little brown elephant, the only elephant to have ever lived in Mongolia, died at a relatively young age. It is even more regrettable to think that it could have lived longer if it hadn’t died due to neglect.
To address the elephant in the room, elephants and their current predicament, they are highly intelligent animals with the largest brains in the animal kingdom. They are also resilient, empathetic, and capable of human-like emotions such as grief and mourning. But even though they are highly recognizable and remain deeply ingrained in popular culture, elephants are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and certain elephant species are considered endangered.
To echo the famous naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough, “The question is, are we happy to suppose that our grandchildren may never be able to see such an elephant except in a picture book?” Considering that World Elephant Day, marked annually on August 12, is nearing, may Mongolia’s little brown elephant trumpet out a little awareness.