Sun. Sep 19th, 2021

Wordfest South Africa

Wordfest is South Africa’s premier multilingual festival of languages and literatures with a developmental emphasis.

A deep dive into elephants’ role in southern African literature with Dan Wylie

3 min read
Dan Wylie

Dan Wylie

What does it mean to show compassion towards animals? In his book Death and Compassion: The Elephant in Southern African Literature, Dan Wylie calls on previously written accounts of the elephant in southern Africa to explore the historic relationship between people and the animal, and how our attitudes towards the large grey land mammals have evolved over time.

Speaking on Tuesday 2 July at Wordfest 2019, Wylie explained how, in South Africa, there’s a severe lack of studies, and thus understanding, of the portrayal of animals in literature, leaving a massive amount of material that is yet to be dived into and dissected.

In his book, Wylie uses excerpts from 18th century travel logs – when many animals were slaughtered with a juxtaposing entry into the beginning of naturalists; 19th century hunting accounts that dive into slaughtering even more animals in southern Africa; novels by the likes of Wilbur Smith; game ranger memoirs that hero the conservationist, and; poetic accounts of compassionate and imaginative interchanges that force us to imagine the world from the animal’s point of view.

Clear from his Sunday afternoon lecture on Sydney Clouts’ poetry, Wylie is all about instigating a series of questioning where one question leads to not an answer, but another question. With this book, he wants you to ask pertinent and personal questions that relate to trophy hunting, culling, wildlife rehabilitation techniques, your relationship with elephants, the stories you tell about elephents, and how it all influences people’s attitudes towards the animal.

Wylie’s mission is to use this act of questioning to break through ethical barriers in an effort to pivot our attitudes, from seeing elephants as the ‘other’ to including them in the future of our communities. In this regard, although not everyone reads, it’s important to share an educational message that will filter down and shine light on the myths and the plight of the elephant.

Just one example of a myth that needs busting is how elephants are seen as destructive because of the apparent catastrophic chaos they cause as they march through the jungle and the veld, trampling, snapping and ruining the vegetation in their path. However, according to studies conducted across southern Africa, we have much less to worry about than we thought. In some cases, the destruction has been thought to have led to the increase in tortoises as the paths created by elephants allow the small creatures to more easily meet up and, well, breed.

While our conservative wisdom has evolved into the idea of letting nature to take its natural course, if we want to conserve what’s left of the impressive leathery animal, it is up to us to ensure that this ecosystem, one of air, water and land, is maintained.

The story rules, and unless we understand how the story functions and how to change the story, we will not be able to advance as one or with each other. And Wylie’s book is the beginning of this much needed evolution.

Dan Wylie’s book, Death and Compassion: The Elephant in Southern African Literature, is available on

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