A naturalist’s guide to the endangered American Republican elephant.
- By Rosa BrooksRosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department. Her most recent book is How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything.
Seldom does the global public have an opportunity to observe an endangered species in its natural habitat, but this week, wildlife enthusiasts received a rare glimpse into the poignant final days of the American Republican elephant.
Classified as “critically endangered” by international authorities, Elephantidae republicanus, though native to the United States, has struggled for decades to adapt to its rapidly evolving biome. The enormous pachyderm — once a noble animal that roamed the length and breadth of the nation, as common in America’s cities as in its rural areas — has, in recent years, seen its numbers dwindle and its habitat contract.
Recently, however, some unknown constellation of events brought more than 2,000 surviving specimens of E. republicanus to a Cleveland watering hole known locally as the Quicken Loans Arena. In this sheltered environment, E. republicanus can now be briefly observed, and we urge all naturalists, both professional and amateur, to take advantage of what may be a final opportunity to see this great beast before its almost inevitable demise.
The factors leading to the precipitous decline of this once-ubiquitous pachyderm are still poorly understood. It is believed, however, that a high degree of dietary specialization may have contributed to its decline. Known to consume large quantities of “American” cuisine and eschew foods it considers “ethnic,” E. republicanus gradually cut itself off from numerous potentially sustaining food sources.
Heavy and slow-moving, E. republicanus has long had difficulty competing with the somewhat more agile and adaptable Equus asinus democraticus (common name: “The Democratic Party.”) While E. republicanus has gradually come to restrict its habitat to a dwindling number of regions in the American South and Southwest, and has found it difficult to survive in fast-paced urban atmospheres, E. a. democraticus has grown progressively more dominant in the urban areas and has migrated to regions recently abandoned by its larger but clumsier competitor.
Although it is well-known among biologists that genetic diversity is critical to the survival and well-being of any species, E. republicanus has displayed a lamentable tendency to drive away potential sources of greater genetic diversity, opting instead to interbreed. The gradual whitening of E. republicanus appears to be one unfortunate consequence of this habit. Less than a century ago, substantial numbers of brown and black elephants existed within the typical E. republicanus herd, but beginning in the mid-1940s, their numbers began to decline steeply. While some of these darker-hued members of the herd are presumed to have died off, others appear to have fled or been driven out, finding a niche instead within the growing herds of the Republican elephant’s longtime rival, E. a. democraticus.
The shift has been stark. At the Quicken Loans Arena watering hole in Cleveland, for instance, only 18 black elephants have been observed in a herd believed to number 2,472 — the smallest observed percentage of black E. republicanus in a century. In contrast, E. a. democraticus has succeeded in greatly increasing genetic diversity within its herds: In 2012, when biologists spotted a sizable group of E. a. democraticus grazing on canapés in Charlotte, North Carolina, they were able to count 1,452 black members in a herd of about 5,500. E. a. democraticus has also successfully absorbed numerous other newcomers into its ranks, greatly increasing its odds of healthy adaptation and evolution.
Perhaps relatedly, E. republicanus has been dogged in recent years by a troubling inability to reproduce. In the 1940s, E. republicanus constituted nearly 40 percent of the denizens of the U.S. political biome. Today, they constitute only about a quarter of the population. E. republicanus is aging, as well: Younger and more vital members of the herd are increasingly opting either to join E. a. democraticus or strike out on their own.
As is typical of a species nearing extinction, E. republicanus is experiencing a surge in internal conflict. Upon arrival at the Quicken Loans Arena watering hole, the herd embarked upon an immediate feeding frenzy, and male specimens of E. republicanus have been observed several times locked in mortal combat, with the struggle for dominance growing ever more brutal in this atmosphere of scarcity and threat. Incidents of cannibalism have been documented, and several observers have commented on the apparent disappearance of the pachyderm, native to Ohio, that naturalists had nicknamed “John Kasich.” Meanwhile, the pachyderm nicknamed “Ted Cruz,” a younger male who had made a bid for herd leadership, appears to have been subjugated by the largest and whitest male in the herd, a particularly aggressive beast referred to as “The Donald.” Although there are a number of females in the herd, they too appear mainly to have been subjugated by “The Donald.” Their numbers and current condition are unknown.
The Quicken Loans Arena watering hole is likely to soon dry up. Before it does, biologists and wildlife enthusiasts are encouraged to take advantage of this rare gathering, as it is not anticipated that the species will survive the coming election cycle. Those interested in firsthand observation are advised to exercise caution, however: Like all panicked and threatened animals, E. republicanus is likely, in its final hours, to grow increasingly vicious.
Photo credit: DEAGOSTINI/Getty Images