When I was a child––we’re talking 1970s here––I had a series of books about animals. They were hardback books, about 80 pages long, A4, or perhaps even a little larger in size, with white boards, and the series subdivided the animals of the world into their respective continents, so there was a book of Animals of Africa; one for Asia; one for North America; another for South America; one for Europe? Possibly, but if so I don’t remember that one. At the time, the animals of Europe probably didn’t seem quite so exotic to me, as the animals from more far-flung corners of the world.
Each animal that was included was represented by a big, full-page, colour illustration, and then on the facing page would be some child-friendly facts and figures. I used to love these books; they were one of the early reasons why I became interested in nature, but search the internet and I can find no trace of them today. They are a vanished species.
Vanished, unlike one of the creatures, which I remember featured in the Africa volume: the Somali elephant shrew––or sengi, which has just made a spectacular reappearance in Djibouti after speculation that it might have been extinct for the last 50 years.
The Animals of Africa book featured all the usual suspects: lion, leopard, aardvark, hyena, warthog, hippo, but it was the picture of the elephant shrew that fascinated my juvenile self. It looks like a shrew but it is more closely related to an elephant. How can that be? Elephants are huge and grey with big feet and tusks. How can this little furry thing with a long nose and big ears have anything to do with them? And yet… if I screw up my eyes a bit, and squint hard, perhaps I can imagine that it looks a bit like an elephant. A really, tiny elephant. It is a nice thought. Perhaps there are hundreds of tiny, little elephants running around all over the place, we just never spot them?
For a child, the elephant shrew had that essential ingredient: wonder. It opened a door to a world of imagination.
Sadly, reality is more stark. Far from there existing a world of tiny elephants, the Somali elephant shrew is far rarer than its larger relatives, not having been seen since 1968 until a team of researchers recently spotted the animal again in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.
Knowing the facts, though, doesn’t lessen my sense of wonder. And I will remain happy to continue living in my imaginary world of tiny elephants.
© Bradley Dunbar
Bradley Dunbar remains something of a big kid. A big beardy kid.