Eating an Elephant

A Zimbabwean game farmer intends to prepare an unorthodox meal for 91-year-old president Robert Mugabe.

A herd of elephants gather at a watering hole in Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park (Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters)

What do you get as a birthday gift for the African strongman who's already infuriated the world in almost every way possible? Obviously, you barbecue him a massive amount of a beloved, endangered species of megafauna. According to The Telegraph:

A Zimbabwean game farm owner who has pledged two elephants, two buffalo, two sable antelopes and five impalas for a giant barbeque at Robert Mugabe’s birthday party this weekend has said the donation is just “a drop in the ocean” considering his debt to the 91-year-old leader.

The Telegraph piles on the outrage, noting that grillmaster Tendai Musasa is the head of a wildlife conservancy—but it appears that the conservancy is really more of a managed hunting site, where people on safari pay to shoot elephant.

The game preserve illuminates Mugabe's systematic program of expropriating land from white farmers in Zimbabwe. That process is part of what has turned Mugabe from a triumphant hero of anti-colonialist liberation over a racist Rhodesian government into an international goat, widely hated outside Zimbabwe and with a passionate opposition inside.

There was, at least in theory, a sense of justice behind the farm seizures: White settlers had colonized the country, brutally subjugated black Zimbabweans, and profited from it for decades. But of course, the expropriations didn't turn out to be the great boon to the country that Mugabe had promised—and in fact it helped to create a lengthy economic crisis in the country. Farms were seized, often violently, and broken up into small parcels for subsistence farming. Whites who ran the farms that powered the nation's economy and food sources fled, leaving untrained and disorganized farmers in their wake. The end result was hyperinflation and an economic mess that continues to the present day.

Some people did well, though—including Musasa, whose conservancy was expropriated from whites. "What is an elephant? It’s a drop in the ocean compared to what we got from the president in the form of 12,600 hectares of land. We know it's not enough but it's just a gesture for his values which we uphold dearly,” he told a South African news site.

Understandably, Musasa's pledge has infuriated wildlife advocates, as well as the Zimbabwean opposition party Movement for Democratic Change, which condemned the cook-out. African elephants are critically endangered, but the more commonly cited threats to their life are not eating, but rather habitat destruction and, especially, poaching for ivory. A booming black market in ivory has hurt wild elephants, who are often killed and whose bodies are left, with the tusks taken. The U.S. destroys confiscated ivory, often doing so in public ways as a deterrent; you can watch a video here, for instance, of the destruction of six tons of ivory, worth tens of millions of dollars. (Asian elephants, by contrast, are apparently more seriously threatened with becoming food.)

Zimbabwe's elephant hunters say what they're doing is totally different. They argue that elephants are actually a pest in Zimbabwe, and they say they hunt them only under tightly controlled conditions—likening the practice to culling oversized deer herds. For many people, though, that's simply not acceptable.

But a separate question is, how much of a treat will it be if Musasa follows through on his promise to slaughter and barbecue elephants for the 91-year-old Mugabe? While you can find some gag recipes on the Internet (no pun intended), it's not all jokes. One option is to make biltong, an elephant jerky, which can be eaten plain or made into a soup. What about fresh meat, though?

In an excellent 2012 essay on The Awl, Raynor Ganan rounded up accounts of eating elephant—mostly from 19th-century explorers. The reviews are, for the most part, not so great. "It was a pretty tough piece of meat, I assure you; the grain was very coarse, and the meat was somewhat tasteless and rather dry," wrote Paul du Chaillu. David Livingstone enjoyed eating the foot, but said he required a good walk afterwards to avoid "biliousness." The rest of the beast was mostly for the dogs, he wrote: "Elephant’s trunk and tongue are also good, and, after long simmering, much resemble the hump of a buffalo, and the tongue of an ox; but all the other meat is tough, and, from its peculiar flavour, only to be eaten by a hungry man."

Hungry men will indeed eat it. During the Prussian siege of Paris in 1870 and 1871, two elephants—Castor and Pollux—went from being zoo curiosities to being food on the plate. Henry Du Pré Labouchere conveyed his dismay at the turn of events, with a certain wryness and a generous pinch of Gallic culinary chauvinism:

Yesterday, I had a slice of Pollux for dinner. Pollux and his brother Castor are two elephants, which have been killed. It was tough, coarse, and oily, and I do not recommend English families to eat elephant as long as they can get mutton. Many of the restaurants are closed owing to want of fuel. They are recommended to use lamps; but although French cooks can do wonders with very poor materials, when they are called upon to cook elephant with a spirit lamp the thing is almost beyond their ingenuity.

Few of these accounts offer many tips for the how of preparation, though. For the most part, the elephants seems to have been boiled or cooked, then salted and peppered. Still, all things considered, Mugabe might prefer to stick with the buffalo, antelope, or impala.