Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. Author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), and more recently Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), and Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), his many fans have been badgering him to join the blogosphere for years. The CFZ Blog Network is proud to have finally persuaded him to do so.

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Thursday, 26 December 2013


Roger Dean's spectacular flying elephant artwork for the cover of the second Osibisa album, Woyaya (© MCA/Osibisa/Roger Dean)

Although I pride myself on covering the more unusual and unexpected of subjects in this blog, flying elephants is a first even for ShukerNature. Then again, it is the festive season – and if we can't suspend disbelief at this time of year (which is, after all, the one period when our faith in the reality of certain other gravity-unencumbered ungulates – namely, aerial reindeer - is all but compulsory), then when can we? So here, as a yuletide diversion, is my exclusive examination of airborne pachyderms.

And where better to begin than with the most famous example of all – Walt Disney's Dumbo.

Dumbo in triplicate – a selection of Disney plush toys (© Dr Karl Shuker)

In contrast to the predominant policy during the first half-century or so of Disney-produced animated feature films, the movie Dumbo, released in 1941 and Walt Disney Productions' fourth such feature, was not based upon or even inspired by a well-known novel or traditional fairy tale. Instead, it emanated directly from a scarcely-known short story written by Helen Aberson and illustrated by Harold Pearl that had only just been released in a newly-devised prototype story-telling toy format known as Roll-A-Book in late 1939 when it was seen by Kay Kamen, Disney's head of merchandise licensing. When she showed it to Walt Disney, he was instantly convinced that its rights should be purchased and its story used as the basis of a future animated feature. This is indeed what happened, very swiftly too, and the rest is history.

Making friends with Dumbo (© Dr Karl Shuker)

This all-time classic Disney film centres around a baby travelling-circus elephant christened Jumbo Junior by his mother, Mrs Jumbo, but whose extra-large ears make him the butt of spiteful jokes by the other circus elephants, who also cruelly nickname him Dumbo. And when his mother tries to protect him, she is taken away and imprisoned in solitary confinement as a mad elephant. Happily, however, Dumbo is briefly reunited with her in a touching scene that features her singing to him while still in jail the tear-jerking lullaby 'Baby Mine'. Following an accidental, champagne-induced bout of inebriation in which he hallucinates a psychedelic panorama of pink elephants, Dumbo and his only friend, Timothy Mouse, assisted by a raucous but good-hearted flock of crows, make the astonishing discovery that he can actually use his huge ears as wings and fly! As a result, Dumbo the flying elephant soon becomes the star of the entire circus, and his mother, swiftly released from jail, now proudly resides in her son's opulent private circus carriage.

The Dumbo merry-go-round at Walt Disney World (© Dr Karl Shuker)

At only 64 minutes long, Dumbo is among the shortest of all animated features, but that didn't prevent it from becoming one of Disney's best-loved cartoon films. It also won the Academy Award for 'Best Scoring of a Musical Picture' in 1941 (and 'Baby Mine' was nominated that same year for the 'Best Original Song' Academy Award). Moreover, one of the most popular attractions, especially among small children, when visiting Disneyland (opened in Anaheim, California, in 1955), Walt Disney World (opened in Orlando, Florida, in 1971, and which I visited in 1981), and Disneyland Paris (opened in Paris, France, in 1992) is the Dumbo merry-go-round.

However, Dumbo is not the only cartoon flying elephant. Indeed, he is not even Disney's only cartoon flying elephant.

Down through the years, Disney has produced a succession of Winnie the Pooh featurettes. The second and most critically acclaimed of these was Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, released in 1968, which deservedly won the 'Best Animated Short Film' Academy Award that year. This was no doubt due to it not only featuring the screen debut of the very popular and delightfully wacky character Tigger, but also for including a decidedly surreal but extremely memorable, song-accompanied dream/nightmare sequence. In this sequence, Pooh desperately strives to protect his beloved honey from a multi-coloured, polka-dotted plague of elephants and weasels - or, as Tigger amusingly mispronounces them, heffalumps and woozles. And among the former contingent of would-be honey pilferers is an enormous winged bumblebee with the head and the limbs of an elephant. An elebee, or a bumblephant?

Pooh and his honey pot attracts unwelcome attention from a flying heffalump of the bumblebee persuasion (© Walt Disney Productions)

Moving to a very different but no less spectacular artistic representation of flying elephants: in 1970, the celebrated fantasy artist Roger Dean was commissioned to prepare two striking album covers for the Ghanaian Afro-pop band Osibisa, based in London. The result was a pair of extraordinarily eyecatching, totally unforgettable illustrations. The first of these, for the band's self-titled debut album, Osibisa, released by MCA in 1971, featured some flying elephants of normal grey colouration but sporting huge multicoloured wings and a decidedly sinister, malevolent demeanour. The second one, for the band's follow-up album, Woyaya, also released by MCA in 1971, featured a single scarlet-skinned flying elephant equipped with a long slender pair of translucent dragonfly-like wings, and claws instead of hooves.

Roger Dean's wonderful artwork for the first Osibisa album's cover (© MCA/Osibisa/Roger Dean)

Although flying elephants have yet to feature in any cryptozoological case, one such example has indeed appeared in a truly delightful publication of the pseudozoological variety.

I coined the term 'pseudozoology' quite some time ago to describe spoof publications and specimens, i.e. books describing totally fictitious creatures but in such a completely sober, straight-faced manner that they deliberately give the impression that the animals documented by them are real, and specimens created artificially but afterwards presented or publicly exhibited as if they were genuine. Originally published in German in 1957 and first published in English a decade later, perhaps the most famous, celebrated work of pseudozoology is The Snouters: Form and Life of the Rhinogrades. Those were respectively the colloquial and the formal zoological names given by the book's equally fictitious German author, Prof. Harald Stümpke, to a unique taxonomic group of mammals that had lately been discovered in a now-sunken Pacific archipelago. As chronicled by him in detail, they all exhibited extreme nasal modifications, enabling certain species to walk upon their noses, and some even to catch prey with them.

The Snouters: Form and Life of the Rhinogrades (© University of Chicago Press)

Less familiar but no less entertaining is Dr. Ameisenhaufen's Fauna, researched by Joan Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera, and published in 1988. In this book, they too describe a range of fantastic creatures all of which were claimed to be real by the brilliant but mysteriously missing Munich-born zoologist Prof. Peter Ameisenhaufen (in a delightful, knowing in-joke for pseudozoological aficionados, Ameisenhaufen is also credited in this book as being closely associated with rhinograde researcher Harald Stümpke). These creatures include such wonders as the olpico-nu Cercopithecus icarocornu, a winged unicorn monkey from Brazil's Amazon jungle; Solenoglypha polipodida, a 12-legged lizard-like reptile with venomous bite and hypnotic whistle, as well as a selection of avian attributes, hailing from Tamil Nadu in southern India; and the hengo-go Threschelonia atis, a tortoise-carapaced ibis from the Galapagos archipelago. Most astonishing of all, however, is a winged elephant from Kenya known as the aerophant, but even the exceedingly open-minded Ameisenhaufen had difficulty in accepting its reality, which is based principally upon the following dubious photograph:

A pair of aerophants (© European Photography)


An expertly photomanipulated aerophant-like flying elephant against an unexpected backdrop (© Ozile/Deviantart.com – for full details, click here)

Flying elephants may not be known in mainstream zoology, or even in cryptozoology, but they certainly appear in traditional Eastern legends and lore. For example, according to one such fable, all elephants were originally winged. One day, however, an elephant alighted upon a banyan tree somewhere north of the Himalayas and crashed down upon a meditating holy man sitting beneath its branches, because the elephant was too heavy for the tree to support its great weight. The holy man – a yogi named Dirghatapas - was so angered by this that he cursed the poor elephant, causing its wings to fall off. And since that fateful day, all elephants have been wingless.

A golden statuette of a flying elephant, symbolising Koetai Kartanegara Sultanate (© Agus EM)

In Chinese mythology, a white rat called Hua-hu Tiao was kept by Mo-li Shou, one of the four Diamond Kings of Heaven, inside a bag made from panther skin. But when Mo-li Shou decided to teach mortal humans the error of their ways, he released Hua-hu Tiao, who immediately transformed into a white-winged flying elephant and began devouring them – until it swallowed the hero Yang Chien, who promptly killed this monstrous beast by tearing its heart in two and ripping open its belly from the inside.

Fantasy white flying elephant artwork (© Yuliya/Golden Section Jewellery – click here for more details)

There is also a Bhili folktale that tells of how a flying elephant came down from the sky each night to eat a farmer's sugar cane in his fields, until one night the farmer lay in wait, and when the elephant landed, he seized hold of its tail. The elephant flew off, carrying the farmer with it, to the supreme Hindu deity Indra's kingdom of Paradise. There the farmer met Indra, who apologised for the elephant's theft and permitted the farmer to take whatever he wished in recompense. The farmer was content to take two handful of gems, and he was then carried back down to Earth by the elephant. Now a rich man, the farmer built a big house for himself and his family, but it wasn't long before all of his neighbours learnt how he had obtained the gems.

Eastern flying elephant painting (© Irena Shklover)

Eager to emulate his good fortune, they swiftly planted their own field of sugar cane, in order to lure Indra's heavenly elephant down to Earth, having decided that they too would be transported to Paradise but would then take back home with them much more treasure than just two handfuls of gems. When the elephant flew down, they seized hold of each other in a chain, with the neighbour at one end of the chain holding the elephant's tail, and in this way they were indeed carried up towards Paradise when the animal flew away. Unfortunately for them, however, before they reached their destination the neighbour holding the elephant's tail stretched open his arms while describing how much wealth he planned to bring back home, and in so doing he let go of the tail, thus causing all of the villagers including himself to fall back down to Earth. When Indra learned of the villagers' greed, he planted a field of sugar cane himself, in Paradise, so that now his flying elephant would never come down to Earth again, and the villagers would therefore never be able to reach Paradise in search of its treasure.

Celestial flying elephant (original image source unknown to me)

Flying elephants are also represented diversely in Asian art. For instance: a flying elephant is the symbol of Koetai (aka Kutai) Kartanegara Sultanate, a regency in Indonesia's East Kalimantan province on the island of Borneo.

The magnificent statue of a winged elephant at Chiang Mai (© Jen K/Flickr)

An enormous, venerated statue of a resplendant winged elephant stands majestically in Chiang Mai in Thailand, where it is a very popular tourist attraction. And back in Indonesia, especially Bali, beautifully painted winged elephants carved by local craftsmen from albesia wood are frequently hung as mobiles in homes and temples there, where they allegedly chase away evil spirits.

My Balinese winged elephant mobile (© Dr Karl Shuker)

As for the West: children's author Enid Blyton got in on the act by writing a Noddy book entitled Noddy and the Flying Elephant, first published in 1952 by Sampson Low. This was also the first book in the 'Noddy Ark' series.

Noddy and the Flying Elephant (© Enid Blyton Estate/Sampson Low)

In short: aerial reindeer may be of seasonal occurrence only, and we all know how likely it is that pigs will fly. As far as flying elephants are concerned, conversely, they are clearly a lot more abundant around the world than you may have previously realised. But please ensure that you don't sit beneath the branches of a tree in which one has just alighted, because if you do, the fate of Dirghatapas may not be the only unpleasant experience in store for you. Remember, elephants eat plenty of fibre...

And finally: if you're wondering why - or how - I've resisted mentioning anything about jumbo jets, it's only because I've been biding my time. For here, ladies and gentlemen, I give you right now, in the following video (kindly brought to my attention by Fortean researcher Bob Skinner), the jumbo jet to end all jumbo jets! Click here, and all will be revealed!

Well, we can't be serious all the time!

A very charming flying elephant created by Photoshop (© worth1000.com)


  1. Wonderful overview of flying elephants. I used to collect fantasy role playing game monster books when I was younger and good old Dungeons & Dragons had the Hollyphant. No ordinary one flying elephant the hollyphant was two feet tall and covered in long golden fur. That's right a miniature flying mammoth! Later, more combat oriented, versions of the game also gave it the ability to turn into a giant, bat-winged, humanoid elephant but I always preferred the original cute fluffy mini-mammoth. Wikipedia has an article with the original Monster Manual picture here:

    By the way I love books on pseudozoology (I coined a term for the pretend scientific names found in these types of books, the nomen ludum) and must find Dr. Ameisenhaufen's Fauna for my collection. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

  2. Dear Karl,
    I have read this article with great interest (as I always do with the entries to your blog). This time I would like contribute to that subject:
    Did you know there is a short movie entitled "Flying Elephants" (USA 1928) starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy as Neanderthalian like people sometime in prehistory? The film features a remarkable sequence with a group of elephants flying over the top of a hill. This part is filmed as a dream sequence said to be referring to a shaman like mythology. Of course it's a funny film, but with regard to the early production year it is quite a remarkable sequence.

  3. Hi Frank, Thanks very much for reminding me of this. I'm a keen Laurel and Hardy fan and have actually seen this film so I feel very embarrassed to have forgotten about it. Thanks again, and also for your kind interest in all of my blog posts.