Hannibal was a Carthagian general and political leader. He was born in 247 BC and became the commander of Carthagian forces in Spain after succeeding his father Himlicar Barca in 221 BC. During this time Rome and Carthage were moving towards the outbreak of the second of the three Punic Wars due to conflict over control of western Mediterranean. Hannibal warred against Rome and in May 218 BC conquered Northern Spain crossing the Alps in autumn with 50,000 infantry, 9,000 cavalry and famously known 37 elephants. He fought with the Romans in Italy and won three huge victories at: Trebbia in December 218 BC, Trasimene in 217 BC (where about 15,000 Romans were killed and another 10,000 were captured) and his greatest campaign at Cannae in 216 BC.
In the last mentioned battles Hannibal showed a combined use of infantry and cavalry to surround and annihilate the Roman army. Of 70,000 Roman soldiers, only 14,500 survived to be taken as prisoners. It is the greatest number of casualties in a single battle by any western army. In the due course of time, he never received adequate reinforcements to threaten the mighty Roman Empire, though he led siege over Italy for more than a decade. Finally peace was made with Romans in 201 BC, Hannibal next tried his turn in Carthigian politics but was exiled. In 183 BC he committed suicide by taking poison on the advent of being captured by the Roman troops. There is not much of a mystery in the above mentioned facts. What is a mystery though is where did Hannibal get elephants for his famous battles?
Once there were elephants nearly everywhere, but in times of Hannibal’s march in 218 BC they had been streamlined into two extant species – Indian or Asian and African elephants. If Hannibal had a choice he could definitely like to go into battle with the Indian elephants, which had fought valiantly against Alexander the Great armies in India. Indian elephants though are not as large as the African species but they can be trained much easily. African elephants on the otherhand are bigger and ill tempered.
But how did Hannibal get a troop of elephants from Asia or south of Sahara (which is bush habitat for African elephants) into Carthage, which is the present day Tunisia? Elephants are known for their huge appetite. Any adult male African elephant eats about 400 pounds of vegetation in a day. Though the North African climate was slightly wetter and the Sahara wasn’t so extensive, yet the conditions are not conducive to transport hungry elephants. Some historians feel the small elephants were brought down the Nile Valley into Egypt and then bred in captivity, but there is no record to support this claim. There are also no records of any African elephant species in North Africa in the time of Hannibal.
But certain elephant drawings have been discovered in the Hoggar Mountains of southern Algeria. Studies into these drawings reveal they predate Hannibal. Thus many historians believe that Hannibal’s elephant troop was formed by elephants from Atlas Mountains of Morocco and Algeria. There are significant evidences pointing to the existence of elephant sub-species in the region. These were about 8 feet tall and much smaller than the typical African elephants. But the Atlas Mountain elephants died as the region grew arid.
Though researchers believe most of the elephants used in Hannibal’s battles were the Atlas Elephants but there could be some Indian elephants too. Alexander and his men brought some Indian elephants from India to Egypt and these bred to produce more. Thus such elephants could also be used for the battles.