Elephants were a key part of the Carthaginian forces throughout the Punic Wars. Most of the elephants that were used by Carthage were Loxodana cyclotis, sometimes called African Forest Elephants, and were slightly smaller than African Elephants that inhabit savannahs today.
African Forest Elephants were common in the areas around Carthage, so they were captured and trained for combat. There may have been up to 300 elephants in the stables at Carthage!
When Hannibal crossed the Alps, there were 37 elephants in his army (possibly including Surus). When the army arrived in Italy they fought a battle with the Romans on the banks of the Trebia River. When the Roman soldiers saw the elephants, they were so terrified that Carthage had an advantage, and won a decisive victory.
However, just after the battle near the Trebia in December, almost all of the elephants died. It is unclear how this happened, but it could have been due to a disease, exhaustion from the crossing and the battle, wounds sustained while fighting, or the rain and snow that hit the battlefield the night after the battle. Due to the cold weather, many men and horses also died of cold in the aftermath.
For the Battle of Zama in 202 BCE, the Carthaginians created a new force of 80 elephants. However, these elephants had been captured in a hurry and were not as well trained as those who fought near Trebia. In addition, the Roman General Scipio had a strategy to overcome the elephants. When the elephants charged, Scipio’s soldiers began blowing trumpets and horns, making loud noises to scare the elephants! This confused many of them, and the Roman soldiers had left large gaps in their lines for the elephants to run through and be captured.
After the end of the Second Punic War, one of the restrictions imposed on Carthage by the Peace Settlement was that they were not permitted to keep war elephants.
After the end of the Third Punic War and the destruction of Carthage, it became common in the new Roman Province of Africa to hunt elephants for their tusks, and to capture them for entertainment. This contributed to African Forest Elephants becoming extinct in the region during the Roman Empire
DID YOU KNOW...?
The Italian 1937 movie Scipione l’africano (in English: Scipio Africanus: The Defeat of Hannibal) was funded by Mussolini. It staged the battle of Zama with many elephants - but to make the movie more realistic they actually killed some of the elephants, the most heartbreaking shot is of a baby elephant investigating its dead mother!