Monday, 24 September 2012

Elephant No. 358: The Disappearing Elephant

Today's elephant is based on a vintage optical illusion, colloquially called "The Disappearing Chinaman", invented by Sam Lloyd. First printed in 1896, the puzzle was revived in 1930 by Lloyd's son, Sam Lloyd, Jr.

The idea of this vanishing puzzle is simple in concept, but devilishly difficult to figure out at first glance. The puzzle involves a disc overlaying a larger scene. When the disc is rotated from NE to NW, it appears to make one of the small figures disappear. There are 13 figures when you start, and only 12 when the disc is rotated.

I had one of these in a box of reproduction vintage optical puzzles and illusions, so I used it to inspire today's elephant. For an explanation of the original puzzle, as well as a downloadable version you can assemble yourself, click here.

The Disappearing Chinaman, 1930.
Source: The Paradox Box, Julian Rothenstein,
Shambala, 1999.

I started by drawing a circle. Next, I drew a box measuring 12.5 x 17.5 cm (5 x 7 inches), to serve as the base. I then cut out both pieces, and linked them together with a small brad that allows them to freely rotate. I also drew the arrow that points to NE, and lines for both NE and NW.

Now came the part that was hard for me to wrap my mind around. Lining up one set of these lines, I began drawing elephants, overlapping them in various ways. The idea is to make it possible for adjacent elephants to line up in order to create a new elephant. One of them will need to be a "double" elephant to allow one of them to disappear when the disc is rotated.

This part literally took me hours. I played with the original puzzle, trying to figure out which figure disappears, and how to pose my elephants to make this happen. At first, it seemed easy: just make adjacent elephants work together. The problem arises when you get to the end of this process, and find that nothing matches. You end up with legs in the middle of nowhere, and no elephant with which to match them.

I tried elephants with all their legs facing into the middle. The bodies were outside the disc, and the legs were on the disc. I thought it might work if I made one set of four legs into two sets of two legs. While that works, it doesn't make anything disappear.

Next I tried circus elephants doing various things, with legs and arms all over the place. I ended up with the same problem: the elephants worked with their neighbours, but nothing disappeared.

I went back to the legs in the middle and bodies outside the disc. I actually thought I had it figured out, but discovered—just as I was about to ink everything in—that I again had elephants that worked with their neighbours, but no disappearing elephant.

In desperation, I referred to the original puzzle, and started drawing elephants in similar poses. I still ran into difficulties making some of the elephants match up, but I did finally make one of them disappear. From twelve elephants when the arrow points to NE, it dropped to eleven elephants when I moved the arrow to NW.

I still can't really explain how it works, and I'd never be able to reproduce this in different poses. But after three hours of drawing and erasing a dozen elephants, I was just happy it worked.

I inked everything in, and heat-set it with a hairdryer. I then painted everything with gouache.

When everything was dry, I assembled it and tested it again to be sure it worked. It did.

This is what it looked like with the arrow pointing to NE.

And this is what it looked like with the arrow pointing to NW.

Now that I know how to do this, I would be willing to redraw one exactly like this. But I'd never attempt adding extra elephants, and if anyone were to ask me how it works, I'd still have to say that I don't have a clue.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Over the past year, many people have asked me when I began liking elephants. Although I can't pinpoint the exact moment, it might have been when I lived in Africa as a child. We lived in Nigeria, and one day took a trip to the Waza Game Preserve in neighbouring Cameroon.

I have no idea what it's like there today, but back then it was probably like being on the Serengeti. I remember our landrover screeching to a halt as a herd of elephants thundered past, and the whiplike necks of giraffes running in the distance. I also remember how the ground vibrated as several rhinos hove into view. I was only five or six at the time, but I've never forgotten it.

Sadly, Cameroon—although thankfully not the Waza Game Preserve—was the site of one of the worst poaching episodes in recent memory. Earlier this year, within the space of a few hours, over 200 elephants were killed at Bouba N’Djida National Park in northeastern Cameroon. This is a full 50% of the elephants in the region, and it is suspected that poachers have moved into Cameroon as the next frontier, having already wiped out elephant populations in nearby Chad and the Central African Republic.

Over the past ten years, elephants have been disappearing at an astonishing rate. A passion for ivory in the Far East—and a growing ability to afford it—is driving demand for elephant tusks in every part of the world. Where people once saw the occasional poacher picking off an elephant or two, there are now well-equipped marauders in jeeps and helicopters, armed with high-powered rifles.

Not content with killing elephants, in some parts of Africa they have also taken to murdering those whose job it is to protect dwindling wildlife populations. Nor do they limit themselves to rifles. Some poachers simply lob grenades into herds of elephants, or leave out poison-laced fruit. In some parts of Africa, the illicit trade in ivory is even believed responsible for supporting military forces, such as the disgraced Joseph Kony's rebel army in Uganda, and warlords in Somalia.

Even more disturbingly, poaching now appears to be driven from outside Africa. Many of the most recent arrests for ivory poaching have been of Chinese middlemen, caught with large shipments of African ivory. According to several sources, the number of Chinese nationals now operating in Africa's illicit ivory trade is growing, with no end in sight. Nor are elephants the only animals affected. In 2011, more than 400 rhinos were killed in South Africa for their horns, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine.

Africa is not alone. A number of elephant populations in Asia are also seriously endangered. At least one country's elephants are about to become extinct. Much of this is also due to poaching, although habitat loss is a significant factor in Asia as well.

This is not to say that no one cares. There are dedicated conservationists in China, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, and even countries with tiny populations of elephants such as Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The same is true of Africa, where wildlife rangers and national military forces often put their lives on the line to protect elephants from the activities of poachers and even irate farmers.

A number of solutions have been proposed to try and stem the tide of illicit killing for the sake of ivory. Some say that worldwide stockpiles of ivory should be released onto the open market. This would likely cause a precipitous drop in price, and make poaching less profitable. Others say that more money should be put into elephant protection, forensic tracking of ivory, and more severe penalties for the perpetrators.

There are arguments to be made for all of these. However, I don't think anything will stop the killing of elephants—whether for their ivory, or because they've trampled a farmer's corn—unless and until human beings stop seeing elephants as disposable vermin, and start seeing them for the intelligent, sensitive creatures they truly are.

Family of African elephants.

To Support Elephant Welfare
Fauna & Flora International


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Nice work. I t is good for beginners. I suck at art so I prevent doing anything which makes people laugh at me but such try is surely a good attempt

  3. You're probably far more creative than you think. :)

    This was very hard to figure out for someone like me (I am definitely not an engineer or logical thinker), but if you more or less copy the design of the two pieces, it should work out for you. Good luck!