The British Alpine Hannibal Expedition

My second adventure started with the amazing offer of an elephant from the zoo at Turin, Italy. It was an offer I could not turn down as the zoo would pay all direct expenses for Jumbo. We wanted to follow Hannibal’s route over the Alps with a real, live elephant to test out our theory as to which way he had gone.The following pictures give a glimpse of the challenge and beauty of the journey and show Jumbo, at the end, safely and happily returned to the zoo. This was a journey she will never forget.
— John Hoyte
Life Magazine sponsored our expedition with a seven page spread.

Life Magazine sponsored our expedition with a seven page spread.

Jumbo's boots were made by Lotus of Northampton, famous for their ladies shoe fashions!      Jumbo, crossing the border into Italy..

Jumbo's boots were made by Lotus of Northampton, famous for their ladies shoe fashions!      Jumbo, crossing the border into Italy..

While emulating Hannibal, she meets another animal, at seven thousand feet.

While emulating Hannibal, she meets another animal, at seven thousand feet.

Crossing a narrow bridge                                                                    Celebrating her victory, outside the city hall, Susa, Italy

Crossing a narrow bridge                                                                    Celebrating her victory, outside the city hall, Susa, Italy

The British Alpine Hannibal Expedition was an experimental archeology event that took place in 1959. British engineer John Hoyte led an expedition that tried to reenact aspects of Hannibal's legendary crossing of the Alps during the Second Punic War in 218 BCE. The group successfully took the female Asian elephant Jumbo, provided by a zoo in Turin, from France over the Col du Mont Cenis into Italy.


After the Carthaginian defeat in the First Punic War of 264–241 BCE, Hamilcar Barca secured an extensive territory in the Iberian peninsula for Carthage. At the beginning of the Second Punic War in 218 BCE, his son Hannibaltook an army of perhaps 50,000 men and 37 war elephants from Hispania (modern-day Spain) to Italy, where he led a 15 year campaign against Rome. Hannibal avoided the coastal route, and took his army over the Alps. His march has been described by ancient historians Polybius and Livy. The exact route, however, has been subject of long but inconclusive scholarly discourse. In his 1955 book Alps and elephants: Hannibal's marchGavin de Beer lists 12 possible candidates from 30 different books.

The expedition

In 1955, The Times published a debate about the route Hannibal might have taken over the Alps. This debate came to the attention of John Hoyte, then an engineering student at Cambridge University. Hoyte had an interest in both history and mountain climbing, and spent the summer of 1956 with friends hiking the Alps and comparing possible routes to the ancient descriptions. The group came to the conclusion that the Col de Clapier was the most likely pass, an opinion still supported by some modern historians.

A few years later, a friend suggested to test this theory with an actual elephant. Hoyte wrote letters to the British consuls in Lyon, France, Geneva, Switzerland, and Turin, enquiring about the possibility of obtaining an elephant for the experiment, but without a serious expectation of success. However, the Turin Zoo had just acquired a female Asian elephant, Jumbo, who was trained as a circus animal. The owner of the zoo volunteered Jumbo and became the first sponsor of the expedition. Hoyte put together a team of 8 people, including Richard Jolly as the expedition secretary and Cambridge professor of veterinary science John Hickman, who had gained experience with elephants during World War II in Burma. The group obtained insurance for Jumbo from Lloyd's of London and further sponsorship from Life magazine, which later published a 7 page photo report.

The expedition started in late July 1959 in Montmelian, France. It followed the valley of the Arc river and then ascended towards the Col de Clapier. However, the route up to the pass had become narrowed and dangerous due to rockfall. The group retracted down into the valley and crossed the Col du Mont Cenis, another pass suggested for Hannibal's route by none less than French emperor Napoleon. After 10 days of travel, the expedition successfully "invaded" Susa in Italy.

The members of the expedition originally planned to call the 5,700 pound (2.6 t) elephant Hannibella, however, the animal could not be made to respond to the new name and thus remained JumboJumbo was 11 years old and equipped with leather boots and knee pads for the most treacherous passages. A specially made coat was provided to keep her warm. Despite a diet consisting of 150 pounds (68 kg) of hay, 50 pounds (23 kg) of apples, 40 pounds (18 kg) of bread, 20 pounds (9.1 kg) of carrots, and a vitamin B supplement per day, she lost an estimated 300 pounds (140 kg) during the first 4 days of the trip, and nearly 500 pounds (230 kg) in total. On arrival in Italy, she consumed cake and a Magnum bottle of Chianti.

In 1960, Hoyte published a report on the expedition as Trunk Road for Hannibal: With an Elephant Over the Alps.

Hannibal crossing the Alps. An artist's rendition.

Map of the Alps showing Hannibal's possible routes. We believe he took the RED route, via the Col de Clapier.

Hannibal's journey from Carthage to Spain and then to Italy.

Hannibal minted his own money, showing both Indian and African elephants.

The River Rhone. Hannibal had problems crossing it.

The Alps near Hannibal's pass.

The Alps near Hannibal's pass.

The French Alps, near Hannibal's pass.

The Col de Clapier, which we believe is Hannibal's pass.

The Col de Clapier, to the right of center, from Italy.

View of the Po valley from the Col de Clapier.

Jumbo, our Indian elephant with Michael riding.

Jumbo, dismounting from her train trip from Turin, at the start.

The Expedition team

The mayor of Montmelion launching the expedition.

First day on the road, with three mules following.

Jumbo taking a dip.

Typical camp scene.

At the drinking fountain, Modane

"One last drink and then the great climb" tne News Chronicle.

Jumbo in the evening shadows.

Jumbo on a high mountain trial.

Camp fire scene with Jumbo as backdrop.

Front cover of the Italian magazine Corriere Della Sera

Jumbo's daily foot inspection by Professor Hickman.

Jumbo's boots and knee pad.

Jumbo trying on her boots and Jumper.

The secret Night March

Our welcome by the children of Bramans.

Crossing a high mountain bridge.

Crossing from France to Italy. Jumbo having her passport inspected.

Jumbo getting the first slice of our elephant cake, in celebration of our crossing into Italy.

Our festive reception in Susa, the first town in Italy.

Outside the town hall, Susa.

Jumbo being made an honorary member of the Alpini Mountaineers.

Arriving at the Zoo, Turin, with Ernesto riding Jumbo.

"This is the third little perisher that's decided to join the Hannibal Expedition."

French paper Dauphine Libere. "How to save gas over rhe mountains.