Lizzy Dening

David Attenborough meets the elephant who inspired Dumbo

Lizzy Dening
David Attenborough meets the elephant who inspired Dumbo

We all love the Disney classic Dumbo (even if we are reduced to floods of tears when the poor little chap is separated from his mother) but until now we hadn’t realised it was based on a true story. Now a new BBC programme, fronted by Sir David Attenborough, will investigate the sad tale of Jumbo – the real elephant.


Attenborough and the Giant Elephant, which will air on BBC One on Sunday 10th December, will see the presenter meeting a team of scientists and conservationists to delve into the real-life story. Jumbo was an orphaned elephant who found fame in 1882. He arrived at London Zoo in 1865 and became a firm favourite of no less than royalty! Queen Victoria and her children loved visiting Jumbo.


Yet despite his popularity, he struggled with life in captivity (unsurprising given how little was known in those days about the needs of wild, exotic animals). He smashed up his home, broke his tusks and was often plied with alcohol by his keeper Matthew Scott. Although seemingly cruel, this was done with the best intentions, and actually Matthew and Jumbo shared a close bond.

Sadly, and with little warning, the zoo sold Jumbo to PT Barnum’s Circus in America – causing outrage among Brits who loved him. He and Matthew travelled around the States, entertaining a whopping 20 million people before he sadly, and mysteriously, died.

His story, in some form, lives on in the Disney animation Dumbo, which was made in 1941 and is loosely based on poor Jumbo. It certainly features a popular circus elephant, although we think the flying might be poetic license!

An African elephant, Jumbo is still believed by many to be possibly the largest elephant in the world. The programme will see Sir David and other experts examining Jumbo’s skeleton, which lives at the American Museum of Natural History, to investigate whether this is actually true, as well as unravelling how he died and what his life might have involved.


There will also be charming segments about real, wild African elephants now, as well as information about how the lives of captive elephants have changed since Victorian times.

  • Attenborough and the Giant Elephant is on BBC One at 9pm, on Sunday 10th December
  • Find out what else is on TV this Christmas