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Elephants crack up or fight back?

800px-elephant_with_trunk_in_others_mouth.jpg

This is all over the blogs, and it should be; read the article! Elephants are finding their habitats destroyed and social ties cut apart. And they are lashing out.

All across Africa, India and parts of Southeast Asia, from within and around whatever patches and corridors of their natural habitat remain, elephants have been striking out, destroying villages and crops, attacking and killing human beings. In fact, these attacks have become so commonplace that a new statistical category, known as Human-Elephant Conflict, or H.E.C., was created by elephant researchers in the mid-1990’s to monitor the problem. In the Indian state of Jharkhand near the western border of Bangladesh, 300 people were killed by elephants between 2000 and 2004. In the past 12 years, elephants have killed 605 people in Assam, a state in northeastern India, 239 of them since 2001; 265 elephants have died in that same period, the majority of them as a result of retaliation by angry villagers, who have used everything from poison-tipped arrows to laced food to exact their revenge. In Africa, reports of human-elephant conflicts appear almost daily, from Zambia to Tanzania, from Uganda to Sierra Leone, where 300 villagers evacuated their homes last year because of unprovoked elephant attacks. Still, it is not only the increasing number of these incidents that is causing alarm but also the singular perversity — for want of a less anthropocentric term — of recent elephant aggression.

The elephants are attacking rhinoceros, humans, each other. Peaceful co-existence has been shattered. It is much too easy to read anthropocentric notions into this. The elephants are not losing to humans without a fight. They are highly social, highly intelligent, communicative, and mourn their dead in a way seldom seen in animals, including humans.

I thought back to a moment in Queen Elizabeth National Park this past June. As Nelson Okello and I sat waiting for the matriarch and her calf to pass, he mentioned to me an odd little detail about the killing two months earlier of the man from the village of Katwe, something that, the more I thought about it, seemed to capture this particularly fraught moment we’ve arrived at with the elephants. Okello said that after the man’s killing, the elephant herd buried him as it would one of its own, carefully covering the body with earth and brush and then standing vigil over it. In fact, elephant culture could be considered the precursor of our own, the first permanent human settlements having sprung up around the desire of wandering tribes to stay by the graves of their dead. When a group of villagers from Katwe went out to reclaim the man’s body for his family’s funeral rites, the elephants refused to budge. Human remains, a number of researchers have observed, are the only other ones that elephants will treat as they do their own.

It would be great to have the decency of returning the favor. For once, the science fiction stories are true: humans are not the most intelligent species on the planet.

One Comment

  1. “ofmygosh!”

    Friday, April 4, 2008 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

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