Human-Elephant Conflict

I’m really disheartened about all this. While I don’t know a lot about elephants, I always grew up with a reverence of them. Knowing their emotional capacity and their complicated rites and dealings with their own dead, how they work as groups and families, has always enforced my empathy with them.

Lately, I’ve been coming across some very peculiar articles dealing with these noble creatures. Via The New York Times:

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. Since the early 1990’s, for example, young male elephants in Pilanesberg National Park and the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve in South Africa have been raping and killing rhinoceroses; this abnormal behavior, according to a 2001 study in the journal Pachyderm, has been reported in ??a number of reserves” in the region. In July of last year, officials in Pilanesberg shot three young male elephants who were responsible for the killings of 63 rhinos, as well as attacks on people in safari vehicles. In Addo Elephant National Park, also in South Africa, up to 90 percent of male elephant deaths are now attributable to other male elephants, compared with a rate of 6 percent in more stable elephant communities. […]

Gay Bradshaw, a psychologist at the environmental-sciences program at Oregon State University, [notes] ??Everybody pretty much agrees that the relationship between elephants and people has dramatically changed. What we are seeing today is extraordinary. Where for centuries humans and elephants lived in relatively peaceful coexistence, there is now hostility and violence. Now, I use the term ?violence’ because of the intentionality associated with it, both in the aggression of humans and, at times, the recently observed behavior of elephants.” […]

Typically, elephant researchers have cited, as a cause of aggression, the high levels of testosterone in newly matured male elephants or the competition for land and resources between elephants and humans. But in ??Elephant Breakdown,” a 2005 essay in the journal Nature, Bradshaw and several colleagues argued that today’s elephant populations are suffering from a form of chronic stress, a kind of species-wide trauma. Decades of poaching and culling and habitat loss, they claim, have so disrupted the intricate web of familial and societal relations by which young elephants have traditionally been raised in the wild, and by which established elephant herds are governed, that what we are now witnessing is nothing less than a precipitous collapse of elephant culture.

It has long been apparent that every large, land-based animal on this planet is ultimately fighting a losing battle with humankind. And yet entirely befitting of an animal with such a highly developed sensibility, a deep-rooted sense of family and, yes, such a good long-term memory, the elephant is not going out quietly. It is not leaving without making some kind of statement, one to which scientists from a variety of disciplines, including human psychology, are now beginning to pay close attention.

Any thoughts? Has this been happening anywhere else in the animal kingdom? I don’t mean to seperate us from nature by claiming we’re removed entirely from the animal kingdom, but as I said, elephants are widely considered highly intelligent creatures. Is this the start of something that may become more widespread?


  1. more bear attacks this summer in alaska than normal. also a wolf attack reported which is totally rare. the animals have declared war on humanity.

  2. It’s not surprising. Humanity has this idea that we are the ultimate form of consciousness on this planet, when in actuality we are only on flavor of consciousness. We are so anthropocentric that it takes something like this to shock us out of our tunnel visions.

    It’s a lot like the way that Eurocentric anthropologists (as well as their forebears, “explorers” and “conquistadors” and the like) basically treated indigenous cultures as less advanced in all ways than their own. Just because we blind ourselves to anything o9ther than our own reality does not negate the importance of the reality of other life forms.

  3. Squirrel insurrection:

    Not to mention the ancient and ongoing war between humans and insects.

  4. No, this is sort of unique because most of the species under that sort of environmental pressure are not as intelligent or social as elephants. Also, when an elephant gets really angry, it’s a little more noticeable than when you piss off a spotted owl. Are many species in the world under similar pressure and in similar danger? You bet. We’re just lucky that more species aren’t as intelligent, don’t have as long a memory, and can’t necessarily recognize individual humans who’ve annoyed them. If elephants had started this behavior about 6000 years ago, they might still own Africa.

  5. It’s very interesting to me. Living in Canada and having had friends work up north, I am very familiar with the predatory nature of the polar bear. Albeit a beautiful creature, Canadians are well-aware of this BBC factoid:

    The polar bear is the largest land carnivore and has a reputation as the only animal that actively hunts humans.

    My roommate had a friend working up in the Northwest Territories a few years back. He returned to Alberta telling of a story: that a coworker of his had gone missing walking home from work one night. Turns out they found his body and decapitated head weeks later. A polar bear had been tracking his route and beheaded him. Didn’t eat him or anything, but batted his head around to where they found it later ? hundreds of metres away.

    Sorta reminds me of Cadillacs and Dinosaurs.

    What are some of the more intelligent and organised animals in nature, I wonder then? Which could maintain a grudge and actually pose more of a threat?

    Seriously, what about whales and dolphins?

  6. Crows… They are in our cities, they are capable of problem solving and social behaviour. Just be happy they find us useful to scavenge from.

  7. 1. Elephants pass mirror test of self-awareness:,,1935538,00.html

    2. I updated the above new york times link using to create a no-login/non-expiring link.

  8. If elephants had started this behavior about 6000 years ago, they might still own Africa.

    Or maybe they would have been wiped out like the wooly mammoth in the Pacific Northwest.

    Sadly, some might say, the human animal is unlikely to be wiped out by another preditor. We are one of the few animals that has the capacity to swim three miles, run twenty, then climb a tree. As hunters, all we had to do to bring down even the biggest game in enormous herds was poison their food and follow them. This could be just one more sad footnote in interspecies elimination. Kudos to elephants for going out with a bang. Too bad that bang incites fear instead of empathy.

  9. Yale University Press has just published a new book by Gay Bradshaw that you might be interested in: “Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us about Humanity” —

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