Friday, October 27, 2006

Rogue Elephants?

It's like something out of a Jeff Minter game..

There's an amazing article in the NY Times about rogue elephants — they rape and kill rhinoceroses; attack villages with intelligent measures like blocking escape routes and pinning down humans before goring them to death; and display psychological traits previously only observed in people.

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.

I was shocked to read that researchers are thinking of this as a sort of emergent species-wide emotional breakdown resulting from human interference over long periods of time and the consequent destruction of important social bonds for the elephants.

Elephants, when left to their own devices, are profoundly social creatures. A herd of them is, in essence, one incomprehensibly massive elephant: a somewhat loosely bound and yet intricately interconnected, tensile organism. Young elephants are raised within an extended, multitiered network of doting female caregivers that includes the birth mother, grandmothers, aunts and friends. These relations are maintained over a life span as long as 70 years. Studies of established herds have shown that young elephants stay within 15 feet of their mothers for nearly all of their first eight years of life, after which young females are socialized into the matriarchal network, while young males go off for a time into an all-male social group before coming back into the fold as mature adults.

Even the more well-known elephant behavior of mourning their dead is now understood in much more precise terms and extends to perceived harm:

When an elephant dies, its family members engage in intense mourning and burial rituals, conducting weeklong vigils over the body, carefully covering it with earth and brush, revisiting the bones for years afterward, caressing the bones with their trunks, often taking turns rubbing their trunks along the teeth of a skull’s lower jaw, the way living elephants do in greeting. If harm comes to a member of an elephant group, all the other elephants are aware of it. This sense of cohesion is further enforced by the elaborate communication system that elephants use. In close proximity they employ a range of vocalizations, from low-frequency rumbles to higher-pitched screams and trumpets, along with a variety of visual signals, from the waving of their trunks to subtle anglings of the head, body, feet and tail. When communicating over long distances — in order to pass along, for example, news about imminent threats, a sudden change of plans or, of the utmost importance to elephants, the death of a community member — they use patterns of subsonic vibrations that are felt as far as several miles away by exquisitely tuned sensors in the padding of their feet.

Researches are attempting to use methods of treatment that are essentially the same as those used for people with post-traumatic stress syndrome. Under a “non-dominance system,” they eschew discipline, retaliation or withholding of food, water and treats, in favor of providing a sense of safety, freedom of choice, and continual social interaction with humans who substitute for missing matriarchal elephant figures.


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