Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Breakdown of elephant culture

Elephants are one of the most intelligent, sensitive animals on the planet, perhaps even approaching human intelligence and emotion. They understand about death, communicate constantly. They can plan ahead, foresee their own mortality, suffer unhappiness and comfort fellow elephants in pain. They live in societies, not just mere herds.

Elephants, when left to their own devices, are profoundly social creatures. [...] 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.


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.

And we're driving them insane.

The last century has seen Homo sapiens fighting an undeclared war against elephants, with machine guns and chainsaws. We're taking their land, sprinkling their habitat with landmines, machine-gunning them and taking their teeth. Even if they don't have human intelligence, they are certainly intelligent enough to understand. Like most intelligent animals, elephants learn from their families, their mother and aunties, from older elephants. In other words, they have a society. And we're ripping that social fabric apart. It is no surprise that they are fighting back: not just isolated attacks against individuals, but carefully planned attacks on entire villages, executed like military raids, showing an almost human grasp of tactics.

Biologists studying elephants have recognised the same signs of chronic trauma in elephants that human victims of war and violence suffer from. Like human beings, elephants in the wild are showing violent, confused behaviour. As the New York Times reports, since the 1990s males in South Africa's Pilanesberg National Park and the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve have been raping and killing rhinoceroses. Like human beings in dysfunctional societies, elephants are also committing violence against their own: in another national park, up to 90% of male elephant deaths are due to attacks by other male elephants, fifteen times higher than the rate in more stable communities.

"Everybody pretty much agrees that the relationship between elephants and people has dramatically changed," Bradshaw told me recently. "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."


For a number of biologists and ethologists who have spent their careers studying elephant behavior, the attacks have become so abnormal in both number and kind that they can no longer be attributed entirely to the customary factors. [...] what we are now witnessing is nothing less than a precipitous collapse of elephant culture.

But, even in the midst of this trauma and violence, elephants display an amazing sensitivity. They might be killing us, we might be killing them, but they treat us as equals. After killing a villager, the elephants took his body and treated it to the same careful funeral rites as they would give to one of their own.

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. In the end, the villagers resorted to a tactic that has long been etched in the elephant’s collective memory, firing volleys of gunfire into the air at close range, finally scaring the mourning herd away.


Anonymous said...

I always cheer when I hear of an elephant going mental at a circus. They tend to look so much more depressed than the other animals. - Jase

Anonymous said...

Elephant culture? Sounds more like Black American culture. No alpha males to teach young males how to act civilly and still be all male. (Any Black American "alpha" males are either dead or in the joint or too damn old to care.) No maternal care to speak of. (As for "inexperienced mothers" - read "baby mamas, drug-addicted moms"). And the Adi Amin connection to this pachyderm holocaust speaks for itself.

This post is not racist. It is telling it like it is.

Anonymous said...

Not going to lie but that sounded pretty racist.

Anonymous said...

A sociological analysis isn't racist in of itself. In my opinion it'd be more racist NOT to report such findings or observations because it's patronizing to sugarcoat and suppress scientific findings and observation simply for the sake of feelings. You don't think black people are emotionally capable of hearing such findings? Furthermore not all black people are of the same culture. It's racist to assume that black people aren't intelligent enough to understand that he was referring to a particular culture rather than an entire 'race'.

Well Traveled said...

A root cause analysis of this breakdown of elephant culture will point to another culture that has decimated most indigenous people it has exploited.

Vlad the Impala said...

Hi Well Traveled, thanks for commenting.

Can you explain more what you mean? Reading between the lines, you seem to be referring to mostly white, European and Anglo-American culture. Am I right?

There's an element of truth to that, but remember, for the most part it's not Europeans pulling the trigger or planting the land mines, it's Africans themselves. And while the West has a lot of blood on our collective hands, ivory poachers aren't selling ivory to Westerners, they're selling it to (mostly) China.

liza said...

nice post