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“Wounded by us, because they are like us”

Historically, there is a sense that humans and wild elephants have been able to coexist in relative peace whenever and wherever they’ve shared a common space. However in recent decades, human/elephant relations have gravitated towards conflict. On the one hand, elephant numbers are dropping precipitously in most parts of the world due to general habitat loss and systematic poaching and culling by humans. On the other hand, incidences of elephants attacking humans are on the rise. In Africa and in Asia, elephants are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people every year; while some of these attacks are the immediate results of a human provocation, others appear to be random. In a few cases, elephants seem to have even gone out of their way to destroy human settlements, leading some villages in Africa to build anti-elephant barriers such as fences or dry motes to try to keep the rampaging pachyderms at bay. These violent behaviours, by humans and elephants, are quantified by researchers in accordance to a Human-Elephant-Conflict (HEC) spectrum that has recently been established. 

Up until recently, combative behaviours by wild elephants towards humans have been mainly attributed to the fierce competition with people for land and ressources, and to high testosterone levels found in “newly matured males” which heightens their propensity for aggression. But researchers increasingly believe that many of these violent episodes also stem from chronic stress and a kind of “species-wide trauma” which have been brought on by decades of poaching and habitat loss. They contend that the disappearance of so many elephants in the wild has durably frayed and damaged the “fabric of elephant society”, and that the result is a younger generation lacking in the capacity for proper stress-management and social communication. Indeed, absent a sufficient number of older matriarchs and elder male bulls within a herd, it is thought that younger elephants are unable to develop the social and emotional skills that are needed to properly thrive, which may result in the heightening of aggressive or dysfunctional behaviours within the elephant group. Many of the younger elephants who have witnessed the death of parents or kin at the hands of poachers are also susceptible to psychological trauma, which can lead to certain behaviours resembling those found in human sufferers of P.T.S.D., such as unpredictable social behaviour or fits of agression. While some may criticize these conclusions for being overtly anthropomorphic, advances in the new field of “elephant neuroscience” demonstrate that these developmental and trauma mechanisms do in fact “cut across species”. 

So “what does this mean beyond the science? How do we respond to the fact that we are causing other species like elephants to psychologically break down?’’. In his New York Times article, which has been the principle source for my writings above, Charles Siebert poses this question and others, and offers a couple pathways to be reflected upon by humans. Link to the full article here.


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