Contributing Monkie Jennifer Buonantony
Published on July 29, 2009
While it should come as no surprise that the actions of humans have affected and endangered the large, land-based animals whose habitats we share, you might be surprised to learn that our behavior has brought about a serious elephant crackup. Unlike centuries before, where elephants and humans lived in peaceful coexistence, modern day elephants have been fighting back with hostility and violence — crying out for us to pay attention.
Most of us have only seen an elephant up close at the zoo, circus, or — if we’re lucky enough — on a safari vacation. We know them to be large, slow moving creatures, who appear friendly as they perform tricks or eat peanuts while we snap their picture with our digital cameras. But this simplistic view of these amazing creatures masks what a highly intelligent and complex species these mammals really are.
While these massive creatures for the most part, live peaceful co-existent lives with humans across vast stretches of wild lands in Africa, India and parts of Southeast Asia, this isn’t always true. Recently Elephants have been a little more upset than usual and have set out to destroy villages, crops and even killing humans. In addition, researchers have noticed a spike in the number of animal attacks against trainers and staff in zoos and other places of captivity. So much, in fact, that in the mid-1990s a new statistical category known as Human-Elephant Conflict (H.E.C.) was created to monitor the problem.
Over the last decade, elephants have been known to force villagers to evacuate their homes and kill humans in close contact by pinning them down and piercing them with their tusks. Data has shown that the number of elephant attacks against other elephants has also risen, as well as a rise in elephants hunting and raping neighboring mammals, specifically rhinoceroses. Biologists and ethologists find such attacks so abnormal that they can no longer be attributed to traditional factors like competition for land or response to aggression. Instead, it seems the elephants are lashing out as a result of chronic stress — a species-wide trauma similar to the post-traumatic stress disorder experienced by humans.
In short, humans have caused elephants to have a nervous breakdown.
That’s right, not only have we created enough social and environmental dilemmas to drive future generations crazy, we’ve literally driven elephants to their wits end in an attempt to get us to stop and take notice of what we’ve done to them.
Due to years of poaching for their tusks, culling as a form of population control and habitat loss from land development, the intricate family structure and societal relations upon which young elephants have traditionally been raised in the wild has completely broken down. Elephants are by nature extremely social. Young elephants are raised by a network of female elders that includes the mother, grandmother, aunts, and friends, and they maintain these relations over a life span as long as 70 years. Young males go off at an early age in all-male social groups and return to the larger group as mature adults. Just like humans, when an elephant dies, family members engage in mourning and burial rituals, covering the body with earth and brush and revisiting the bones for years afterward. Also like humans, they have an amazing long-term memory and an intricate communication system that includes vocalizations and the waving of their trunks, tails, and the use of body language. But thanks to humans, this natural order has been disrupted.
How is it possible for people to treat such a similar mammal with so little respect and regard? And how can the human population maintain such a simplistic view of elephants when they’re practically as complex and intelligent a species as our own?
According to a New York Times article, “the loss of elephant elders and the traumatic experience of witnessing the massacres of their family impairs normal brain and behavior development in young elephants.” Does this sound familiar? Just as human children with no guidance have a tendency to act out in destructive manners, so, it seems, do elephants.
Animals who are held in captivity (zoos, circuses) suffer mental stress from the unnatural conditions. Even when they’re given what we consider the proper food, training, and care, they still suffer because they’re being isolated in a way that goes against their social nature. So, as we sit at the circus with our families, eating popcorn and spending twenty dollars on flashing glow-sticks, we’re actually paying money to watch the breakdown of the elephant species.
But how can we shift our image of the elephant as a spectacle to that of an intelligent species who needs the proper social structure to thrive and survive?
Psychologically, as we understand that elephants hurt the way humans do, we’re learning ways in which they can also heal like us. Facilities like the Elephant Sanctuary are treating elephants as they would humans with post-traumatic stress disorder. The facility employs a system known as “passive control” – a therapy that stresses social interaction, a sense of safety and freedom of choice for each elephant. It does not use disciplinary principles like withholding food or water, as used by animal trainers. Neural studies are also underway to map the physiological damage of such stress on the brain.
Although progress is being made, the real solution will be the re-education of people. A good first step is the Bronx Zoo’s recent announcement that it will phase out its elephant exhibit to show awareness of the social and behavioral needs of these mammals.
We can no longer continue to live in ignorance of our actions and the effects they have on other species with whom we share our planet. Our actions have forced these large, beautiful, and usually docile creatures to turn to violence to be noticed and heard. If we do not heed their warning, we will surely end up the clowns in our own three-ring circus of environmental chaos that we have created.
Read the New York Times piece here.