Thursday, June 07, 2012

Of Elephants and Consequences

Yesterday I watched a documentary on African elephants. This wasn't your usual nature documentary. It concerned elephants acting in violent ways towards people or animals and revolved around why this might be happening and what to do about about it. Three different groups of elephants were involved. One group was killing cows, another killing rhinos and the third was attacking humans. In all cases the behaviour was odd. Elephant society is very complex with the young staying with their mothers for years but also cared for by the rest of the family which consists of related females. The females are absorbed into the herd while the young bulls leave at adolescence to join bachelor pods or live alone as adults. There is considerable evidence that elephants have extraordinary memory and learning ability and that those attacked or orphaned suffer great psychological trauma.

Those attacking humans were in Uganda where, during the seventies, the dictator, Idi Amin, had turned on tribes which opposed him. While his soldiers systematically slaughtered older males of the tribes, they also killed huge numbers of elephants for ivory and meat.  This disrupted society, both human and elephants, with the young of both witnessing the killing of family and they were left badly traumatised. It has been reported that when elephants in this area kill humans they often spend considerable time pulling clothes off the the body, touching it and spending hours near the body, covering it with dirt, leaves and twigs. Why they do this is not known but one suggestion is that these rituals, which are very similar to those they perform when one of their own number dies,  might indicate that they realise they have made a mistake. According to a psychiatrist taking part in this documentary many of these elephants are showing signs similar to those of post traumatic stress disorder. They are irritable, angry, isolate themselves, show signs of depression and have nightmares (this has been observed in elephant orphanages) and these are all symptoms of PSD.

In the case of those killing cows there was ongoing friction with the cattle owners, the Masai. When the adjoining wild life park was declared, the local Masai were removed from their traditional lands and have responded by hunting in the park and elephants were high on their list of those to kill. In the days before ivory was a banned substance they were a source of money and meat. Even now if they leave the park they are likely to be hunted. Elephants, which were young when the park was established, are now adults and again, while we can't know for sure what an elephant is thinking, the suggestion is that maybe they are smart enough to realise that the cows are valuable to the Masai and so make a perfect target to get revenge. It might seem a stretch to believe this but the more we find out about elephants the more it seems that we have underestimated their intelligence. Maybe we have underestimated their emotions as well.

The rhino killing elephants were different again. They lived in Kruger National Park where all the elephants are well documented, from external appearance to their foot prints. So when dead rhino started turning up it was easy to discover that the elephants doing the killing were adolescent males in musth (when adult males are in breeding season) but these elephants were too young to breed. When they investigated further they discovered some very bizarre behaviour among these young bulls. They were making sexual advances to the rhinos, which, not surprisingly, were rejecting them. They were then gored.

These youngsters had originally been removed from other parks years before as part of culls to keep elephant numbers under control. Because the technology for moving large animals was not then available, the mothers had been shot and the young elephants kept tethered to the bodies which were being butchered for meat. They were then relocated to an area where there were few mature elephants. The psychological trauma they experienced must have been horrific by any standard and they were left to mature without role models. It turned out that these young bulls had extremely high testosterone levels and the solution proposed was to relocate some mature bulls to the area - possible now the technology for transporting large animals was available. It was highly successful. The testosterone levels in the young bulls dropped and their behaviour changed back to that relatively normal for their age, much to the relief of the rhinos no doubt.

I'm making no statement as to the way elephant emotions work but I can say from my own experience that abused animals can and do suffer for years as a result of their experiences. The animals I live with are usually rescue animals and they have all come with their own issues. I currently live with a much loved cat who has been with our family for three years since he was quite young. Unfortunately, before he came to us he was badly treated. As a result he is very nervous and terrified of men outside the family, not to mention the outdoor world in general. It took nearly a year before he would let Pisces touch him and even now any sudden movement sends him off to hide under the bed for hours. I can't put myself inside his mind but even without doing that it's easy to see he has been mentally - and probably emotionally - scarred by his experiences. If that is the case for a cat, how much more likely is it that, without anthropomorphising in any way, a creature we know to have an exceptional memory, problem solving ability and to show intensely strong familial bonds like an elephant is likely to be equally scarred by their past.

Maybe it's time we looked more carefully at our interactions with other creatures. With the exception of the Ugandan elephants, what was done to both elephants and humans began with the best of intentions.
Unfortunately, good intentions aren't enough and both are suffering the consequences.

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