Animal behaviour: Rogue elephants

Attacks by elephants on humans, both in Africa and India, have been increasing dramatically in the past five years. As villagers tell of 'revenge raids', scientists argue that loss of habitat and social structure is seriously destabilising these magnificent creatures. Justin Huggler reports from Delhi

A A A

Almost everyone who has been on holiday to India or Sri Lanka has a story about their encounter with an elephant: getting stuck in a traffic jam behind one in Delhi perhaps, riding on an elephant in Rajasthan, or being blessed by the temple elephants of Tamil Nadu. But my own encounters with the elephants of the subcontinent have been rather more unsettling.

The first time I saw a wild elephant was on a remote jungle road in West Bengal in the dead of night. It was a bad stretch of road, known to be frequented by bandits and separatist militants. We shouldn't have been out there so late at night, and we were going too fast in our hurry to get back to civilisation.

Suddenly we noticed something blocking the road ahead. There was another car coming in the opposite direction, and all we could see was the silhouette picked out between the lights. It was about the size of a cow, but the shape was all wrong.

The driver blew the horn, but the shape didn't move. Nervously, he began to slow. As we drew closer, we saw what it was: a baby elephant trying to cross the road, trapped between the headlights of cars coming from both directions. If we hadn't slowed down, we would have killed it. And then, as our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we saw them all around us, some of their eyes glinting where they caught the lights from the cars: a entire herd of wild elephants on either side of the road, waiting patiently to cross.

A couple of days later I visited a village near by that had been demolished by a herd of elephants. It looked like an earthquake had hit it. It wasn't just the traditional flimsy bamboo huts that had suffered. Twenty-foot palm trees had been uprooted from the ground. The villagers told us the elephant herd had stood patiently by while a single male wreaked all this destruction on his own. And they were in no doubt about why he did it. The road had cut through the elephants' traditional migration route. They were making a new route, and were not happy at finding the village in the way.

Then there was the night in Sri Lanka, another nerve- racking drive, on the way back from interviewing Tamil Tiger rebels. Military convoys were coming under regular attack on the road, and it wasn't a good place to be, but we weren't expecting the huge bull elephant who suddenly came out of the foliage and blocked our path. After a tense standoff, the big male eyeing us suspiciously, he finally moved on and let us pass.

But as we drove on, we saw what had made the elephant nervous. The Sri Lankan military was setting light to the jungle, to clear away possible hiding places for Tamil Tiger ambushes. A herd of elephants was watching from a distance as the soldiers set fire to their habitat, to the leaves that were their food. The elephant was not the aggressor here: man was.

Now new research has begun to emerge, suggesting that the incidence of elephant attacks on humans is growing because elephants are suffering severe trauma as a result of seeing so many of their kin killed by humans, according to a report in the New York Times Magazine.

Charles Siebert describes how male elephants have begun raping and killing rhinoceroses in South Africa. He reports that 90 per cent of male elephant deaths at one South African reserve are now attributable to other male elephants - compared to only six per cent in more stable elephant communities.

That elephants are capable of ferocious violence is nothing new: they are not quite the cuddly animals the West seems so fond of portraying. They were the tanks of the ancient world, used to charge in battle by the Persians and the Indians, a practice that was quickly copied by Alexander the Great. When Alexander's army mutinied after his death, the generals put paid to the insurrection by throwing 300 offenders to the elephants, who crushed them. Hannibal, of course, crossed the Alps with his war elephants in tow.

But what is new is that the incidence of wild elephant attacks on humans has been increasing drastically in recent years. Just over a week ago, a British man on his honeymoon in Kenya was trampled to death by an elephant in the Masai Mara game reserve. In the Indian state of Jharkhand, 300 people were killed by elephants between 2000 and 2004. In Assam, 239 people have been killed by elephants since 2001.

Until recently, this was thought to be simply down to the fact that human and elephant habitats are increasingly colliding. As human settlement and agriculture spreads over more and more of the available land, the wild jungles where elephants thrive are shrinking, bringing them into more regular contact - and conflict - with man. But now scientists are suggesting it may be more complicated, and tragic, than that.

In a forthcoming book, Gay Bradshaw, a psychologist at the environmental sciences programme at Oregon State University, argues that elephants are suffering from severe trauma as a result of decades of poaching, culling and habitat loss that have disrupted the structures of traditional elephant society. "Everybody pretty much agrees that the relationship between elephants and people has dramatically changed," Ms Bradshaw said. "What we are seeing today is extraordinary. Where for centuries humans and elephants lived in relatively peaceful co-existence, there is now hostility and violence. I use the term 'violence' because of the intentionality associated with it, both in the aggression of humans and, at times, the recently observed behaviour of elephants."

Eve Abe, a London-based animal ethologist, described how poaching in her native Uganda reached the point where whole herds of elephants were killed with grenades for their ivory.

You would think that in India, which has a long history of human co-existence with elephants, and where poaching has never reached those depths, things would be better. Elephants are revered by Hindus, who consider them holy to the god of hard work and commerce, Ganesha, who has an elephant head.

But all is not well in India either. This week thousands of people fled a village in Jharkhand after elephants kept returning for what appeared to be revenge raids after the death of a member of the herd. Indian officials say the villagers did not kill the elephant, a 17-year-old female. They say she strayed out of the forest into the village, fell into an irrigation ditch and drowned. The villagers gave her a respectful burial three days ago, but ever since the herd has attacked the village. "We have not slept for three days and the few of us left are lighting huge bonfires to keep the elephants at bay without success," one villager, Sambhu Mahato, told reporters.

Mr Mahato and his fellow villagers may have been innocent victims but it is not always so. In March it emerged that villagers in Uttaranchal state had killed an elephant in anger at repeated raids by a herd who destroyed their crops. There was no sign of poaching: the villagers buried the elephants' tusks along with the rest of its body, which they cut in pieces to hide their crime.

Ms Bradshaw and Ms Abe are arguing that there is more to the rise in elephant attacks than just a clash over living space. They say elephant society has been traumatised by the scale of death inflicted on it by mankind - and that has led to a rise in elephant aggression.

In Sri Lanka elephants have been victims of the war between the government and the Tamil Tigers; in Nepal they have been killed in the war between the government and the Maoists. And deep in the jungles of India, where most fear to go, they are probably being killed in the war being waged by India's Maoists, the Naxalites, too.

It's not only war. It was the same in the village I visited in West Bengal, at the invitation of a retired Indian army major who informed me in tones straight out of the Raj: "There's a rogue tusker on the rampage. Care to come and see him?" When I asked why, he replied: "For the adventure of it." But when we got there it wasn't a rogue male at all, it was the dominant male of a herd. And the herd came through at the same time every evening, as if they were systematically trying to remove the village. At first the villagers scared them away with firecrackers, but after a few visits, the elephants realised these were harmless.

No one was in any doubt it was because the nearby road had cut through the elephants' migration route, and elephants were being hit by cars. And everyone knew it was only going to get worse. There were plans to widen the narrow road into a four-lane highway to connect Assam and the north-east to the rest of India.

In Bombay, one of the elephants used in religious ceremonies was killed by a car last month. There was an outpouring of grief and calls for elephants to be banned from the city for their own safety. Bombay has now announced plans to microchip the elephants so they can limit the number allowed in the city - only four are licensed.

One of the more remarkable sights of India are the temple elephants of Tamil Nadu, who bless women by touching them on the head with their trunks. Perhaps this sight - of an animal of such extraordinary strength and power reaching out so gently to a woman who stands tiny before it - is a symbol of all we are about to lose.

Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
Arts and Entertainment
booksNovelist takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Arts and Entertainment
Al Pacino in ‘The Humbling’, as an ageing actor
filmHam among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
News
Fifi Trixibelle Geldof with her mother, Paula Yates, in 1985
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Mario Balotelli in action during his Liverpool debut
football ...but he can't get on the scoresheet in impressive debut
Environment
Pigeons have been found with traces of cocaine and painkillers in their system
environmentCan species be 'de-extincted'?
Arts and Entertainment
booksExclusive extract from Howard Jacobson’s acclaimed new novel
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
A Pilgrim’s Progress is described by its publisher as “the one-and-only definitive record” of David Hockney's life and works
people
Sport
Loic Remy signs for Chelsea
footballBlues wrap up deal on the eve of the transfer window
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker
TV
Life and Style
Instagram daredevils get thousands of followers
techMeet the daredevil photographers redefining urban exploration with death-defying stunts
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'
TVDaughter says contestant was manipulated 'to boost ratings'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Manchester - Huxley Associates

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: One of SThree's most successfu...

Nursery Manager

£10 - £11 per hour: Randstad Education Cheshire: Nursery Manager We are loo...

Early Years Teacher

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Early Years supply teachers neede...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Progressive Rec.

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Progressive Recruitment are cu...

Day In a Page

Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor