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


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.

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