Raging bulls: Endangered & dangerous
Why would a five-ton elephant kill a British tourist? And why are such attacks increasing?
Sunday 08 October 2006
The bull elephant is staring at us. Five and a half tons of murderous animal, with stubby yellow tusks and beady eyes, pushing against the metal fence between us with his chest as if to heave it over. His trunk is high in the air, swaying like a snake.
"Watch out for the ears," says Dave, his keeper, very quietly. "If they go out wide he is really angry." What if there were no fence? "He would kill me. He would make no bones about it."
Jums the bull is the same size as the one that trampled an English tourist in Kenya a week ago. Patrick Smith, a 34-year-old from Purley, was on a safari honeymoon when huge flat feet like the ones that are being lifted and set down again slowly in front of us crushed the life out of him.
Attacks are increasing. Tourists get all the attention but guides, handlers, farmers and other locals in Africa and Asia are running for their lives. Why? The newest theory - "elephant breakdown" - claims a generation of raging bulls has been created by the trauma of seeing family members killed by poachers or in culls. They show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, just like humans. And the slaughters have left these adolescent elephants without experienced mothers to bring them up properly, or older bulls to keep them in line. "The cull orphans have nobody to discipline them," says Dave Magner, 48, who has worked with elephants all his adult life and thinks there is something in the theory. "They are behaving like Asbo kids."
So is Jums. But he is not in the wild. For the past 23 years he has been treated with care - mostly by Dave - at Howlett's wild animal park in Kent. Now, though, he has suddenly turned against his keeper. The children swarming around us, thrilled to be close to such amazing beasts, are in no danger. This is personal.
The elephant stares at Dave. The keeper, a mild, slender man in a blue boiler suit, who wears a beard and an earring, stares back. There is a trace of fear in his eyes, but far more sadness. These two were as close as man and beast could be until this summer. "I could go and sit up on the hill in the enclosure and he would lie down close to me like a big dog."
Not any more. One day in July, when the park was full of visitors, the elephant struck. "He let his trunk drop," says Dave, who insists it was not an attack. He calls it "our altercation". Either way, the trunk hit him hard and he went down, slamming into the steel fence on the way. Groggy and in great pain, he looked up from the dust to see the bull looming over him. "He could have dragged me under the fence with his trunk and trampled me."
Elephant keepers know their work is dangerous. Six years ago one of the team at their sister park, Port Lympne, was found crushed to death in a paddock. The following year a keeper at London Zoo was trampled by the elephants there, who have since been removed. On the wall of the dark, jumbled room where the Howlett's keepers go to relax there is a newspaper clipping showing the broken body of an Asian elephant handler being tossed like a rag doll by the trunk of a bull that has gone berserk. "It's to remind us what can happen. These are wild animals," says Dave. "I don't think people fully appreciate that, either here or at these camps in Africa."
Patrick Smith was staying at the very upmarket Richard's Camp when he died seven days ago. One hundred miles south-west of Nairobi in the Masai Mara game reserve, it has luxurious en-suite tents and a romantic open-air Victorian bathtub. Mr Smith was on honeymoon with his wife Julie, 35, last Sunday when they went for a morning walk with other guests. Their Masai guide spotted a small herd of elephants 150m away, but was apparently sure the humans were in no danger because they were downwind. The elephants stampeded, possibly after being startled by another animal. The tourists ran, but a bull elephant knocked over the guide. Then, according to reports, it singled out Mr Smith. The trampling caused massive internal injuries.
The Kenya Wildlife Service stressed the attack was "very unusual". But it is only six years since Edward Harrison, 28, was killed by an elephant in the Masai Mara, when he left a secure compound to take photographs. Also in 2000 a nurse called Andrea Taylor, 20, was gored to death in Thailand. And away from the tourists, conflict between elephants and humans is a big problem across Africa and Asia.
One reason is that farmers are taking land that the animals have seen as their own. Ropes soaked in chilli oil are one way of keeping the elephants off - they hate spicy food - but they can go on the rampage without warning, destroying villages and devouring long-nurtured crops in moments. They are driven off with guns, flares and loud noises, which may cause them to associate the sound and smell of humans with fear. They really do have long memories, so an attack could be triggered decades later.
They also live for a long time: up to 70 years. That means there are elephants alive who can remember when they roamed in their millions. A century ago there were at least five million in Africa. Now there are about 400,000. In the same period of time the area of land suitable for them to roam in has been reduced by 95 per cent.
Lately there has been an increase in luxury safari settlements offering the chance to get close to wild animals. Both the guide and Richard's Camp followed all the safety rules before Patrick Smith's death. But back at Howlett's, Dave has questions. "What the hell were those people doing that close to the herd? And if the bull elephant was musthing, the guide must have known. Did he see the signs?"
Musthing is a period of hormonal change and sexual activity that can transform the character of even the most placid bull elephant. "If there was a female he wanted to breed with he would chase off anything he saw as a threat," says Dave. One sign is oil secreting from the temples. Just like the oil glistening on the head of Jums. "If a bull elephant attacks, you had better be fast to get out of the way. They can turn on a sixpence and they are fast. I could not outrun him."
Poaching is illegal, but a tusk can fetch £15,000. Culls are being considered again, because while some reserves have only a handful of elephants, others suffer from overcrowding. In Kenya they are transporting 400 elephants from one place to another. But even this well-meaning conservation work can destroy the subtle family structures of the herds, which are led by matriarchs. It may be driving them crazy. "Wild elephants are displaying symptoms associated with human post-traumatic stress disorder," argues a paper published in the journal Nature earlier this year by scientists from Kenya and the US. The symptoms are "abnormal startle response, depression, unpredictable asocial behaviour and hyperaggression".
That sounds like Jums. He has gone off through the drizzle to pace the glistening concrete with the other 11 members of his herd. Dave says he may be a cull orphan, having been brought to Britain from Zimbabwe 23 years ago, but nobody is really sure. To an outsider it seems obvious that the trauma of being tranquillised, separated from your family and transported for nine weeks by ship from Africa to a totally different climate would leave long-term psychological scars on an animal so sensitive. But Dave says he is not sure about that either.
The keepers at Howlett's are proud of not training their animals to perform, or to feed at certain times like zoos do. Food is scattered for them to forage. They have acres to wander as a herd. The matriarch, Masa, leads the drift, walking slowly and deliberately but with surprising elegance. The silence of her footsteps and the suppleness of that wrinkled skin are also unexpected. Meanwhile the comically tiny Juva, only two weeks old, skips about around the legs of her mother, trying to work out what a trunk is for.
On a calf like Juva, the shape of an elephant's mouth resembles a permanent cheeky grin. On Jums it looks like a leer. The trouble started when he began to musth earlier this year. Bulls enter a period when they need to be challenged by their elders. Jums has none. He seemed surprised that Dave went down so easily. "I don't know whether it's hormones, or he sees me as a rival," says the keeper. "I just know the relationship has gone."
Dave has been hurt, emotionally as well as physically, but it is clear he still loves the animal deeply. "Everything we do is designed to allow them to behave naturally. It is difficult for me ... yes, very ... but Jums is only doing what a bull elephant does. That is what we want here, in the end." Bull elephants attack. However strong your fences or luxurious your safari. There is something else they do naturally, in copious amounts. "Excuse me," says the dejected, devoted Dave with a sigh. "I've got to go shovel a load of shit."
5,000,000 estimated population a century ago
400,000 estimated population now
100,000 estimated population a century ago
35,000 estimated population now
5,000 Sri Lankan
How they become angry
Trauma Elephants are sensitive, social animals who show signs of mourning and burying their dead. New research suggests they may be scarred psychologically by events such as a cull
Bereavement Poachers kill the older elephants, who have longer ivory tusks. This deprives the young of senior females who would lead the herd, raise them and show them how to behave
Separation Well-meaning schemes to transport elephants from overcrowded reserves to places where they have more space can shatter family structures, which are often barely understood
Isolation These factors may separate young bulls from older males, who would dominate them and moderate their behaviour. As a result their hormones can go haywire
Eviction The biggest cause of conflict between humans and elephants is that we build or farm on their land after driving them off. African herds have 95 per cent less space to roam in than a century ago
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