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Thursday, Oct 25, 2007, 12:37 pm

Raging Bulls

By Erin Polgreen
MSNBC put up an fascinating (but brief) story about six elephants that were "electrocuted in a drunken rampage" on Tuesday. Such grisly incidences are becoming commonplace:

Elephants are known to have a taste for rice beer brewed by tribal communities in India's northeast. Four wild elephants died in similar circumstances in the region three years ago. ...
"The increasing man-elephant conflict following the shrinkage in their habitat due to the growing human population is giving us nightmares," said Pradyut Bordoloi, a former forest and environment minister for Assam.


I've been interested in elephant/human conflicts since the New York Times published an article on elephant social psychology last October. Human encroachment is wreaking havoc on the species' unique social structures, which is causing violent and divisive problems among dwindling elephant communities around the world:

All across Africa, India and parts of Southeast Asia, from within and around whatever patches and corridors of their natural habitat remain, elephants have been striking out, destroying villages and crops, attacking and killing human beings. In fact, these attacks have become so commonplace that a new statistical category, known as Human-Elephant Conflict, or H.E.C., was created by elephant researchers in the mid-1990’s to monitor the problem.


Elephant social systems are intricate and signify higher levels of consciousness--the types of complex socialization and morality that has traditionally been solely associated with primates. The increase in rogue elephant attacks and incidents like Tuesday's drunken rampage in India are indicative of the decay of elephant societies (emphasis mine):

Typically, elephant researchers have cited, as a cause of aggression, the high levels of testosterone in newly matured male elephants or the competition for land and resources between elephants and humans. But in ‘‘Elephant Breakdown,’’ a 2005 essay in the journal Nature, Bradshaw and several colleagues argued that today’s elephant populations are suffering from a form of chronic stress, a kind of species-wide trauma. Decades of poaching and culling and habitat loss, they claim, have so disrupted the intricate web of familial and societal relations by which young elephants have traditionally been raised in the wild, and by which established elephant herds are governed, that what we are now witnessing is nothing less than a precipitous collapse of elephant culture.


Now, I know there are a number of human-related conflicts that are very pressing issues. But I think it's also important to look at how humans treat animals as "lesser beings," and incapable of higher socialization or emotion, especially since recent research is proving these ideas wrong. (See the Believer's tremendous interview with primatologist Frans de Waal for more information on this subject) As we (hopefully) move towards a greener society that treats the planet with respect, we need to be conscious of the needs of the non-human communities surrounding us. Especially in the case of elephants, who seem to be proving the old adage right: they never forget.

Before coming to The Media Consortium in February 2008, Erin was an Associate Publisher for In These Times, where she managed advertising, marketing and outreach. Erin began working with In These Times as an editorial intern in June 2005. That August, she joined the staff as Advertising and Marketing Coordinator and was promoted to Associate Publisher in February 2007.

From August 2004 through May 2005, Erin served with City Year Chicago, an Americorps program. As a Senior Corps member, she co-led a team of literacy tutors at an elementary school on the West side of Chicago.

Erin graduated with departmental honors and a degree in English from Webster University in May 2004.

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