Sunday, October 08, 2006

Why are elephants attacking people?

In 1997, I was at Mudumalai National Park which was teeming with elephants. The ground rules at the place when walking in the forest were: "If you see an elephant, run away". There were endless local stories about vicious elephants going after people. This wasn't just forest rangers engaging in risk-averse overkill to save themselves the trouble of stupid tourists who get hurt. Elephants attacking humans seemed to be regularly happening. Elephants kill vastly more people than tigers in India.

It always felt strange to me. When one read older stories in the forests, like the books by Jim Corbett, it didn't feel that the elephants were dangerous. And domesticated elephants are the loveliest, friendliest and charming animals. So why were wild elephants so dangerous?

I read a great article in New York Times today about this question. Their main argument is that elephants normally have a complex nurturing childhood in a social setting where they are brought up by a mother and other elders. When elephants grow up without such an upbringing, they are unsocialised. Too often, young elephants are exposed to violence by humans. This seems to set the stage for violence against humans. The NYT article has a fascinating interplay between the problems of young elephants in Africa who grow up as orphans surrounded by violence and young humans in Africa who also suffer the same. Both sides seem to grow up poorly socialised and violent.

It reminded me of the violent young people growing up in inner city Los Angeles, where many children do not have an opportunity to grow up with a nurturing mother and family. I know, this is anthropomorphisation run amuck. But the NYT article seems to suggest that elephants are highly intelligent and highly social, so the analogies with human behaviour actually have scientific merit.


  1. Is there anything that indicates the Indian elephant parents are killed or taken away from their children to turn uncared for infants into current killers? For some reason, I think it is more to do with human encroachment on their habitat (one don’t hear about elephant poachers that much). Pack people in cities and town and give the wonderful tropical animals more space to go about their business – exactly the opposite of the politicians are trying to do now.

  2. I am not an expert on this, but the two key pieces of the story are (a) the very very long time-horizons involved in the natural processes of herds and (b) traditional migratory routes.

    Even if a few killings take place per decade, it is big enough to disrupt the social dynamics of the herd. In addition, India has done terrible things in terms of messing up the traditional migratory routes of the elephants. It could add up to a big disruption.

    I am not an expert on this. I am just intruiged: why are the elephants so violent today? I am pretty confident they were not like this ~ 100 years ago. Nothing much has changed in the elephant genome in a 100 years - so it must be something about their social dynamics.


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