Manslaughter by elephants

Each year elephants kill several hundred people. The available records from Asia and Africa indicate that the largest number of such manslaughter incidents occur, by far, in India, followed possibly by Sri Lanka. In India, during 19802000, about 150-200 people on average lost their lives due to attack by elephants each year—a total of 3,000-4,000 people over these two decades (table 8.3). Information from Sri Lanka suggests that over 50 people are killed annually. Similar figures are suggested for Kenya during the past decade. The much better documentation and larger number of incidents in South Asia can be examined to understand the circumstances of manslaughter by elephants.

Human killing by the larger mammals, such as elephants, lions, and tigers, incites far greater passion among people than do deaths from, say, venomous snake or rabid dog bites. Incidentally, the number of people who die each year of snake or dog bites in India is at least 100-fold compared to elephant-caused deaths. The psychology underlying public outcry against elephants or tigers may be the human perception of greater vulnerability to larger animals than to smaller creatures. Conservation laws that prescribe severe penalties for killing the (endangered) megavertebrates may also contribute to public reaction (you can at least quietly kill a poisonous snake, irrespective of its legal status, without inviting any attention).

Manslaughter by elephants can be considered for two kinds of situations: one under "normal" circumstances in the jungle or in settlements within a large, natural elephant habitat and the other under "abnormal" circumstances, such as when a large herd or clan of mostly crop-raiding elephants disperse to

Table 8.3

Number of people killed during 1991-2000 by wild elephants in four regions of India.

Table 8.3

Number of people killed during 1991-2000 by wild elephants in four regions of India.

Regions

within

1991-

1992-

1993-

1994-

1995-

1996-

1997-

1998-

1999-

2000

India

1992

1993

1994

1995

1996

1997

1998

1999

2000

2001

Northeast

98

134

102

82

85

96

95

83

87

43*

Northwest

9

6

3

3

Central

61

57

60

56

73

42

35

24*

36*

59

South

54

34

37

39

71

67

42

47

64

51

Total

213

225

208

183

232

205

172

154

187

155

Sources: Data courtesy Project Elephant Directorate, New Delhi; West Bengal Forest Department,

Kolkata; and Karnataka Forest Department, Bangalore. For each year, the compilation runs from April to March (e.g., April 1991-March 1992). *Data deficient. In the south, it is also likely that data are incomplete for Kerala and Tamilnadu.

Sources: Data courtesy Project Elephant Directorate, New Delhi; West Bengal Forest Department,

Kolkata; and Karnataka Forest Department, Bangalore. For each year, the compilation runs from April to March (e.g., April 1991-March 1992). *Data deficient. In the south, it is also likely that data are incomplete for Kerala and Tamilnadu.

a new habitat. While this distinction may not always be obvious, it is nevertheless useful to illustrate these two types as the management implications may be quite different.

My documentation of over 150 cases of human deaths due to elephants in a southern Indian range comprising Asia's largest elephant population revealed the basic patterns underlying such incidents. While 55% of the incidents occurred in the forest, a significant 45% took place within human settlement and agricultural land. Over three of four people killed were adult men (77.3%), the rest being adult women (17.4%) and children (5.3%). This is not surprising because men venture more often into the forest and almost exclusively guard cultivated fields at night. The pattern is similar elsewhere in South Asia. Hemant Datye reported that, of the people killed in India's Bihar State, 63% were men, and 37% were women. In northwestern Sri Lanka, Mangala de Silva observed that 82% of victims were men, and only 18% were women.

Human deaths in the forest are usually chance encounters between elephants and people walking along a road or path, often created by the regular passage of elephants in the first place. These people may have been walking alone or in small groups from one settlement to another, visiting a small shrine on a hilltop, grazing livestock, collecting firewood and other forest products, or even sleeping under the shade of a tree. Not infrequently, the victim is under the influence of alcohol or is handicapped, thus showing delayed or no reaction to the presence of a wild elephant. There have been the occasional incidents involving photographers approaching elephants and even a curious foreigner possibly unaware of the danger from a wild elephant. While most incidents took place during daytime, it is noteworthy that several of these occurred at dusk very close to human settlement as bull elephants were waiting for the cover of darkness to enter cultivation.

Incidents within the forest were due to both solitary bulls and members of a family group. Identity of the elephant often died with the victim. In contrast, practically all killings within cultivated land could be attributed to subadult or adult bulls. The victims were mostly men guarding crop fields at night from simple structures at ground level, although on occasion these were women or children when a raiding bull broke down a hut. A flashlight shined at a bull or the sound of a dog barking often evoked an aggressive reaction. Another common pattern seen is that a few notorious bulls may be responsible for multiple killings. A recent example of this involved a tuskless bull that reputedly killed over a dozen people during crop raids in the Nilgiris before it was captured in 1998. Another bull in southern Bihar (now Jharkhand) has killed over 40 people over the past few years and still evades being eliminated, although it has been proscribed a rogue. Both in the forest and within fields, elephants killed people by lashing out with the trunk, grasping and flinging, trampling, or goring with the tusks. Instances of elephants dismembering their victims are rare.

In most regions, a male bias in the elephants responsible for manslaughter is obvious. In southern India, I found that 82% of incidents could be attributed unambiguously to male elephants, 10% to female elephants, and the rest to a member of a herd. Mangala de Silva also observed that, in most cases of manslaughter in Sri Lanka, the culprit was a male elephant.

Variations to the above pattern can be seen in places where aberrant behavior in the movement of family herds occurs. When elephants dispersed into the southern Indian state of Andhra beginning in 1983, the local people were oblivious to the dangers of closely approaching wild elephants. The spate of human deaths during the initial years could be mainly attributed to human ignorance. Many people were reportedly killed when they approached elephants within cultivated fields to offer worship. An aggressive adult female elephant was responsible for several deaths. Once the elephants settled down in their new range and awareness increased among the people, the incidents of manslaughter decreased. Similar patterns were seen during the range extension by elephants from southern Bihar. As these elephants, numbering about 50, began making deep forays into southern West Bengal, there was a sharp increase in the incidents of human deaths there (fig. 8.8). Hemant Datye also recorded that a herd of elephants in the Porahat Forest Division of Bihar went on a rampage during August 1989, killing 24 people in the process. Another small herd of elephants that emigrated into the forests of Sarguja in Madhya Pradesh around this time caused similar terror until the animals were removed.

As elephants are not carnivorous, a fundamental question is, Why are they aggressive toward people? As with other aspects of behavior, this question can be approached from different perspectives. An ethologist would interpret aggression in animals as "instinctive" or genetically determined and expressed through their physiological, neural, and musculoskeletal systems. Among mammals, the higher levels of the sex hormone testosterone in males may predispose them to greater aggression compared to females. In elephants, it is well known that testosterone levels rise dramatically when male elephants come into musth and show heightened aggression (see chapter 3). At least among captive elephants, we know that a bull is far more likely to kill people when it is in musth.

Experimental psychologists, on the other hand, stress the role of the environment and learning in the development of aggressive behavior. From this perspective, aggression among elephants can be expected as the outcome of their interactions with humans. Frustration of a goal-oriented behavior such as raiding may provoke aggression. Several observers in Africa and Asia note that elephant populations that have not been harassed by ivory poachers are relatively peaceful toward humans, while affected populations show aggressive or terrified behavior.

Two aspects to learned behavior can be considered. At the first level, an individual elephant could develop aggressive traits as a direct response to harassment by humans. Referring to the formidable threat displays of a matriarch he observed for several years, Iain Douglas-Hamilton mused, "I often wondered what terrible experience Boadicea must have suffered at the hands of man for her to hate and fear us so much" (Douglas-Hamilton and Douglas-Hamilton

Figure 8.8

(a) Number of people killed by elephants annually in two regions of the Indian state of West Bengal. This state has one of the highest intensities of elephant-human conflict in Asia. (Data courtesy of West Bengal Forest Department and S. P. Choudhury 2001). (b) Number of people killed by elephants annually in the Masai-Mara, Kenya. (From Njumbi et al. 1996. Reproduced with permission of the journal Pachyderm published by the IUCN/SSC African Elephant Specialist Group.)

Figure 8.8

(a) Number of people killed by elephants annually in two regions of the Indian state of West Bengal. This state has one of the highest intensities of elephant-human conflict in Asia. (Data courtesy of West Bengal Forest Department and S. P. Choudhury 2001). (b) Number of people killed by elephants annually in the Masai-Mara, Kenya. (From Njumbi et al. 1996. Reproduced with permission of the journal Pachyderm published by the IUCN/SSC African Elephant Specialist Group.)

1972, p. 68). The other aspect is that of transmission of behavior from one generation to the next. The elephants in South Africa's fenced Addo National Park are still mainly nocturnal and extremely aggressive toward people, several decades after a sanctuary was set up (in 1931) to protect this once-hunted population. Obviously, cultural transmission of aggressive behavior from elders to children has maintained this trait within this population even though the present-day elephants have never been harassed. It is conceivable that this aggressive trait would disappear in due course at Addo.

While this may be true of elephant response toward people in the elephants' natural habitat, the same may not hold for elephants in contact with agriculture and settlements. David Western believes that after the levels of ivory poaching declined in Kenya toward the end of the 1980s, there was an increase in manslaughter, especially in or near settlements, as elephants seem to have lost fear of people (fig. 8.8).

Over evolutionary time, aggressive behavior among elephants would have arisen as a defense against predators. While adult animals are immune to predators, this would not be true of juveniles. Pleistocene proboscideans were potential prey for carnivores, such as the saber-toothed tiger, the scimitar-toothed cat, and the saber-toothed cat. Young elephants today certainly fall prey to lions in Africa and to tigers in Asia. Group defense and aggressive threat displays by adult elephants are thus aimed at protecting their young from predators. Humans also have been predators of proboscideans since the Pleistocene (see chapter 1). This predatory role of humans has continued into contemporary times through hunting of elephants for ivory in Africa and both hunting and capture of elephants in Asia. In the eyes of an elephant, therefore, humans have always been potential predators. Thus, its aggression toward humans can be thought of as an extension of natural antipredatory strategy.

The interaction between people and elephants, however, has varied through time and changing cultures in the two continents. The elephant's response toward people could therefore reflect this complex interplay of factors through history.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment