The Cause of Elephant Violence

One of the reasons a lot of readers like my blog is that I summarize, synthesize, compact and distill the essence of long books and articles into short, digestible posts. It’s not often that I ask readers to read something long, word for word, and carefully. But today I’m going to do just that. You’ll need at least an hour to read Charles Siebert’s very long (10 magazine/web pages) article An Elephant Crackup in the NYT Magazine. But set that time aside and do it. I think you’ll find the investment worthwhile.

I can’t pretend to summarize this remarkable analysis in a short post, so all I’m going to do is provide some key excerpts to pique your interest, and then tell you what I think its most important lessons are. I’m not going to try to capture the arguments and stories underlying those lessons — you’ll have to read the article to appreciate them.

Siebert attempts to understand a recent global phenomenon: The huge increase in violence committed by elephants against humans, against other creatures in their ecosystems, and against other elephants:

In “Elephant Breakdown”, a 2005 essay in the journal Nature, [psychologist Gay] 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.

The factors that precipitated this collapse are eerily and ominously similar to those that have shattered some of the most dysfunctional segments of modern human societies:

This fabric of elephant society, Bradshaw and her colleagues concluded, had effectively been frayed by years of habitat loss and poaching, along with systematic culling by government agencies to control elephant numbers and translocations of herds to different habitats. The number of older matriarchs and female caregivers (or “allomothers”) had drastically fallen, as had the number of elder bulls, who play a significant role in keeping younger males in line. In parts of Zambia and Tanzania, a number of the elephant groups studied contained no adult females whatsoever. In Uganda, herds were often found to be “semipermanent aggregations”, as a paper written by Bradshaw describes them, with many females between the ages of 15 and 25 having no familial associations. As a result of such social upheaval, calves are now being born to and raised by ever younger and inexperienced mothers. Young orphaned elephants, meanwhile, that have witnessed the death of a parent at the hands of poachers are coming of age in the absence of the support system that defines traditional elephant life. “The loss of elephant elders,” Bradshaw told me, “and the traumatic experience of witnessing the massacres of their family, impairs normal brain and behavior development in young elephants.”…The elephants of decimated herds, especially orphans who’ve watched the death of their parents and elders from poaching and culling, exhibit behavior typically associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and other trauma-related disorders in humans: abnormal startle response, unpredictable asocial behavior, inattentive mothering and hyperaggression.

UCLA psychologist Allan Shore explains the consequences of this:

“In the first years of humans as well as elephants, development of the emotional brain is impacted by attachment mechanisms, by the interaction that the infant has with the primary caregiver, especially the mother. When these early experiences go in a positive way, it leads to greater resilience in things like affect regulation, stress regulation, social communication and empathy. But when these early experiences go awry in cases of abuse and neglect, there is a literal thinning down of the essential circuits in the brain, especially in the emotion-processing areas.”

The result is psychological breakdown, first of individuals and then as it cascades, of whole packs and societies. Ugandan wildlife management consultant Eve Abe describes the parallels between the behaviours of displaced and orphaned humans and elephants victimized by violence during and since the time of Idi Amin:

“The families there are just broken. I know many of them…All these kids who have grown up with their parents killed ’Äî no fathers, no mothers, only children looking after them. They don’Äôt go to schools. They have no schools, no hospitals. No infrastructure. They form these roaming, violent, destructive bands. It’s the same thing that happens with the elephants. Just like the male war orphans, they are wild, completely lost.”

Siebert goes on to tell the story of Misty, an elephant treated cruelly by American circuses for decades, as she is treated for both tuberculosis and a horrific case of post-traumatic stress disorder that caused her to become unmanageably violent. The story has a happy ending, and it’s a story that should be told to every child, and to every adult who believes animals are incapable of intelligent thought and profound feeling. It’s a story of tremendous hope and understanding.

In fact, Siebert’s entire article will probably stay with you long after you read it, haunting you with its significance not only for what it tells us about our tragic modern disconnection from all-life-on-Earth, but for what it bodes for the future of our profoundly psychologically damaged species. Please, just read it, without judgement, and let yourself think about it, absorb it. Let it change you, as it did me.

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food chart 2

Wise men have often advised us to study the lessons of history to better understand how to cope with problems of the present. Now we have the opportunity to study objectively what happens when a species that has a peaceful, tens-of-millennia-old largely unchanged culture suddenly faces the breakdown of that culture as a result of stress, and learn what that means for our own species’ fragmenting and horrifically-stressed culture. I have posited that, in natural environments, as illustrated in the graphic above, human population increases with food availability, and decreases with prevalence of natural predators. Usually that keeps numbers of humans and other creatures in balance, a function of the carrying capacity of the land and the interconnectedness of the entire ecosystem and food chain. When numbers get too high, a stress response pulls them back down either by increasing vulnerability to disease, or in extreme cases, as a last resort, by increased violence against their own kind.

This is, I believe, what is happening to elephants, which have been shown, in research like that in Jeff Masson’s When Elephants Weep, to be very intelligent and very emotional creatures (much like our species). The difference is that the stress is being caused not by an unnatural increase in numbers, but by an unnatural decrease in their livable habitat, due to relentless human encroachment. In a couple of generations, we are witnessing in a noble and gentle species, one that has thrived on this planet much, much longer than we have, the kind of psychological and social breakdown leading to self-destructive and massively violent behaviour that has taken tens of millennia to manifest itself in our own species, because in our case it occurred much more gradually.

There are important lessons here. I hope enough people will take the time to learn them, ponder them, and act on them. Our willingness and ability to do so will be a measure of our humanity, and a barometer for our own species’ future health andsurvival.

Thanks to my KM colleague Howard Deane for the link.

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3 Responses to The Cause of Elephant Violence

  1. Mariella says:

    Amazing…. amazing the elephant culture, the whole story…. amazing the people working with them…., I feel this happens when we let our environment impact us, and depending on our resources and capabilities, a positive interaction can be born… this resourceful people engaged, committed, (without questionings), through their own story, with Gaia´s interrelations… articulating, relinking,…generating movement…. allowing themselves to dwell in Gaia´s active side.

  2. Carroll says:

    So many thanks for this link, Dave! I passed it around among several of my animal and eco-conscious friends. It rings the same “canary in the coal mine” alarm bells as those studies of frog mutations in terms of the future of our poor planet.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    It really is an amazing read. Every time I reread it I pick up something else new from it. I’d also recommend the novel The White Bone, written in the ‘language’ and from the viewpoint of an elephant. Extraordinary, for the same reasons.

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