Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad in Pakistan, news reports have confirmed. But, he’s been killed twice in India already! Once in 2006 and again in 2008. Osama’s first death occurred in December 2006 in a tea estate in Assam in north-east India, at the hands of a hunter, a hired gun. If that was not enough, he was killed again in May 2008, in the Indian state of Jharkhand, at the hands of an empowered mob of government authority—the Forest Department and the Police. The second death was not easy. It took twenty bullets to silence Osama, but from recent news, it seems even that did not work, after all.
The painful truth is that the first two deaths of Osama referred, not to the terrorist mastermind and leader of al-Qaeda, but to two separate individual Asian elephants Elephas maximus, with the contrasting reputation of being the gentle giants in our forests. These individuals were named after a feared human, on the most-wanted list of a distant superpower. They were labelled serial killers and raging bulls, as rogues and as terrorisers. And yet, when people came to see the prostrate corpse of the killed elephant, they placed flowers on its body, even as many asked whether the right animal was killed or it was just another innocent elephant victim.
Social and sentient
Now, as before, it is open season on the Asian elephant. The character of the elephant is on public display in the media, interpreted to us by all manner of people. There are journalists and filmmakers, naturalists and scientists, politicians and hunters, mahouts and zookeepers, temple priests and elephant ‘owners’. Everyone knows, or seems to know, the elephant.
From the forests come stories of great tuskers and makhnas and their roving lives of ranging and musth and disproportionate peril. There are tales of tenderness among mothers and calves, and of itinerant family herds led by rugged matriarchs over familiar routes across vast and varied landscapes. The stories speak of communication by unheard sounds, unfelt vibrations, and undetected pheromones, and of elephant memory and cognition. They speak of individuals that are self-aware and social, that can be doting or depressed, loving and forgiving. We learn of stable yet sensitive societies, and begin to know sentient and intelligent individuals. These stories proclaim an understanding of elephants and elephant cultures that is barely beginning to grow.
From crop fields and human habitation come tales of rogues and raiders, marauders and mayhem. There is an image of a lone tusker, willful and vicious, or of a huge herd on a rampage of raiding and pillage. The elephant tramples, the tusker gores, snuffing the lives of the few people whose path has converged tragically with its own. The elephants are not on old routes anymore; they are said to be straying herds, individuals on trespass. The words say it all. Each elephant and its action, known or unknown, is judged and placed within the ambit of a common belief. Pinioned by belief and judgement, claims and media reports, the elephants, unaware, must await retaliation. Retaliation and pain at the hands of the self-aware, social, sentient, and intelligent human.
The pain of the elephant
What does it take to cause pain to an elephant? That great beast, the ponderous pachyderm standing tall on its sensitive feet, but is still dwarfed by the immensity our worldly landscape and its perpetual perils.
Will it take a land mine, planted in a contested forest by warring people, which tears away its leg? Or the final body blow to an elephant on its path delivered by a speeding train that brooks no obstruction to its own? Will it be a flaming torch flung on its skin by an irate farmer, whose ire has overwhelmed his tolerance? Or perhaps the pain from the sting of an electric wire strung deliberately across land that someone now claims as his, and only his? It could come, too, from a bullet as it bursts its way into its heart or brain—from the gun of a poacher who wants only its teeth.
Any of this may bring pain, and yet, the deepest pain to an elephant may come from the loss of one of its own. A pain we barely sense, far less understand, as we watch the elephant visit and caress the bones of the dead.
We have arrived at a grim moment, where we are asked to rethink our tolerance and veneration towards the elephant, a relation spanning millennia. We are asked to find ways to deal with the elephant, as one would deal with a troublesome pest, a pest spawned by an interaction between people and landscapes gone awry. Something missing
And so, the ecologists, wildlife scientists, forest managers, judges, and administrators are coming up with their answers. Protect the reserves and the movement corridors, they say, and the elephants will find their way through ‘our’ land. Erect this kind of barrier, not that, and here, not there, this way, and not that, they say, and the elephants can be kept at bay. Compensate the people for their loss justly and quickly for everything today has a price, and perhaps people’s love can be bought, too. Understand the elephant, they say, strapping a collar on its neck or probing its DNA and its habits, for this will inform us, and information is power. Capture and relocate the elephant, or kill (cull) it where it lives, say the pragmatists, for we can then evade the elephant as easily as we evade seeing the brutality in ourselves. We can even mark our broken tolerance by filling elephant camps with broken elephants. By and large, these methods and answers have one character. They treat the elephant as an object, a commodity even, to be valued or traded, upon whom, in the words of a leading student of elephant behaviour, G A Bradshaw, “things and people act to produce a programmed response”. J M Coetzee, would probably agree. What are we missing?
Are we not missing something? Will it not help to bring in an element of empathy to elephant individuals, societies, and cultures? Should we not aspire to a higher understanding of the psychology of elephants whose selfhood, rights, and emotions should matter to us, but are relegated to the dustbin of false anthropomorphism or misguided pragmatism? Are pragmatism and experience really providing right solutions, or has our direction wavered due to a shallowness of understanding? Manuals and action plans are written on how to understand and stave off conflict with the elephant-object in India.
Why is so little said about the elephant-being with whom we share so much of our true nature? As Bradshaw notes in the fascinating book ‘Elephants on the edge: what animals teach us about humanity’, “Elephants are merely mirroring the circumstances in which they have come to live… Under such conditions, human-elephant conflict (HEC) takes on a very different meaning...issues surrounding elephants are “not about the animals”. Rather, they are about humans: human-elephant conflict revolves around questions of social justice and human introspection.
Much like other cultures that have refused to be absorbed by colonialism, elephants are struggling to survive as an intact society, to retain their elephant-ness, and to resist becoming what modern humanity has tried to make of them—passive objects in zoos, circuses, and safari rides, romantic decorations dotting the landscape for eager eyes peering from Land Rovers, or data to tantalize our minds and stock the bank of knowledge.
Elephants are, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote about black South Africans living under apartheid, “simply asking to live in the land of their birth, where their dignity is acknowledged and respected.”
One wonders what the future holds for the human – elephant relationship, a relationship between two intelligent, sentient species. Will it remain a perception of elephants as objects of conflict seen through the coin of economics and the lens of science, when it could lead to coexistence if passed through the prism of humanity?
(The writer is a wildlife biologist with the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore.)