Are elephants experiencing a mass nervous breakdown? And is the behaviour of human society the root cause of their psychological meltdown? That's the rather worrying question being asked by an increasing number of scientists.
Reports of elephants attacking human communities are becoming increasingly common. Last week a 34-year-old Briton was trampled to death while on his honeymoon in the Masai Mara reserve in Kenya. Dozens of similar incidents are reported worldwide every year. A major investigation in this week's edition of the New York Times magazine , suggests that these attacks are the result of a series of catastrophic, psychological changes that have been inflicted on the giant creatures by human colonisation of their habitats. Writes reporter Charles Siebert:
"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."
Siebert goes on to explain that many scientists thing the roots of this conflict lie in a form of "chronic stress, a kind of species wide trauma" precipitated by the breakdown of the elephant's tight-knit, family-oriented way of life.
"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 article also offers a warning. Yes, ultimately, elephants are going to lose their struggle for supremacy with us. But they are not going to lie down without a ferocious fight.
"It has long been apparent that every large, land-based animal on this planet is ultimately fighting a losing battle with humankind. And yet entirely befitting of an animal with such a highly developed sensibility, a deep-rooted sense of family and, yes, such a good long-term memory, the elephant is not going out quietly."
Chilling and highly recommended reading.