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Elephant Attacks: New Neurobiological Theory

After another British tourist was killed on his honeymoon in Kenya, questions have been raised to whether or not elephants are retaliating or if something else is underlying this disturbing trend. The New York Times (October 8, 2006) ran a feature article on the topic. Animal expert Diana L. Guerrero comments.

Human-elephant relations have changed over time. In captivity their management has become more complex with new training systems and environmental design. In the wild where they once roamed over large distances, their numbers have significantly decreased.

Intact family groups no longer remain the norm. Today these large pachyderms reside in what appears to be little more than animal concentration camps. Most elephants are victims and witnesses to massive slaughter of their family and friends. Coincidentally those that remain seem too be lashing out. Is this the case or just speculation?

Animal behaviorist and author Diana L Guerrero said, “I’ve always speculated that captive animals with unstable background, inconsistency in training, or a variety of caretakers and handlers exhibited more instability due to those underlying factors. Now it appears that science is actually proving that theory holds true for elephants. I believe this holds true for both wild, captive, and domestic animals.”

All across Africa, India, and Southeast Asia, elephants have been destroying crops, villages and attacking humans. The phenomenon is so pronounced that it even has been named as Human-Elephant Conflict (H.E.C.). The term was coined in the mid-1990’s.

Daily human-elephant conflicts are reported in many parts of Africa most often from Zambia to Tanzania, and Uganda to Sierra Leone.

Charles Siebert reported, in his extensive article on elephants in the New York Times, that perverse incidents are on the increase. For instance, young male elephants from parks in South Africa rape and kill rhinoceroses and attack safari vehicles.*

Siebert also stated that approximately 90 percent of male elephant deaths are attributed to other male elephants in contrast to the 6 percent rate of more stable elephant communities.

Africa is not the only area seeing an increase in aberrant elephant behavior. Since 2000 hundred of people have been killed in the Indian state of Jharkhand and in the past twelve years elephants have killed over six hundred people in Assam, an area in northeastern India.

One woman died and another received serious injury from wild elephants in various parts of Jhapa district of India in October of 2006. The wild elephants come from PaniGhatta Jungle of the Indian State of West Bengal annually to cross the Mechi River into the Nepali area.

In addition to killing and injuring people, these giant pachyderms destroy the homes and considerable amount of crops of people living in Bahundagi, Budhabare, Khudunabari and those of farmers living in northern side of Mechi Nagar Municipality.

In the past, high levels of testosterone in musth (breeding or maturity stage) has been attributed for an increase in aggressive behavior but in 2005 the Journal of Nature published an article theorizing that today’s elephant populations suffer from “species specific stress” originating from trauma.

So, just what is that trauma? The damage from decades of poaching, culling, and reduction of habitat loss has torn apart elephant families and society—literally ripping apart the foundation of elephant culture. Elephant numbers are dwindling dangerously low and the stress seems to have escalated to a critical status.

A group of experts are exploring just what might have created the current abnormal elephant behavior—with a neurobiological twist. Gay Bradshaw, a psychologist at the environmental-sciences program at Oregon State University, African elephant experts, Daphne Sheldrick and Cynthia Moss, and Allan Schore, an expert on human trauma disorders at U.C.L.A., are looking into the phenomena. In fact, this year (2006) the first functional M.R.I. scan of an elephant brain was done.

Today, there only a few relatively stable elephant herds in places such as Amboseli National Park in Kenya. These control groups have been contrasted with those in Pilanesberg in South Africa and Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda where pervasive pachyderms seem to be on the rise. Older animals have been found missing from many of the dysfunctional groups.

Guerrero said, “Animal trainers have long known that immature elephants remain closely attached to their mothers until about 8 to 10 years of age. Soon, after the males leave to join an all male group and the females enter into the matriarchal network, many people don’t realize that elephant groups are a matriarchal society--managed by the females.

Older animals teach restraint and keep the youngsters in check. Young animals also learn vital social skills in mixed groups and play groups since naughty behavior or too much roughhousing drives others way. They learn to limit their strength during interactions because the reward is more playtime with peers and acceptance by others.”

Today, many of the wild dwelling animals seem to form the same sort of groups found in captivity. These surrogate “herds” are essentially groups without any family associations, recently termed as “semi permanent aggregations” by researcher Bradshaw who found that the wild groups tend to contain animals between 15-25 years old.

It is these elephants of decimated herds who 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 hyper aggression.

Guerrero looked at the structure and history of a group of Asian elephants at a prominent American zoo and found that the most stable creatures were those who had one or two residences and only a couple of trainers. Her internal report was geared to analyzing how successful a new management system for elephants was and the discovery about the diversity in background made total sense to the animal behavior consultant.

Eve Abe, an animal ethologist and wildlife-management consultant is based in London but grew up in northern Uganda. She received her doctorate at Cambridge exploring the parallels she saw between the plight of Uganda’s orphaned male elephants and the young male orphans of her own people. Only 150 remain of the original 4,000 strong herd of elephants after mass destruction during the war in Tanzania.

Guerrero, who read the article by Siebert, said that she worked around the 40-year-old, five-ton Asian elephant named Misty discussed in the New York Times article. Misty is now housed at the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.**

She said, “Misty was off limits to anyone who was not her primary trainer. She lashed out and hurt quite a few people. I remember one incident when someone entered the elephant barn—Misty hit him with her trunk which knocked him clear across the barn…People want to believe wild animals are amiable creatures and forget that they are wild animals with complex personalities and idiosyncrasies. Her unstable background sheds light into some of her behavior.”

Within two years of Guerrero’s departure from the animal acting firm where she knew the elephant, Misty killed one of the staff at Lion Country Safari. Siebert reported that “Misty has also been in therapy, as in psychotherapy…” and “the manner of the elephants’ continued keeping, their restoration and conservation, both in civil confines and what’s left of wild ones, is now drawing the attention of everyone from naturalists to neuroscientists. Too much about elephants, in the end — their desires and devotions, their vulnerability and tremendous resilience — reminds us of ourselves to dismiss out of hand this revolt they’re currently staging against their own dismissal…”

Guerrero said, “I like the term ‘interspecies empathy’ we need to address misperceptions that people have about animals and stretch beyond conservation into education and pragmatic action. People need to learn how to live with wild animals. Siebert made some great points about living with wildlife like humans used to do, to create conditions whereby people can live on their land and live with wildlife without it being this life-and-death situation. This is critical today since we are seriously encroaching on the environment.”

How can you help? Guerrero encourages you to support the work of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya.

*When older mature bulls were placed into the areas with delinquent males—the misbehavior plummeted.

**In 2006 an Elephant Sanctuary Asian elephant named Winkie killed her assistant caretaker and critically injured the male caretaker who’d tried to save her.


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