The Wounds of Elephants and the Path to Liberation

December 1, 2013

Looking at images of Paleolithic cave paintings—at Lascaux, perhaps, or Alta Mira—who can fail to be struck by an uncanny sense that the undulating and potent forms of rhinoceroses, mammoths, horses, and bison they depict are both eminently mysterious and intimately familiar? They present scenes that feel exotic, remote, almost inconceivable; but they are simultaneously more intuitively comprehensible than the technologically-intensive environments we occupy today.

Such familiarity is come by honestly. The human mind evolved in Africa, a land of breathtakingly large animals, and humans came into existence in a world where megafaunal assemblages like Africa’s existed everywhere. As we emigrated from our ancestral homelands to extend our range throughout Australia, Eurasia, and the Americas, large animals—giant ground sloths, camels, dire wolves, mastodons—simultaneously disappeared. The timing is certainly not a matter of sheer chance. Only on the continent where humanity evolved, and large animals thus had an extended period of time to adapt to increasingly sophisticated hunting techniques, did a reasonable semblance of the faunal diversity of the pre-Homo sapiens landscape persist (Barnosky 2009; Martin 2007). One can feel their absence in places like North America.

Prolonged exposure to humans may have allowed elephants, giraffes, and gorillas to evade extinction wrought by the advent of the spear thrower or a more refined stone point, but it has done nothing to prepare them for the effects of habitat fragmentation and high-powered rifles. Human pressure on populations of African megafauna takes its most immediate and obvious toll in their simple decline, in their absence from places they formerly occurred or reduced numbers where they still exist. But the same forces that have diminished the presence of the continent’s large animals have also radically altered life for the survivors.


Social animals are not simply “social” in the sense that they prefer to be around others of their kind. They are embedded in a matrix of social interactions like a cell is embedded in a body—outside of the context of the group, any one individual who comprises it can not function. African elephants (Loxodonta africana) live in matriarchal groups where young elephants are nurtured throughout their prolonged developmental stages by both their mothers and a network of other older females. In adolescence, males leave their natal groups to live for a period of time in all-male groups, where they undergo a second major stage of brain reorganization (Bradshaw et al. 2005).

Social connections beget neural connections. This is a truth with numerous and multifarious manifestations, documented throughout a wide range of animals. In our own species, maltreated children develop into adolescents with lowered connectivity in brain regions such as the amygdala and the hippocampus, resulting in a lowered capacity to regulate fear (Herringa et al. 2013). Isolation from the mother and siblings of infant degu, a close relative of guinea pigs, results in a significant change in the quantity and character of synapses in the anterior cingulate cortex (Helmeke et al. 2001). These examples are chosen more or less at random. Other cases of early trauma and resulting neurobiological impairment, which in turn results in behavioral disturbances later in life, thus illustrating a common, evolutionarily inherited set of responses to trauma across a broad array of species, are too numerous and too depressing to enumerate.

Humans’ war against elephants has not just taken its toll in the wounds inflicted in the bodies of those who are shot and subsequently mutilated. By leaving juveniles motherless, by leaving mothers without the extended groups of experienced females who assist with raising young, by leaving males without groups of older males to assimilate into, it is also leaving scars in the minds of those who evade the bullets. It is depriving surviving elephants of the social connections which are necessary for neural connections to form, of the socioecological context which allows elephants to develop into elephants.


The result has been numerous behavioral anomalies becoming widespread in elephant populations. From the vestiges of habitat, physical and social, that humans have spared, elephants are reciprocating the injuries that have been inflicted in them. Attacks on humans, once relatively rare, have become a common phenomenon: 300 people died from elephant attacks in the Indian state of Jharkhand between 2000 and 2004, and 605 in Assam in a 12 year period; in Africa, reports of human-elephant conflicts are a near daily occurrence, with 300 people evacuated from villages to evade their rampages in 2005 (Siebert 2006).

Lacking older adult males to guide their development, young males are entering musth, a state of heightened hormonal activity, aggressiveness, and sexual activity much earlier than normal, resulting in their attacking and killing white and black rhinoceroses: 58 in Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park, South Africa between 1999 and 2001, 50 in Pilanesberg National Park, South Africa between 1992 and 1997 (Slotow et al. 2001). In numerous cases, the elephants forcibly copulated with the rhinoceroses, or attempted to do so, before killing them. Heightened aggression is also directed at other elephants. While elephants killing one another has historically been an uncommon cause of death (accounting for 6.1% of adult male deaths in one estimate), in some protected areas, lacking species-typical social structures and occupied by individuals who have witnessed the death of family members, the shock of early weaning, and other developmental traumas, elephant-elephant killing has become the source of 70-90% of adult male mortality (Bradshaw and Schore 2007).

Elephants’ aggression toward humans is certainly justified. Far less behaviorally complex creatures are perfectly aware of what species pose a threat to them, and not infrequently—as in the case of birds mobbing the owls that prey on them when they encounter owls in daylight—will endeavor to take some form of revenge. Certainly, elephants know that humans are systematically eradicating them. Their attacks on members of our species are arguably resistance to their own extinction—elephants destroying, as the phrasing goes, what destroys them.

In the case of elephants’ hypersexuality and aggression toward one another and towards rhinoceroses, however, it is unequivocally clear we are witnessing behavioral pathologies engendered by an environment that does not accommodate the animals’ development along a species-typical trajectory. In such cases, does their behavior, while not a direct resistance to humans’ indiscriminate aggression toward the living world, nonetheless illustrate a great deal about the nature of this aggression? In suffering the chronic trauma of life in a socioecological setting for which they are not adapted, in suffering the thwarted developmental trajectory such a setting creates, in lashing out in a pathological frenzy at the surrounding world, are such creatures not an enraged, indiscriminately violent, rhinoceros raping mirror of the human violence from which they suffer?


I am writing this on Saturday, November 23rd. Tomorrow, a massive piece of equipment intended for use in the extraction and/or refinement of bitumen—tar sands, as it is frequently known—will begin a prolonged and convoluted journey by road from the Port of Umatilla in Oregon, stopping traffic in both directions as its obscene bulk occupies entire state highways, to a surreal wasteland in Alberta, Canada. The tar sands mines are of such a vast extent that there is nothing recognizable as intact earth, nothing living, with which to contrast it. As such, seen in photographs it can lose any connotation of destruction and take on a strange and alien beauty—an exotic and convoluted topography one might associate with the moon of a distant planet or an insect’s eye magnified hundreds of times by a microscope. Certainly, it is not a beauty one associates with the living world we occupy. It is the antithesis of life. Boreal forests are decimated; the ground beneath them is torn to shreds in turn as the bitumen is extracted; the surrounding watercourses turn to poison; the bitumen itself is burned to choke the sky with carbon dioxide.

While egregious, this particular shipment of tar sands machinery is by no means remarkable. It is a more or less random example, chosen simply because I live in a community that is mobilizing against it. Still, a question as profoundly simple as it is salient could be asked of this situation: what sort of person would do such a thing? In one sense, of course, there are any number of fairly simple answers that could be given. One might say, for instance, a person involved in the fossil fuel industry would do such a thing, or a person who is alienated from nature, a product of a culture that does not respect life. One might say a capitalist. One could simply say—quite correctly—that the people at Omega Morgan, at 23810 NW Huffman St., Hillsboro, Oregon, would do such a thing.

If we think of ourselves in terms of elephants, we might ask: what sort of elephant would be more likely, were they capable, to do such a thing? One that developed in an intact, complex group structure for which evolution has adapted it? Or one whose developmental trajectory has run awry? Is killing everything—including, ultimately, ourselves—simply human nature? Or is it a product of a human nature misshapen by an environment for which it is not adapted—civilization, or in any case, aspects thereof?

Certainly, researchers such as Gay Bradshaw and Eve Abe have noted the similarities between the deterioration of elephant society and the psychosocial dysfunction of humans who, in the same African countries, have suffered the effects of chronic warfare, displacement, and social disruption. These are certainly legitimate and important similarities to note, but the point remains the same—with far broader applications—in the global context of colonialism, Cold War proxy conflicts, and neoliberal economic policies in which armed conflict in Africa ultimately occurs. No war orphan hastily recruited into an armed conflict could ever hope to equal for violence and cruelty people who have always lived amidst unparalleled prosperity and privilege.

As such, if we are to seek after root causes, we must acknowledge that civilization as it has thus far manifested, even when—or perhaps especially when—it affords individuals tremendous wealth and physical security, is psychosocially traumatic in such a way as to beget hyperaggression and a lack of empathy uncharacteristic of our species in more natural settings.

Syncrude Aurora Oil Sands Mine, Canada.

As late Pleistocene extinctions demonstrate, it has certainly always been the case that humans, even in minimally technological cultural milieus, are perfectly capable of eradicating other species, and indeed, of doing so on heartbreaking scales. But at a certain point, a distinction of quantity becomes a distinction of quality. Moreover, it is difficult to discern to what extent a hunting society could really know it was causing an extinction. Would a foraging people be willing to knowingly cause the planet’s sixth mass extinction for the sake of accumulating a few more trinkets?

Human nature before civilization can be a murky subject of inquiry, with characterizations ranging from the wantonly brutal to the inveterately beneficent and peaceable. No doubt, the lives of modern hunter-gatherers are instructive, but they, while not living in civilization, strictly speaking, are certainly affected by it—after all, they occupy the fragments of the world civilization has not destroyed. Much ambiguity can be attributed to the fact that the modern condition and its destructive impulse developed over the course of millennia; elephant society, in contrast, remained stable until recent times, and thus the changes in elephant nature we are now observing are unequivocally attributable to changes in the mental and physical environments elephants occupy.

As such, elephants, and their increasingly destructive tendencies, provide an accelerated view of what happens when fundamental social—and thus neural—connections are severed, and thereby do much to illuminate the radical disconnect humans must feel from one another and the world around them to build megadams, clearcut forests, and put others in cages.

Interconnectivity is self-perpetuating; likewise, disjunctions create further disjunctions. The psychosocial damage we have suffered as our lives are lived in a context increasingly remote from the one in which we evolved is mirrored in the damage other creatures suffer at our hands. Injuries beget injuries. By examining the wounds of elephants, we can better see our own scars, and therein discern the path to liberation—elephants’ liberation and our own.

Barnosky, A.D. 2009. Heatstroke: Nature in an Age of Global Warming. Island Press. Washington, DC.

Bradshaw, G.A., et al. 2005. Elephant breakdown. Social trauma: early disruption of attachment can affect the physiology, behaviour, and culture of animals and humans over generations. Nature 433(7028):807.

Bradshaw, G.A. and A. N. Schore. 2007. How Elephants are Opening Doors: Developmental Neuroethology, Attachment and Social Context. Ethology 113:426-436.

Helmeke, C., et al. 2001. Juvenile Emotional Experience Alters Synaptic Inputs on Pyramidal Neurons in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex. Cerebral Cortex 11(8):717-727.

Herringa, R.J., et al. 2013. Childhood maltreatment is associated with altered fear circuitry and increasingly internalizing symptoms by late adolescence. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110(47):19119-19124.

Martin, P. S. 2007. Twilight of the Mammoths: Ice Age Extinctions and the Rewilding of North America. University of California Press. Berkeley, CA.

Siebert, C. 2006. An Elephant Crackup? The New York Times October 8, 2006.

Slotow, R., et al. 2001. Killing of black and white rhinoceroses by African elephants in Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park, South Africa. Pachyderm 31:14-20.


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