November 2016

Elephants on the Edge

What Animals Teach Us About Humanity

G.A. Bradshaw’s Elephants on the Edge (Yale University Press, 2009) an insightful companion to this issue’s piece on communal anti-poaching programs in Mali.

A mixture of psychology, natural history, philosophy and activism, the book challenges standard anthropocentric notions of “how and what animals (and in particular, elephants) feel.” The answer is resoundingly more complex than most would care to imagine.

Bradshaw explains that elephants, along with chimpanzees, are among the few animals to pass current scientific tests of self-awareness, and exhibit behaviors and emotions that humans tend to uniquely associate with themselves, such as mourning, depression and anxiety.  Elephants learn to differentiate between those who have caused harm, and those who have exhibited kindness, allowing them to form stereotypes based on memory: “Elephants react differently when presented with red clothing worn by the Maasai people (who kill elephants), and with clothing worn by the agricultural Kamba tribe (who do not)… (they) can distinguish between who has hurt them and who has helped them.”

The damage humans have caused to elephants in recent years is staggering.  In the last few decades, elephant populations in Africa and Asia have declined from an estimated ten million, to a few hundred thousand.  The diminishing numbers is largely due to poaching and collateral damage from human conflict.  Bradshaw documents the direct link between, for example, human genocides in Uganda and an equivalent “genocide” against Ugandan elephant populations, which went from 30,000 in 1960, to a few thousand in 1982.

But the effects are not only direct. Bradshaw demonstrates how human-inflicted violence and trauma breeds dysfunction within highly developed animal social networks and kin hierarchies. Elephant herd matriarchs play a powerful socialization role within the herd. Their death creates an emotional and leadership deficit that takes years, if not decades, to fill. Human trespasses often lead to either emotional shutdown (a post-traumatic stress syndrome), or a desire for revenge.

The adage “An elephant never forgets” is actually true; they will take advantage of lapses in human attention to exact revenge for perceived injuries, long after the offenses have occurred. The message is one of interspecies karma: humans will reap what they sow.

ISBN: 9780300127317
Yale University Press, 2009