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ven as poaching is reducing some elephant populations to perilous levels, others are being killed en masse supposedly for their own good. Elephant feeding exacts a heavy burden from their habitat — fifty pounds of vegetation munched by each elephant every day adds up to a lot. When elephants moved freely across the African continent, this denuding fit naturally into regrowth patterns and the impact was dispersed. Confined to parks, even very large ones, they can’t migrate in the same way and the trees and ground cover get stripped down dramatically. Thus, to protect biodiversity and avoid the sad spectacle of elephant starvation, many park managers cull populations to what they deem sustainable levels.
And, strictly speaking, it is not civilization but its breakdown that is responsible for these artifacts, since killing elephants for ivory has been illegal for decades.
Within hours, hundreds of people have materialized to mourn the passing of a , so upset that the hunting party, reluctant as they were, even fear for their own safety. Iain Douglas-Hamilton, who also had to dispatch a menace once, : “It was the only time I ever shot an elephant, and when I saw the sudden collapse of this marvelous organism which tumbled down a steep bank like a deflated paper bag, I found it incomprehensible that people should do this for pleasure.”
In the past several years, there have been increasing reports of elephants rampaging around out of control — destroying property, attacking people, raping and killing rhinos, and other chaotic behavior. Traditional explanations for rogue elephants such as musth or competition for habitat , as some behaviors (such as lethal fights between bulls) are surging out of proportion to their normal incidence and some (such as assaulting rhinos) are otherwise nearly unheard of. Instead, Bradshaw points to the collapse of elephant society brought on by culling and poaching, the licit and illicit forms of mass annihilation. In addition to the psychological trauma these engender in survivors, they have also disrupted the transmission of elephant culture from one generation to the next.
Meanwhile, opportunities now exist at certain game reserves for those aspiring to the masculinity of Teddy Roosevelt to pay great sums of money to chase the animals around a large pen in a jeep, that is, a confined hunting zone where there is no real test of strength or match of wits and they are ultimately guaranteed a kill. These are often couched as conservation efforts — attaching a high price to elephants makes each one “valuable” from the perspective of the local community, and the money can ostensibly be spent on some worthy elephant-related cause.
Catching an elephant from the wild is a tumultuous process that often involves the deaths of several more in the melee. Less brutally, but rather creepily, it may also entail the complicity of other elephants, who are trained to entice their wild kin into a compromising situation where they can be caught. (Another way of catching elephants, employed less now than it used to be, is to save the babies from a cull and market them. Because of the psychological problems caused by having their entire families slaughtered around them, culling experts now recommend just killing the babies with everybody else.) In transit, captive elephants are subject to extreme discomfort and often die from overheating, freezing, stifling, dehydration, or infection.
However, in other circumstances, distressed elephants have been known to kill themselves in ways that certainly seem intentional — not only by refusing food and water, but by stepping on their trunks to suffocate, or deliberately tightening chains hung around their throats. Under the circumstances, these actions seem much closer to despair than to fatal stupidity. Other perverse behaviors, such as the way cows giving birth sometimes turn on their newborns, are never seen anywhere but in captivity.
As early as the ninth century, with a present from Caliph Harun al-Rashid to Charlemagne, elephants were offered as special gifts to European royalty and marched from court to court until they died of cold and loneliness. A few such stories have been fictionalized — Nobel laureate José Saramago’s (2008, translated 2010); young-adult fantasy author Judith Tarr’s (1993); and BBC World Service producer Christopher Nicholson’s bleakly enchanting first novel (2009). Set in eighteenth-century England, it begins with the purchase by a respected gentleman of two half-dead baby elephants from a merchant ship just returned from the East Indies. A stable boy, Tom, takes a shine to them, is made responsible for their care, and becomes inseparable from one of them forever. (The other is resold and eventually killed.)
or those who find this type of evidence sentimentalized, dubiously interpretable, or otherwise unsatisfactory, there are various nice solid measurements that provide useful but crude indicators of elephants’ relative intelligence. At birth, an elephant brain is about a third its adult size. A human brain at birth is a quarter its adult size, whereas for chimps it is half and for most mammals the figure is more like 90 percent. A greater span of growth outside the womb like this accompanies a more important role that nurture and learned skills play in the animal’s maturation — as infants they are more helpless and dependent than an average mammal, but as adults there will be much more that they can do. The elephant brain is also notable for its high level of spindle neurons (associated with sociability), very large temporal lobes and hippocampus (the primary seat of memory processing), and convoluted neocortex (linked to general cognitive complexity, common to other intelligent species such as dolphins and higher-order primates).
f the core elements of life, sensation, and emotion are so widely distributed as to encompass a huge swath of the animal kingdom, what the moral difference between a species with higher capabilities and one without? In his thoughtful 1985 essay “,” the philosopher of biology Hans Jonas takes up three activities attributed solely to humans and explores their deeper implications. As it happens, given what we know today, elephants arguably meet all three tests. Jonas’s standard is worth revisiting in this light — not to diminish its significance for , but to consider what it means for the one other animal, at least, that might share it.