Bear in Mind

Exploring the common minds and emotions of people and other animals and their lives together

With Friends Like These

Can conservation kill elephants?

Elephant at rest
Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson
Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson
The news is bad for elephants. Their extinction is no longer a farfetched idea, but imminent and bone-chillingly real. By the time children born this year attain their majority, the magnificent elephant will be gone. Elephants join the Great Auk and others who have vanished like smoke before our eyes and by the hand of humans. Now we discover that elephants are threatened by conservation friends, as well as poacher foes.

This week, National Geographic aired a documentary describing a plan to address elephant Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Mozambique. [1] The Gongorosa elephants are survivors of humanity’s Anschluss against nature, suffering with a mortality of 95 percent. Similar to Kenyan and South African elephants diagnosed with PTSD seven years earlier, these individuals live day by day in the grip of psychological trauma, in terror of the apex predator, Homo sapiens. [2]

In the documentary, ethologist Dr. Joyce Poole and her brother claim to help the besieged elephants. Instead, we witness scenes which, in the case of humans, would be akin to people in gun-laden trucks pursuing PTSD-stricken veterans subjected to recordings of babies and children screaming in terror. [3]

Scientist and film crew drive Range Rovers up to mothers and young elephants. When confronted with armed, camera laden vehicles, they pace and charge in mad, confused distress. [4] In one scene, “experts” play distress calls, supposedly recordings of a young elephant being attacked by lions, to watch how these "elephants on the edge" respond. [5] As elephants run frantically to aid their comrade, possibly risking their own precarious safety, Poole exclaims: “This is just incredible. Look at them, they’re running to help!” [4]

The elephants’ reticence to harm the intruders is attributed to Poole’s baby talk to matriarchal elephants raw with fear, “It’s okay, girl.” [4] This belies and demeans the profound sentience and sensibilities that elephants possess. It is their perspicacity and intrinsic benevolence that protects foolish humans.

Elephants thundering in the dust.
Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson
Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson
However, even the tolerant elephant has limits and one desperately attempts to ward off the invaders by crushing a truck. Viewers are assured that the gunshot was merely fired over the elephant’s head. We wonder in awe at the prosocial restraint exhibited by the Gongorosa elephants, who must at times be hurdled into the oblivion of PTSD flashbacks by researchers’ guns, petrol smell, and predatory stalking by metal monsters.

Such human behavior is ethically bankrupt and scientifically uninformed to the degree that were it humans instead of elephants being subjected to these psychological assaults, professional, if not legal, censure would likely follow. Disturbingly, these types of activities are not isolated.

Earlier this month, journalists learned that the King of Spain, injured while trophy hunting African elephants, is president of a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) chapter, and, it was implied, a wealthy donor to the well-known conservation organization. [6] While the WWF showed discomfiture with this public revelation, a representative nonetheless maintained that “regulated hunting has to be tolerated.” [7]

Elephants on wide plain.
Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson
Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson
The recent slaughter of over 450 Cameroonian elephants is only part of the elephants’ tragedy. [8] Despite much publicized hand-wringing and gnashing of conservationists’ teeth, the elephant fares no different than any other victim of human violence and greed. Elephants are not only prey to their poacher enemies, but to those who make a living by claiming to be their saviors. To save the elephant, we must adopt the Ethic of the Elephant: embrace kindness, tolerance, love, and above all honesty–now, before it is too late.

Of all footprints
That of the elephant is supreme.
Of all mindfulness meditations
That on death is supreme.

         — The Buddha

 

Literature Cited

[1] National Geographic. 2012. War elephants.

[2] Bradshaw, G.A , Schore, A.N., Brown, J Poole, J. & Moss, C.J. 2005. Elephant breakdown. Nature, 433, 807.

[3] Bradshaw, G.A. & E. Tick. 2012. Of paratroopers and pachyderms. The Huffington Post.

[4] ABC News. 2012. Elephants suffer from PTSD in Mozambique. ABC News.

[5] Bradshaw, G.A. 2009. Elephants on the edge: What animals teach us about humanity. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[6] DW.DE. 2012. WWF defends elephant hunts for conservation.

[7] WWF. 2012. World Wildlife Fund

[8] Discovery New. 2012. Nearly 450 Elephants Killed in Cameroon. Discovery News. 

G.A. Bradshaw, Ph.D., Ph.D. is the author of Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us About Humanity.

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