Why they fight

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In Jean de Brunhoff’s 1931 children’s book, The Story of Babar, a young African elephant sees his mother shot by a hunter; he runs off, not deeper into the jungle, but (somehow) to Paris. There, he is taken in by a kindly and rich old woman, and learns the pleasures and virtues of urban civilization before eventually becoming homesick and returning to Africa, where he becomes King of the Elephants and helps his subjects adopt an improved lifestyle based largely on human ways. It is a delightful and amusingly surreal story that can be read to children as often as they like. They will learn the horrible truth soon enough.

The truth is that the encounter of human civilization and wild elephants has been a one-sided massacre. From a population in the 1930s of three to five million, only half a million elephants live in Africa today. By the 1980s, roughly 100,000 elephants were being killed every year by poachers. And though a global ban on ivory sales was imposed in 1989 through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an action which led to the virtual elimination of poaching, recent years have seen a significant resurgence in elephant killings.

Though Western nations had contributed significantly to enforcement efforts in the early years of the ban, this funding declined over time as the poaching problem appeared to have been solved. Meanwhile, international demand for ivory — particularly in China — did not vanish, and as enforcement weakened, organized crime flowed into the gap. Priced in the black market at only $100 in 1989, a kilogram of ivory today sells for up to $1500, and conservationists estimate that anywhere between 30,000 and 60,000 elephants a year are being killed for their tusks.

Elephant eye (May 8, 2010) 500px

The ongoing slaughter is a horrendous crime. But it is, in a way, only the most visible part of a larger tragedy, for what the mass killing is doing is altering the very nature of what it is to be an elephant, by triggering significant physical, social, and behavioural changes among the surviving animals.

Physical change is coming about through a kind of forced evolution. By killing elephants with tusks and by sparing elephants without tusks, humans are unintentionally applying selection pressure on the population. Since tuskless elephants tend to live longer than economically-valuable tusked elephants, we should expect the gene for tusklessness to become more common. “There will be a new round of evolution,” said David Western of the African Conservation Centre in Nairobi, Kenya to the New Scientist. “We are already seeing that.” Recent genetic studies of southern China’s small population of Asian elephants indicate that the tusk-free gene has doubled in prevalence to at least 5 to 10% of male elephants.

This development, if it continues, may seem at first almost like a kind of deliverance for elephants. But evolving oneself off a poacher’s target list carries costs. Tusks may be sources of decorative ivory for us, but for an elephant they are essential tools, used to dig for water and roots, to de-bark trees, and to clear paths through forest and undergrowth. Coping without any tusks in a herd may require substantial changes to elephant behaviour, both individual and social, if indeed coping turns out to be possible at all.

Behavioural changes have already occurred, though not because of tusklessness. Striking at the very foundation of elephant psychology, the loss of parents through poaching has been inflicting something akin to post-traumatic stress disorder on surviving younger elephants. A team of scientists including Dr. Gay Bradshaw of Oregon State University argued five years ago in Nature that as highly complex and social animals, elephants require significant amounts of bonding and socialization before they are able to grow into well-adjusted adults. Baby elephants bond closely with their mothers and related females (known as “allomothers”), who act like particularly doting aunts, and such bonding creates important changes in brain chemistry that help keep elephants on an even keel. What’s more, young male elephants require a further stage of socialization in the company of older males. Missing such experiences can be immensely damaging. “Wild elephants are displaying symptoms associated with human PTSD,” write the researchers. “Abnormal startle response, depression, unpredictable asocial behaviour and hyperaggression.”

Villagers in western Uganda had peaceful relations with local elephants until thirty years of poaching resulted in a population of young and poorly socialized animals. The elephants began exhibiting hostile behavior toward the humans, in 2003 even going so far as to raid a village, knocking over huts and trampling gardens. Another group of young male elephants in South Africa’s Pilanesberg Park went on a killing spree against white rhinoceroses in the area, leaving 39 of them dead. Young males without dominant older males fight and kill each other, too — in one such herd, 90% of deaths of younger males came from inter-elephant violence, as compared with 6% of deaths in healthy herds.

If these behaviours sound familiar, they should. They are the pathologies of the failed state, of the inner city ghetto — places where fathers disappear or are murdered, and where young men grow up confused and frightened and with hearts filled with rage. For ivory and cash, we have not only endangered the survival of one of the noblest of species, we have smashed the ordered societies of elephants to pieces, and have left nothing behind but grief, fury, and anarchy.

Elephant view (May 9, 2010) 500px

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