Friday, February 17, 2006

Elephants On The Edge Fight Back

Elephants On The Edge Fight Back

After years of trauma at the hands of humans, could Africa's elephants be
nursing a grudge?

18 February 2006

From New Scientist Print Edition.

Caroline Williams

TWO years ago the people of Bunyaruguru in western Uganda would think
nothing of cycling to the nearby township of Katwe to meet friends and do
business. Then one day a herd of elephants paid them a visit. They came
from the bush, knocked down huts and garden plots, then left with nothing
to show but a trail of destruction. Now elephants regularly block the road
to Katwe, and villagers are too afraid to cycle past.
Across Africa, elephants seem to be turning on their human neighbours in
ever increasing numbers. Although such attacks are nothing new, they have
always been seen as a side effect of elephants competing for food and
land, either as a result of population explosions or because people have
encroached on elephant territory. But that may not be the whole story.
"Elephant numbers have never been lower in Uganda. Food has never been so
abundant," says Eve Abe, who studied elephant aggression in Uganda at the
time of the Bunyaruguru attack in 2003 and now works as a wildlife and
tourism consultant based in London. "There is no reason for this to be
happening. In the 1960s elephant densities were very high and there were
few reports of aggression. Now the elephants are just so wild."
What has happened to everyone's favourite gentle giant? It may sound
far-fetched, but a growing number of scientists are lending their support
to the theory that elephants are taking revenge on humans for years of
abuse. Last year a group of eminent elephant researchers described an
"elephant breakdown" occurring all over Africa, with elephants suffering
serious psychological problems after witnessing the death of family
members or being orphaned by poaching or culls (Nature, vol 433, p 807).
Elephants are well known for being intelligent, sociable and affectionate.
Females and their young live in tight matriarchal groups, forging strong
social bonds that last a lifetime. Calves learn the ways of the world from
their mothers, aunts and cousins and, most importantly, the matriarch -
the most experienced female in the herd. Sadly, the days when elephants
were left to live in peace are long gone. Since the 1970s and 1980s, when
the ivory trade decimated wild elephant populations in Africa, poaching,
culls and translocation programmes have made their mark on generation
after generation.
Juvenile delinquents
In Uganda, poaching has slashed elephant numbers in the Queen Elizabeth
National Park
, which borders Bunyaruguru, by 90 per cent over the past 30
years. Now only 400 animals remain, a third of them under 5 years old and
many of them orphans. Across the continent, many herds have lost their
matriarch and have had to make do with a succession of inexperienced
"teenage mothers" who have raised a generation of juvenile delinquents.
Meanwhile a lack of older bulls has led to gangs of hyperaggressive young
males with a penchant for violence towards each other and other species
(Nature, vol 408, p 425). In Pilanesburg National Park, South Africa, for
example, young bulls have been attacking rhinos since 1992, and in Addo
National Park, also in South Africa, 90 per cent of male elephants are
killed by another male - 15 times the "normal" figure.
Could it be that traumatised elephants have also grown up harbouring a
grudge against humans? Joyce Poole, research director at the Amboseli
Elephant Research Project in Kenya, was one of the authors of the elephant
breakdown paper. "They are certainly intelligent enough and have good
enough memories to take revenge," she says. Poole suspects the way the
authorities are dealing with the situation may be making it worse.
"Wildlife managers may feel that it is easier to just shoot so-called
'problem' elephants than face people's wrath. So an elephant is shot
without realising the possible consequences on the remaining family
members, and the very real possibility of stimulating a cycle of
Poole and her colleagues claim that many African elephants are suffering
from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) brought on by experiencing
stress at an early age. Experiments and observations of captive animals
suggest that stress experienced during their youth can lead to
neurological and behavioural changes that resemble PTSD in humans. "[This]
could explain a suite of behaviours that have been common in captivity but
sadly now are becoming part of wild elephant behaviour," says the paper's
lead author Gay Bradshaw from Oregon State University. This may well be
the first diagnosis of PTSD in a wild animal.
It is a challenging idea, but worth considering, according to Felicity de
Zulueta, a consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital in London who
specialises in trauma therapy and grew up in Uganda with an orphaned
elephant as a pet. She points out that one cause of PTSD in humans is the
failure of a child to bond or "attach" properly with its primary carer.
Even if bonding does occur but is weak, or is later severed, children may
grow up with severe psychological problems including delinquency.
"Prematurely separating an elephant from the family tribe will have very
powerful effects in terms of the attachment system. One of these effects
would be aggression," she says. The damage is thought to occur because
bonding is vital for the healthy development of the corticolimbic region
of the brain's right hemisphere. If neurons there are not stimulated at an
early age they are lost, leaving infants unable to regulate their
emotions, vulnerable to the effects of stress and more likely to become
violent. "Elephants have a long childhood like us, so the effect may well
be similar," says de Zulueta.
Could this explain the seemingly unprovoked attack on the people of
Bunyaruguru? Abe believes it might. She compares the behaviour of Uganda's
delinquent elephants to that of young men from her own tribe, the Acholi
of northern Uganda, whom she studied for her PhD. Having witnessed
genocide in the 1970s during the Ugandan civil war, which selectively
removed the male elders from society, the children of the Acholi were left
to wander alone, traumatised and with no adult guidance. Many of these
children have grown into violent men. "This is a perfect example of family
destruction," says Abe. "Trauma persists over generations." She believes
that elephants are responding to stress in a similar way. "Either through
social learning or through neurobiology, elephants are changing over
decades of intensive and extensive stress and disturbance."
Still, it is a leap from traumatised elephants to elephants bent on
revenge - for many experts, a leap too far. "I'm sure disturbance of
elephant herds can lead to more aggressive behaviour, but as far as the
root causes of human/elephant conflicts in Africa today, I wouldn't rank
it as a top issue," says Leo Niskanen, programme manager of the World
Conservation Union (IUCN) African Elephant Specialist Group. "Generally
the main issues are things like elephant range being fragmented, corridors
being destroyed, more people settling near protected areas." Put simply,
elephants and humans just keep bumping into each other. And bumping into 5
tonnes of elephant - hyperaggressive or not - is always going to cause
Richard Lair, an Asian-elephant researcher at the National Elephant
Institute based in Thailand, agrees. The same story is being told in
India, where villagers, particularly in West Bengal, live in constant fear
of male elephants that the villagers claim attack the village for one
reason only - to kill humans. In Asia, at least, Lair puts the problems
down to too many humans and too little land, leading to competition for
resources and more encounters between elephants and humans. "I think it
comes down to encroachment," he says. "In wilderness areas where wild
elephants have no contact with human beings they are, by and large, fairly
tolerant. The more human beings they see, the less tolerant they become."
In Thailand, where papers carry regular reports of rogue animals, the
explanation is probably even more straightforward, according to Lair. When
the Thai government banned logging in the 1980s, large numbers of
elephants were made redundant. Some were sold across the border to Burma
and Laos where logging still takes place, but most now carry tourists into
the forest on treks, or work in cities where they are dressed up to entice
people to buy bananas and sugar cane to feed them. It's a lucrative
business and the lure of the tourist dollar has attracted less experienced
mahouts to sign up and have a go, often with disastrous consequences for
those who do not know how to deal with unpredictable animals. "It's now a
real issue," says Lair, "not just for the safety of the mahouts, and
thereby the public, but also for the welfare of the elephants."
The idea that elephants are suffering from PTSD and taking it out on
humans is undoubtedly controversial. Nevertheless, there is a growing
awareness that elephant psychology and their social structure must be
taken into account in future attempts to manage the animals in the wild.
With elephant numbers reaching carrying capacity in many of Africa's
national parks, Niskanen and his colleagues at the IUCN have been prompted
to come up with guidelines for translocations. They recommend that herds
be monitored long before they are moved, to ensure that the entire family
is taken. That won't be easy or cheap to implement, admits Niskanen,
especially since the measure is voluntary. "In many cases governments just
don't have the resources," he says. "In vast parts of Africa we have no
idea how many elephants there are, let alone understanding of the
intricacies of their family structures."
Even where governments do follow IUCN recommendations, elephants may still
be left traumatised, according to Bradshaw. She is particularly concerned
about the fate of elephants in the Kruger National Park, where the
population is more than double the park's carrying capacity. Passions are
running high over the South African government's plans to cull some of the
animals. No decision has yet been made, and the park's research manager
Ian Whyte is keen to point out that any cull would remove entire families,
and that leaving behind one or two family members would be unthinkable.
Bradshaw is not convinced. "It would be like taking out a district of
London and thinking the rest of the city will be fine," she says. "Do you
think they're not going to know and be affected by what has happened to
the herd next door?"
Talk of keeping elephant families united and happy may sound like a cruel
joke to anyone who has lost a loved one, had their home destroyed or crops
trampled. Like the people of Bunyaruguru, they probably just want the
elephants to go away. But as both human and elephant populations increase,
the two will have to learn to live together, and anything that can reduce
conflict must surely be embraced. Keeping elephant social groups intact
may be the best way to avoid making a bad situation worse, and to be sure
we don't end up with a monster of our own making.

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