Contributed by Kierin Mackenzie and Dr. Piers Locke

Sheparding Lakshmi Kali and newborn calf

Humans and elephants co-evolved in Africa from earlier species. Humans have always lived alongside these amazing beings, and we share much in common with them. Both elephant and human young take a long time to mature. Both share complex social networks. Both communicate in a myriad of ways with fellow species members. Both mourn their dead.

As with humans, elephant behaviour varies through time and space via patterns of behaviour taught from generation to generation. As with humans, behaviour also adapts as conditions change, and breaking the flow of information leads to what have been similarly characterized as social problems. Therefore, just like humans, elephant behaviour can be seen as cultural.

Elephants and their kin, the mammoths, have been a successful taxonomic family, covering much of the earth, but their numbers declined as human populations increased, with co-existence in some areas, and extinction in others. We are the main driver pushing them towards extinction. We are wiping them out, generation by generation. Elephant numbers plummeted throughout the 20th century, and although there are success stories, the trend is downwards, as we kill them for their tusks, drive them out of their homes, and fight them for our crops (Choudhury et al. 2008).

It isn’t all doom and gloom, however. Over the generations of human-elephant co-existence, there have been many examples of humans and elephants getting along. We appear to have formed direct working relationships with elephants over 5000 years ago in India (Lahiri-Choudhury, 1995) and in order to maintain their numbers for use in warfare, construction, logging and entertainment, we have in the past set aside areas for them, passed laws, and found other ways for giving room to them.

Whilst we have tamed elephants, we have never domesticated them (Kurt 2006). Friendly and compliant as they may sometimes be, they always remain wild, and an adult elephant can kill a human easily. We take them captive, but we are ultimately in their care in any working relationship. We need to find ways of living with them, and one way is to document successful relations between them and us.

Satya Narayan & Paras Gaj

Because of the long history of interaction, and the complexity of engagement, a wide range of techniques have been used to study elephants and humans in the past. From India has emerged the Gajahshastra, a genre of literature of great antiquity concerning knowledge pertaining to the management of elephants dating back to the fifth or sixth century BCE (Sukumar 1994), and with other writings on elephants like the Rig Veda dating back 4000 years (Radhakrishna and Sinha, 2010).

Veterinarians, biologists, ecologists, poets, philosophers, saints, and others have long told stories about elephants, investigated their behaviour and morphology, and speculated on the nature of their being. There are gaps, however. There always are.

A multidisciplinary approach would be fruitful. A new approach to the study of human-primate interactions, shared space, and co-ecologies has blossomed in the field known as ethnoprimatology (Fuentes 2010). We argue that something similar for human-elephant relations is needed, something we call ethnoelephantology. We contend that the perspectives of ethnozoology and ethnoecology, applied to elephants, can not only bring clarity to the manifold ways in which humans interact with elephants and make them meaningful, but also make a positive contribution to elephant conservation and elephant welfare.

Ethnoecology can be seen as “…concerned with the interaction between knowledge, practice, and production and is oriented toward applied research on conservation and community development” (Martin 2001), and the beginnings of such work from an elephant centric perspective has begun.

Ethnozoology, focussing on the interactions between various cultural groups of our species with other non-human animals is a field ripe for further differentiation and cross pollination. Our own research inaugurates this nascent sub-field of ethnoelephantology through ethnographic and historical research into captive elephant management, which can be complemented by incorporating the ecological and cognitive dimensions of the human-elephant nexus.

Currently, the documentation of Indigenous knowledge about elephants is inadequate, despite Indigenous peoples being highlighted as making the some of the best mahouts with long and ancient traditions (Lair 1997, Kurt 2006). Traditional territories of Indigenous peoples continue to be the homes of some of the healthiest populations of wild elephants. The range of information that cultures with strong connections with elephants accumulate needs to be brought to the centre of elephant studies.

Elephant teams going off to graze

Piers Locke has been working with elephant handlers in the lowland Tarai of Nepal since 2001. His research has focussed on the history of Nepali captive elephant management (Locke 2008, 2011a), apprenticeship learning, professional identity formation, and the significance of ritual practice and religious belief in the occupational subculture of the elephant stable as an enclaved, total institution (Locke 2007, Hart and Locke 2007, Locke 2011b).

His film Servants of Ganesh (Dugas and Locke 2010), is a portrait of the lives of humans and elephants and the practice of training juveniles at the Khorsor stable in the Chitwan National Park. In relation to the developing field of multispecies ethnography (Kirksey and Helmreich 2010), he is currently writing on elephant training at the Khorsor Elephant Breeding Centre as a multispecies rite of passage for both trainer and elephant, and on the fluid and multiple status of elephants as animals, persons, and gods as they articulate with the relational modalities of domination, companionship, and veneration.

His most recent field research has investigated the role of foreign NGOs in humane elephant training programmes and in the treatment of elephant tuberculosis. He is currently developing a new project on historical photography and human-elephant relations in South Asia.

Kierin Mackenzie, in turn is at the beginnings of work in Southern India with mahouts in government camps where the practitioners are largely Adivasi. He is working out fieldwork plans for documenting the knowledge, practices and belief systems of traditional elephant experts at these camps, who are known for their expertise with captive elephants and who come from a cultural milieu familiar with wild elephants and the landscape they live in.

His previous work documenting traditional land use of First Nations in Canada has led him to an approach that will place some emphasis on the spatial and temporal dynamics of this knowledge, in an effort to add depth to other elephant studies in the area.

For this he plans to apply the Use and Occupancy methodology as outlined by Tobias (2000, 2009). Such an approach for gathering detailed traditional knowledge of a single species has been shown to be effective before in the work of Ferguson et al. (2012).

Cutting Narayani Kali’s toenails

The constituents for an ethnoelephantology are already present. Raman Sukumar has focussed on the history of elephant human relations with his book “The Story of Asia’s Elephants” (2011), and has spent years analysing human-elephant conflict, and Asian Elephant ecology. Jamie Lorimer has looked at the biogeography of human-elephant relations. Surendra Varma has looked at the welfare of elephants and the correlations with different methods of care. Richard Lair called for the need for more social scientists to study the skills and knowledge of indigenous mahouts throughout their range (1997). These are but a few of the researchers currently working in this area.

In order to make sure that elephants get a fair chance of making it to the 22nd century, understanding the interrelations between humans and elephants is critical. In order to provide the respect and quality of life our fellow beings deserve requires that we take the utmost pains in finding out under what conditions elephants are healthiest, and how best humans can facilitate the maintenance of these conditions.

What works in one area may not work in another, but we have an ethical obligation to both humans and elephants to find ways of creating and maintaining spaces where both species can thrive, and where interactions are more beneficial than detrimental.

We argue that a multidisciplinary approach through the formulation of an ethnoelephantology can be an effective strategy to document previously workable solutions, and to thereby make recommendations for adaptive forms of human-elephant interactions in the future.


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