Panel One :

Negotiating with Giants

In the first of two panels on wild elephant relations, presenters examine the problem of "conflict" through media analysis, long term interdisciplinary data, life stories, and indigenous traditions. The papers foreground the importance of accounting for individual behaviour and cultural variation when understanding how human and elephant negotiate living together both in a shared landscape and through the challenges of the Anthropocene.

This panel will be chaired by Maan Barua, University Lecturer from the Department of Geography, Cambridge University.

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The Elephant in The Room: The Role and Management of Individual Elephants in Conservation Conflicts

Lauren Evans

Director of Conservation Science at Space for Giants

Elephant conservation conflict in particular crop-raiding, is a significant and complex conservation problem wherever elephants and people occupy the same space. The generic literature on these conflicts is ecological:  elephants raid crops at specific times, in specific places.  This paper will examine this conflict as a problem of individuals:  crop-raiding is not carried out by all elephants at random, it is carried out by specific elephants living, eating and behaving in specific ways in specific places.  Elephant conservation conflict is highly emotive, highly political and can be highly personal against individual elephants.  The paper will draw on ten years worth of interdisciplinary data from conservation research and practice in Laikipia on a population of African elephants. These elephants are proficient crop-raiders.  So much so that the landscape has been divided into a place for elephants and a place for people by an electrified fence.  Yet individual elephants have managed to break the fence, pushing wildlife managers to use other methods to reduce conflicts that target specific elephants.  We will examine the process and consequences of the individualisation of elephants and will look at how individual elephants have been targeted by and responded to conflict mitigation interventions.

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The Farmer with an Elephant Bride: Human-Elephant Relations in Peninsular Malaysia

Teckwyn Lim

Human-elephant (Elephas maximus) interactions in Peninsular Malaysia are shaped by an ecology that has evolved since the arrival of modern humans about 70,000 years ago. As sympatric megafauna, the relationship between humans and elephants is complex and involves elements of predation, competition, commensalism and even a degree of mutualism. Asian elephants stand out as a remarkable case of megafauna that has escaped extinction from hunting and habitat loss. Elephant survival might be connected with their ‘taboo’ character among some traditional communities (particularly the Orang Asli). I review the traditional relationship of the main indigenous groups and report findings from a series of interviews with members of several Orang Asli groups to examine the affecting their attitudes towards elephants and tolerance of crop-raiding. My results suggest that traditionally hunter-gather groups including the Jahai and the Chewong have taboos against hunting and eating elephants which contrasts with the swidden-farming Senoi Temiar that occasionally will kill and eat an elephant that is persistently engaging in crop-raiding. This variability between Malaysia's ethnic groups reinforces the need for wildlife management plans to take account of cultural variability rather than making blanket prescriptions


The Elephant in the Press Room: Disentangling Hidden Topics from 15 years of Asian Elephant News Coverage

Gilles Maurer

Beauval Nature, Center for Evolutionary and Functional Ecology–CNRS, France

The analysis of media coverage is of particular interest for studying perceptions and attitudes towards wildlife as media contribute in shaping public opinion of wild species conservation and human-wildlife interactions. We investigated how media portrayed the Asian elephant, an emblematic and endangered species, both feared and revered. Using a combined approach of text mining and linguistic analysis on a corpus of 11000 news articles dealing with Asian elephants, we found that media are relaying a multifaceted image of the species with various framings and valences.

Most prevalent topics were local events, such as damages on properties and fields, villagers’ or elephants’ deaths. Medias also covered a broad range of topics from international traffic to management schemes undertook by officials and NGOs to mitigate conflicts or promote conservation. Event-driven reports were anchored in spatial and temporal lexicon, recounting elephant encounters and their specific behaviours, quoting inhabitants with a highly emotional narrative. On the contrary, issue-oriented articles depicted a more distant representation of human-elephant interactions focusing on global trends and management schemes, sourcing NGOs informants or scientists while using more technical and sanitized lexicon. The discrepancy in the narrative between event-driven and thematic-oriented articles may be troubling for the public. Our study suggests that episodic articles rather highlighted the emotional response to damages caused by individual elephants rather than the demonization of the species. Instead of ignoring fear and trauma, NGOs and managers should better acknowledge them before it fosters other sentiments such as anger and frustration that may impede conservation efforts.

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The Wild Calling: The Lives and Times of the Millennial Elephants in the Human  Landscapes of Southern India

Nishant M Srinivasaiah and Anindya Sinha

The Frontier Elephant Programme, Foundation for Ecological Research, Advocacy and  Learning, Bangalore, India 

Anindya Sinha, In Lockdown, Bangalore, M

A millennial male elephant, Airavat, culturally more urban than his forest cousins, traverses a production landscape, once a forest but now teeming with people and infrastructure, trying to come to terms with his new lived spaces and the novel experiences that drive him. A world very different from what his ancestors once roamed in and what he now remembers as a wild calling. Although bountiful, this is dangerous territory. Airavat is not at all welcome in these human-dominated areas, his presence often leading to the loss of property and at times, human lives. The stakes are thus high and most millennial males die while a fortunate few disperse into their ancestral forests. Ironically, those that manage to adapt to their unusual life amongst humans are eventually captured. Life in captivity is about more people, more infrastructure, detrimental experiences of life under people, never alongside them. While some males ultimately submit to this desolation, individuals like Airavat often give up.  

The complex interplay of agricultural expansion, industrial development and intense urbanisation, the India of the new millennium, has created elephants, who have had no option but to develop novel behavioural strategies as they try to live alongside humans. No longer revered as were their ancestors, the loss of these ‘outlier’ males leads to the erosion of  the very behavioural adaptability that may have helped people and elephants coexist in the  future. In this paper, we discuss the fateful lives and times of the millennial elephant males  and their turbulent interactions with the rapidly changing, unforgiving environments that  seem inevitable in the Anthropocene of today.