Panel Two :

Wild Perspectives, Wild Affects,

Wild Relations

At the fringe of forest and field, interactions between human and elephant communities can be highly charged, affective exchanges shaped by historical, cultural, and political factors. Stress and fear can often grip both sides and drive these relations in problematic directions. These presentations are attuned to how these two emotional and social animals think and perceive each other, exploring ways of conceptualising the cross-species flow of affect and methods for reconfiguring the wild human-elephant relation.


The panel will be chaired by Paul Keil, from the Department of Ecological Anthropology, Institute of Ethnology, Czech Academy of Sciences.


How Affect Shapes and is Shaped by Human-elephant Relations in Cropped Areas of Sri Lanka   

Elizabeth Oriel

Bloomsbury Scholar at School of Oriental and African Studies and Royal Veterinary Medicine

While studying human-elephant relations and conflict in two agricultural regions of Sri Lanka, farmers would often speak to me of their emotional responses to elephants and the emotions they ascribe to elephants. Living with elephants, I could see, involves a complex exchange of emotional responses to one another within almost daily encounters, each species likely navigating a range of feelings that may include fear, anger, mistrust, acceptance, empathy, concern, and more. These emotional responses, affect flowing through encounters, can dictate and leave trails for future encounters. Communicating emotions is a primary form of exchange, as farmers speak to elephants with pleading, at times with blame, heralding a long tradition of songs and poems spoken between the human and more-than-human in Sri Lanka. The forces that dictate affect are complex, as are localized interspecies conflicts, and contain atmospheres, body parts, climate, hi/stories, power/privilege/resistance, and synergies of loss and struggle. This paper examines elements of affect and states of being that flow through and help shape trans-species encounters; affect and encounters follow and trace flows across social fields and soils, blurring distinctions and bringing attention to how the global dialogues with the local.

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Human-elephant Conflict: Operant Conditioning - It's Not Just For Zoos

Erin Ivory

The Asian elephant, Elephas maximus, is widely revered around the world as a symbol of strength, intelligence, and in some cultures, god-like. Population numbers continue to decline and the Asian elephant has been listed as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, IUCN, despite the reverence held by many cultures. One of the main reasons for the decline is competition for local space and resources which has resulted in human-elephant conflict. For over forty years, different strategies for mitigating human-elephant conflict have been devised, most of which involves creating fear through the use of aversive techniques like fire crackers or electric fences to keep elephants out of human spaces and away from croplands. These
aversive and punishment based techniques have not been effective in changing elephant behavior such as crop raiding, and has actually increased the intensity of human-elephant interaction, leading to the death of many elephants and humans alike.  We will explore how elephants think and learn, how human behavior contributes to the escalation of conflict, and why current methods for mitigating human-elephant conflict have failed. All behavior can be modified and this paper will further discuss how the correct use of operant conditioning techniques will be more effective in creating behavior change, human and elephant, and lead to a decrease in frequency and intensity of human-elephant conflict.


But What’s the Elephant Thinking? A Place for Comparative Psychology and Animal Behavior in Human-wildlife Conflict Mitigation

Joshua M. Plotnik & Sarah L. Jacobson

Hunter College & The Graduate Center, City University of New York 

While attempts to mitigate conflict between humans and elephants are widespread in Asia and Africa, remarkably, few strategies have seen long-term success across multiple landscapes. This is likely due to the focus on fear conditioning or attempts to physically prevent elephants from entering cropfields or human habitation. The problem with these approaches is that they neglect the elephants’ perspective in the conflict; specifically, they fail to account for the elephants’ behavioral and ecological needs, as well as their capacity for behavioral flexibility when faced with rapid environmental change. Thus, our research aims to take into consideration the elephants’ perspective in conflict, with particular attention to collecting data on how individual differences in elephant behavior, or personality, may impact the presence or intensity of human-elephant interactions. Our project focuses on a population of approximately 300 Asian elephants in and around the Salakpra Wildlife Sanctuary in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. We hypothesize that there may be reliable individual behavioral differences between elephants based on their propensity to raid crops or to remain safely inside protected areas. We will present an overview of our approaches to collecting a complement of observational and experimental data on wild elephants, with particular attention to our identification of individual elephants and data from an initial investigation of elephant interactions with cognition puzzle boxes deployed inside the sanctuary. Variation in behavior and demonstrations of cognition observed between the elephants may have implications for future conflict mitigation by providing wildlife managers with behavioral profiles of risk-taking elephants. We hope that by using the lens of behavior and cognition, this work can build a foundation for more effective solutions that promote human-elephant coexistence.


The Political and Affective Ecologies of Human-Elephant Relations: A Gendered Perspective

Sayan Banerjee & Anindya Sinha

School of Natural Sciences and Engineering, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, India

Anindya Sinha, In Lockdown, Bangalore, M

The behavioural relations between humans and wild Asian elephants at the forest-farmland interfaces are both political and affective. The political ecology of these relations stems from the spatio-temporal ordering of land and livelihoods, emanating from power negotiations between different actors, both human and nonhuman. While the political and affective ecologies of human-elephant interactions have been studied in their own right across the Indian subcontinent, the connections between them remain explicitly unexplored. We study how the embodied encounters between humans and wild elephants in northeastern India, manifest through the interpersonal flow of affects, shape the political decisions related to their coexistence and shared lifeworlds. Such politics, in turn, give rise to the development of novel perceptions in wild elephants and humans towards one another. In this context, we propose gender as an entry point to understand these connections closely, at least from the human perspective. 

Access to space and natural resources, mediated by division of labour, is essentially gendered in the Global South. Thus, the sharing of lifeworlds between humans and elephants spontaneously entails a gendering of the ensuing interactions, impacts and the varied responses to elephants in varied situational contexts. This then leads to gendered perceptions and knowledge of wild elephants, which shape the patterns of coexistence between the two species. Our attempts to encompass these novel, interdisciplinary approaches to understand the gendering of the human-elephant interface has important implications for the management of human-elephant relations and the conservation of the wild Asian elephant in the Indian subcontinent of tomorrow.