Panel Four :

Rethinking Elephants and Methods

As complex creatures, elephants often generate different meanings according to different disciplines and worldviews. This panel explores the ways this multiplicity can be leveraged and reframed to improve the understanding of elephants, its relationship with others and its future in the Anthropocene. 

This panel will be chaired by Piers Locke

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Elephants - Bridging Epistemological Boundaries?

Tarsh Thekaekara

Post Doctoral Fellow at the National Centre for Biological Sciences and Trustee of The Shola Trust.

Interdisciplinarity has been discussed extensively in the conservation literature, around the greater focus on animals than humans, or assuming nature is separate from society. But natural scientists are showing a growing interest in people and the human dimensions of wildlife, and since the "animal turn" in human geography, animals are now extensively studied by social scientists. Particularly so in India, where the human is inherently a part of ecology - people live in almost every protected area, and animals live well beyond the PA boundaries. But despite these disciplinary crossovers, there remains "a great epistemological gulf" between the approaches of the natural and critical social sciences.


Research with elephants however, adds an interesting dimension. While most of the published academic literature in the biological sciences remains positivist – with quantitative data and statistical analysis, with the researcher remaining an objective outsider. But the same researchers also present their work in the public domain in the form of books and talks, where it takes on an entirely different flavour. Elephants come alive as thinking, sentient beings, with personality and emotion, with thick descriptions of highly subjective researcher-elephant interactions, all of which is unfortunately relegated to anecdotes and not considered formal knowledge.


Are elephants forging an epistemological bridge and pushing an integration of these two kinds of representation in formal knowledge? How do embodied elephant-researcher interactions and specific anecdotes about particular elephants and ecologies add to quantitative data and abstract generalisation? Can elephants help create a body of inter-epistemological research?


The Human in The Room: Relationships and Interactions Between Humans and Elephants in Behavioural Ecology Studies

Hannah Mumby

Assistant Professor in the School for Biological Science and Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Hong Kong

Studies of elephant behavioural and evolutionary ecology in the wild, and particularly in captivity, have included involvement of and interactions with human researchers, caretakers, trainers and others. This can be viewed as problematic by biologists whose focus is on the animal. However, rather than excluding the involvement and interactions from analyses or attempting to account for any variation introduced by them as noise, it can be viewed as introducing an additional layer to behavioural ecology studies that could merit analysis in its own right. As human-elephant interactions gain increasing prominence in research, including in the framing of “coexistence” studies, the expansion of experiments and observational studies could provide opportunities to investigate these interactions through extending or reimagining paradigms that are familiar to behavioural ecologists. This could contribute to our understanding of how parallel life histories, duration of relationships, personality, modes of interaction, and learning from humans form and interact with elephant behaviour. It can also generate examples of human-elephant interactions under specific, but often reported on, conditions. Finally, particularly when considering the rising importance of co-assessment and co-production in conservation studies, this approach allows for the integration of participatory research into behavioural and evolutionary ecology.


Elephant Time: Multi-Temporality as Attunement with More-than-human Others

Kat Rahmat

PhD Candidate, School of Geography and The Environment, University of Oxford

Time is a politically malleable device and multi-temporality can be introduced to uncover new ways of reanimating epistemologically confined subjects. Focusing on Asian elephants, I explore how the concept of a poly-temporal animal temporality can expand understandings of animal agency. Viewing elephants as multi-chronometric beings, performing multi-temporal relationships with other-than-elephants, unveils a greater diversity of agential expression relational to an ‘elephant time’, viewed through three epistemic frames: The elephant’s individual experiences, its participation in trans-species histories and exposure to changing landscapes. 

Drawing from multi-disciplinary literatures across the humanities and elephant-related sciences, I explore ways ‘elephant time’ may serve as a more-than-human analytic that expands interpretations of nonhuman agency beyond the human and factors trans-species ecological knowledges and subjectivities, embedded within landscapes that are equally temporally fluid. Thinking of animal’s temporalities and critically applying ‘elephant time’ thus offers opportunities to understand how trans-species attunements are forged through time and further helps rethink concepts surrounding ‘wildness’, ‘tradition’ and ‘nature’ in human-elephant entanglements.