Do they see pink humans?
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, Jan/Feb 1998:
and commanders of troops know that males
without females may start fighting and
boozing––and that’s the problem among the
elephants of eastern Bengal, reports the
Wildlife Institute of India.
Normal Indian elephant herds,
they say, consist of one male to several
females, governed by the eldest female.
Adult males usually travel apart from the
main herd when no females are in estrus,
but remain under herd rule. Bachelor elephants
are normally just the grown but not
yet mated, and the very old or dispossessed.
Few and alone, they historically kept out of
But life hasn’t been “normal” for
elephants across Southeast Asia in several
generations. A generation ago the gender
balance of the wild Indian herd from Bengal
north was skewed toward males by the
export of females to zoos and circuses.
Exports largely stopped after the
Convention on International Trade in
Endangered Species came into effect in
1972, but because females are more
tractable and easily captured than males,
two or three females are believed to have
been exported for every male.
There are now five bull elephants
in Bengal to every four females, a recent
herd census found. Rogue bulls have
formed bachelor herds, who rove like street
gangs, struggling to establish “turf” that
might attract females even as agricultural
expansion overruns their forest habitat.
Increasingly frequent stampedes
and crop raids result, worsening tensions
between elephants and farmers. Each incident
makes poor villagers more inclined to
cooperate with poachers, like the notorious
Veerappan (known only by his first name),
who kill the elephants and pay to do it.
Captures of wild elephants for
domestic use continued even after CITES,
but are are now discouraged, partly because
of a January 1989 elephant riot in the
Salboni forest, about 65 miles west of
Calcutta. Chasing a female herd that had
raided fields for about two months, a group
of villagers saw a chance to recoup their
losses when an elephant calf fell into an
open-pit well and got stuck––a valuable
prisoner. The villagers stood off Forest
Department wardens who wanted to free the
elephant for about 24 hours, until the cow
elephants returned with as many as 50 reinforcements
and began trashing huts.
Most Indians admire elephants for
bravely defending their young, and much of
India mourned in September 1996 when
three cows and two calves drowned as a 16-
member herd tried to save a three-monthold
calf from flood currents along the
Teesta River in West Bengal. The calf and
remainder of the herd were saved when the
dam keepers closed the sluice gates, at risk
of inundating fields and homes.
Always dangerous, elephant riots
turned deadly in 1990. Forty Assamese villagers
were killed that year, and 31 the
next. Studying the 1991 incidents, Assam
chief wildlife warden H.C. Changkakati
reported that in six of 17 fatal riots, the elephants
were drunk on l a o p a n i, a locally
brewed rice beer. He urged that elephants
drunkards be rounded up.
Drunken elephants drew national
note again in February 1992, after The New
Delhi Statesmen reported that a herd repeatedly
raided a West Bengal army base to
steal rum. They had learned to rip out electric
fences, douse sentry fires, and open
bottles by smashing their necks.
Six villagers were killed in
December 1992 and January 1993, when 50
elephants left the Jaldapara Wildlife
Sanctuary, 125 miles from Calcutta, during
the winter brewing season. They got within
60 miles of the city of 10 million humans
before foresters turned them around.
The bloodiest incident began in
August 1993, when a rogue male left a
bachelor herd 120 miles west of Guwahati,
and stomped 50 homes in three villages,
killing 44 people in just a night. Assam
chief wildlife warden Robin Hazarika sent
two hunters to shoot him. Then the whole
herd went berserk. Six more people and all
the elephants were killed.
But just killing elephants didn’t
stop the problem. By November 1994, at
least 74 hard-drinking elephants were raising
hell, reported the Press Trust of India,
killing four people and injuring 50 in a twoday
series of raids on remote moonshine
breweries. Another person was killed and
six hurt in a similar raid in the Midnapore
district of West Bengal in March 1995––
after which relatives of the moonshiner
whose still was attacked demanded that the
Forestry Department pay him for damages.
Wandering rogues may be spreading
the liquor habit, as by July 1997 the
Press Trust of India was reporting such
incidents as far north as Bihar. The problem
may keep moving north, as elephant
unemployment is reportedly up sharply in
Tripura, Manipur, and Arunachal Pradesh
states after crackdowns on illegal bamboo
cutting. About 100 elephants were thrown
out of work. Forty elephant handlers and
their charges protested on August 20 in
Kailasahar, the largest city in the region.
Observers feared elephants would be turned
loose––no longer fearing humans, but
knowing where the booze is, addicted to
beer sometimes by handlers as a form of
motivation––or might be massacred for
meat and ivory, as some apparently were.
To avoid having such fates befall
former government elephants, the Forest
Ministry in October 1997 announced that its
elephants will receive lifetime pensions
guaranteeing them food, shelter, and health
benefits from age 65 on. About 30 elephants
Indian Environment Ministry official
S.C. Dey warned last spring that relaxing
the decade-old CITES ban on ivory trafficking
might mean the extinction of elephants
in southern India. Poachers ran
amok there in the 1980s, killing so many
male elephants for their tusks that the gender
ratio at one Bangalore game reserve
slipped to one male per 120 cows, Asian
Elephant Conservation Center biologist
Raman Sukumar reported. Since the CITES
ban started, the number of Indian elephants
known to have been poached fell from more
than 100 a year to fewer than 50––but when
the CITES ban was eased, 30 elephants
were killed in just 60 days in Tamil Nadu
state, found researcher Vivek Menon.
In theory, the gender imbalances
in northern and southern India could be corrected
by moving males south and females
north. That will work, however, only if
poaching can be halted. Meanwhile, the
Indian government just hopes to keep the
elephants in safe reserves.
The 20,000 wild elephants and
15,000 working elephants left in India
together form about half the surviving Asian
elephant population. The wild elephants
cumulatively hold habitat the size of
California––but fragmented by logging and
farming. The resulting conflicts resemble
those surrounding bison migrations out of
Yellowstone National Park, where ranchers
also demand protection or else.
Like bison defenders, elephant
defenders are pursuing both legal and physical
response. In Tamil Nadu, the Indian
Green Party is fighting the Swami
Satchidananda Foundation over the use of
electric fencing and floodlights to protect a
boarding school at Kallar, in the Nilgiris
foothills. The Greens want the elephants to
be able to continue traditional migrations.
The SSF wants to use its property.
Near Bangalore, where farmers
killed 14 elephants between March 1996
and June 1997, the Indian Institute of
Sciences is digging a 110-mile moat to
divide protected habitat from farms––and
hoping it works.
Helping Indian elephants is the
popularity of the Hindu elephant goddess,
Ganesha. She is the goddess of obstacles,
who can either obstruct one’s path or lift
barriers. Indian law governing the treatment
of elephants, codified since circa 300
B.C., holds that kindness is the key to both
getting elephants to work and winning
Thus along the highway that transects
the Garampani Sanctuary, in Assam,
truckers who just blow their horns and drive
right at people and other animals reportedly
bribe elephants aside with bananas.