BOOKS: Elephants & Ethics

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2008:
(Actual publication date 11-5-08.)

Elephants & Ethics:
Toward a Morality of Coexistence
Edited by Christen Wemmer & Catherine A. Christen
Johns Hopkins University Press (2715 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218), 2008. 483 pages, hardcover. $75.00.

We have been defining our relationships with the elephants for as long as we have been people, opens John Seidensticker in his preface to Elephants & Ethics: Toward a Morality of Coexistence. When discussing the ethics of human/elephant relationships, he adds, we should keep in mind a historical reality: In any confrontation, elephants almost always lose.
Seidensticker in the next several paragraphs traces the 3,000-year retreat of wild elephants from Beijing to the Myanmar border. As rice cultivation enabled the rise of civilization in China, the conversion of former lowland forests to paddies steadily reduced elephant habitat.

Elephants within the human epoch have thrived only at the edges of the human range, but humans now dominate every habitat where wild elephants live.
About a third of all Asian elephants now live in captivity, causing Seidensticker to suggest that the Asian elephant species may be sliding into domesticity like camels, if not to extinction, because we are nearing the end game for elephants living and working in zoos and circuses in the hospice stage, characterized by the recent movement of elephants into sanctuaries, where all efforts to breed them are abandoned, while former elephant exhibition venues are closed and dismantled.
African elephants are believed to be more difficult to keep in captivity than their Asian kin, and are therefore fewer, with so very few captive males that some experts question whether African elephants could be maintained at all from zoo and circus stock.
Though African elephants remain abundant in protected habitat in parts of their native range, most African wildlife agencies are struggling to keep diminished national elephant herds, even as many of the citizens of their nations work just as hard to keep the few remaining wild elephants from consuming crops, destroying homes, and trampling any humans who get in the way.
Even an elephant who is just happily being an elephant can be as menacing as an enraged hippopotamus or a hungry tiger, lion, crocodile, or polar bear. The threat is compounded by the herd behavior of elephants, and the testosterone-fueled rages of bull elephants in musth. Few species are more difficult to live with; yet the intelligence of elephants has for millennia inspired many humans to try to find ways to accommodate elephants, instead of just killing them off.
Putting elephants to work may have been initially just a pragmatic alternative to killing them, but even the earliest Indian and Chinese texts on elephant keeping mingled practical and ethical advice.
Though elephants are abused in capture and habituation to human command, they are more easily and safely coaxed than goaded. A well-treated elephant will often work as a partner with a mahout who is attentive to the elephant s needs, and will grieve if the mahout dies or leaves the elephant.
The practice of elephant keeping has accordingly evolved as a sort of bad cop / good cop juxtaposition, in which a young elephant is initially subjected to deliberate mistreatment, including beatings and deprivation of food, but is supposed to be well-treated ever afterward, unless willfully disobedient.
Perhaps the most essential part of the training process is teaching the elephant that life with humans requires living within a framework of rules, which includes some rules that are beneficial to the elephant.
Humans probably first contemplated ethical behavior toward animals in evolving our relationship with dogs, but working with elephants required working with animals of extraordinary memory, as well as physical strength. While dogs may be infinitely forgiving, elephants can hold a grudge throughout a lifespan as long as human lives.
Controlling elephants is in large part a matter of convincing them that they are fairly treated by their handlers, even when punished. Though physically dominating an elephant is possible through use of restraints, and is where much abuse occurs, it is not practical to simultaneously restrain the elephant and get the elephant to work.
The 22 essays comprising Elephants & Ethics: Toward a Morality of Coexistence evolved out of papers presented at a 2003 symposium hosted by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums entitled Never Forgetting: Elephants and Ethics.
Several contributors, including Lori Alward, Jane Garrison, and David Hancocks, oppose keeping elephants in captive situations, at least as they have so far existed.
Other contributors, especially those who discuss elephants in the wild, are acutely aware that the wild now consists of increasingly limited habitats, surrounded by human development. There are only a handful of places, worldwide, to extend and enlarge wild elephant range. Because elephant range is finite, limiting the elephant population to what the range can sustain is essential.
The issue is not whether the wild elephant population will be controlled, but how. Methods include culling for ivory and hides, trophy hunting, poaching, outraged neighbors of elephant habitat shooting and poisoning rogue elephants, and applications of birth control techniques which show promise in some situations but are yet to be perfected and broadly accepted.
Along the way, some questions need to be answered that none of the Elephants & Ethics contributors even seem to have asked.
For example, elephant depredation tends to be as destructive as it is because elephants are not only very large animals, but also tend to live in either matriarchal herds of a dozen or more, sometimes guarded by dominant bulls, or in smaller but thoroughly unruly bachelor herds, rarely including mature males.
Has such gender imbalance and distribution always been the norm among elephants, or is it the result of centuries of ivory hunting, poaching, and culling?
If gender balance was established, would fecundity slow?
Would female elephants remain in large matriarchal herds, with dominant bulls thwarting the mating ambitions of younger bulls, or would elephant family life shift into paired relationships or small herds, as among deer and some elephants in remote places where there is more gender balance?
Would young male elephants be less rowdy if they had female companionship?
To what extent are elephant problems actually relationship problems created by human exploitation?
Could species-appropriate social work ease conflicts where fences, rifles, ropes, and the ankus have failed?
If elephants can survive only in quasi-captivity, in limited numbers, in African and Asian national parks, can they be educated and acculturated to accept the equivalent, for their species, of urban living?
Asian elephants, after all, have learned to live in human urban situations for many centuries. Though their adaptation is imperfect, and they often get into trouble in cities, the remarkable aspect may be that they manage to live at all in crowded streets amid unfamiliar humans and speeding cars.
If they can do that, can they learn to teach themselves what they need to know to live in relative freedom?

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