Rethinking human-elephant relations in South Asia


Piers Locke and Jane Buckingham, Oxford University Press blog

Date Published

Throughout history and across cultures elephants have amazed and perplexed us, acquiring a plethora of meanings and purposes as our interactions have developed. They have been feared and hunted as wild animals, attacked and killed as dangerous pests, while also laboring for humans as vehicles, engineering devices, and weapons of war. Elephants have also been exploited for the luxury commodity of ivory, laughed at as objects of entertainment, and venerated as subjects of myth and symbolism. Throughout history humans have forged deeply effective connections with elephants, both as intimate companions and as spectacles of wonder.

Clearly, we do not wish to see the elephant disappear from the world, and conversations about elephant welfare and conservation are also conversations about what it is to be humans in relations with elephants. Even as the compartmentalizing character of Western knowledge systems have achieved dominance, it has become increasingly difficult to treat the elephant merely as an animal occupying its own habitat. It strays into our own both spatially and conceptually. Our lives have intersected and our worlds have been forged through reciprocal influence, both direct and indirect. Elementary as this observation may seem, the impossibility of sustaining the elephant as an animal-other occupying a separate spatial and categorical domain presents us with some very profound challenges, not just for how we live with elephants, but also for how we think with them. Neither their nature, nor our culture can be explained without the other, whether it is the distribution of tusked males in regions with histories of selective hunting and capture, or warring kingdoms in which the elephant represented a crucial battlefield technology.

Indeed, elephants problematize the distinguishing coordinates of natural animals and cultural humans around which our expert disciplinary knowledges have been elaborated. This reaches its apogee in specializations that variously understand the elephant through the lens of the sciences and the humanities, typically producing distinct practices and isolated conversations conducted in expert languages with limited commensurability.

Consequently, while we have described myriad forms of inter-species encounter involving humans, elephants, and their environments, we have also produced multiple forms of expert knowledge which we struggle to integrate. Furthermore, these forms of knowledge, or at least the academically dominant ones, until recently rarely treated elephants in anything but generic terms, tending to ignore their varied dispositions negotiating relationships with creatures like ourselves. If we admit that understanding human-elephant relations across space and through time requires combined consideration of their social, historical, and ecological aspects, then how might we expect the literary expert on Sanskrit elephant lore to meaningfully communicate with the biological expert on elephant behaviour or the anthropological expert on captive elephant management? How might we bring the voice of local expert practitioners into the conversation? And if we admit that elephants have cognitive, communicative, and social capacities for exercising agency in individually distinctive ways (as other knowledge traditions remind us), then how might we better understand how particular elephants and particular humans engage each other?

With an agenda that is inextricably practical and conceptual, this concern with using the figure of the elephant and the problems our relations with it present in order to rethink how humans live with other life forms in shared environments, is but one example of a much broader shift that some are calling ‘The Multispecies Turn’. Taking the human off its pedestal of ontological singularity and reasserting its interdependent agency among the social and ecological activity of other life forms, it is significant that this attempt to think beyond the human and with the nonhuman is occurring in a period of planetary change marked by human influence that many are now calling ‘The Anthropocene’.

Somewhat ironically then, it is just as we are finding cause to designate a geological ‘age of man’ that we are rediscovering the need to undo our conceits of conceptual segregation, to assess all life together, and to attend to the life-ways through which human and nonhuman species encounter and influence each other. Crucially, this is occurring in the humanities as well as the natural sciences, through attempts to make different forms of knowledge articulate with each other. Such a move to reconfigure our fundamental intellectual coordinates is already proving productive.

For elephants this means acknowledging their historically emergent life-ways, their individual and group biographies, and their entangled role in our social and environmental ordering processes, just as we do for humans as social beings making their world in the course of experiencing and inhabiting it with others. By attempting to combine the perspectives of the social and the natural sciences, and by attending to the actual experiences of humans and elephants in relation with each other, we are beginning to do away with our species-centric prejudices, recognizing that humans are not the only thinking, feeling, and decisive agents at play in our world.

The implications of this kind of rethinking of human-elephant relations are potentially radical, and an attempt to create an intellectual space that breaches disciplinary silos, that encourages interdisciplinary collaboration, and that better attends to the world-making  subjectivities of humans and elephants is emerging under the rubric of ‘ethnoelephantology’.

Might a less anthropocentric perspective enable us to begin transforming those values and convictions that seem so implicated in the anthropogenic crises we have brought upon the planet and its life-support systems? Might greater attention to the generative complexities of humans’ and elephants’ intersecting life-ways direct us toward new ways of thinking about an inter-species relationship that has become increasingly problematic? And might this help us learn to live well with a charismatic herbivore that is so valued in the cultures of South Asia?

Featured image credit: “The elephants and their drivers depart for a day of grazing and bathing, Khorsor Elephant Breeding Center, Chitwan, Nepal, 2011”. Image by Piers Locke, used with permission.

Piers Locke teaches anthropology at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. In 2015, he was a fellow at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, Munich, Germany.

Jane Buckingham teaches history at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. She specializes in Indian history and has published on Indian colonial and post-colonial medicine and law, and on ancient Indian models of business ethics.