Science & Technology

Angry Young Heffalumps

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The BBC reports:

Elephants can recognise their own reflection, showing self-awareness seen before only in humans, great apes and bottlenose dolphins…

Co-researcher Frans de Waal said: "As a result of this study, the elephant now joins a cognitive elite among animals commensurate with its well-known complex social life and high level of intelligence….These parallels between humans and elephants suggest a convergent cognitive evolution possibly related to complex sociality and cooperation."

Now the bad news: Babar's on the warpath. From a New York Times Magazine article published last month:

All across Africa, India and parts of Southeast Asia, from within and around whatever patches and corridors of their natural habitat remain, elephants have been striking out, destroying villages and crops, attacking and killing human beings. In fact, these attacks have become so commonplace that a new statistical category, known as Human-Elephant Conflict, or H.E.C., was created by elephant researchers in the mid-1990's to monitor the problem. In the Indian state of Jharkhand near the western border of Bangladesh, 300 people were killed by elephants between 2000 and 2004. In the past 12 years, elephants have killed 605 people in Assam, a state in northeastern India, 239 of them since 2001; 265 elephants have died in that same period, the majority of them as a result of retaliation by angry villagers, who have used everything from poison-tipped arrows to laced food to exact their revenge. In Africa, reports of human-elephant conflicts appear almost daily, from Zambia to Tanzania, from Uganda to Sierra Leone, where 300 villagers evacuated their homes last year because of unprovoked elephant attacks….

"Everybody pretty much agrees that the relationship between elephants and people has dramatically changed," [psychologist Gay] Bradshaw told me recently. "What we are seeing today is extraordinary. Where for centuries humans and elephants lived in relatively peaceful coexistence, there is now hostility and violence."

Not content to attack people, some of the beasts have taken to killing and raping rhinos as well. There has also been an explosion of elephant-on-elephant violence: At one South African national park, "up to 90 percent of male elephant deaths are now attributable to other male elephants, compared with a rate of 6 percent in more stable elephant communities."

As we fight this two-front war against the elephants and the baboons, scientists are discovering sad and fascinating parallels between frayed pachyderm and human societies. The Times piece cites the work of Eve Abe, an animal ethologist who earned her doctorate comparing human and elephant children orphaned by Uganda's civil war. "All these kids who have grown up with their parents killed — no fathers, no mothers, only children looking after them…They have no schools, no hospitals. No infrastructure," Abe told the Times. "They form these roaming, violent, destructive bands. It's the same thing that happens with the elephants."

On a positive note, villagers in Malawi have found a non-lethal line of defense against pachyderm attacks: chili peppers. "Elephants hate the smell of chili, especially when the stems have been burnt," wildlife official Mathias Elisa told the Inter Press Service a while back. "It appears they…distance themselves from where the chili is growing." Hot peppers: Is there anything they can't do?