Helping and harming: Asia’s complex relationship with elephants
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Helping and harming: Asia’s complex relationship with elephants

HISTORICALLY, humanity’s association with the animal kingdom has been one tied to survival. We hunt and farm them for food, use them for work and sometimes kill them out of fear, competition or sport. Since industrialization, we have greatly exploited them for profit. On balance, rarely do we actually help them.

Amazing history

Our relationship with elephants may be the most remarkable among all human-animal dynamics. In the ancient world, we used them in wars, as transportation and beasts of burden — and even as construction workers. The elephant is most likely the smartest, most powerful and most dangerous animal that humanity has ever harnessed. And we’ve used their power for an incredibly long time — at least as far back as the civilization of the Indus Valley several thousand years ago.

Does the modern world have room for elephants?

Things were never great for those elephants that served the needs of people, but with the advent of the usual suspects — colonization, industrialization, globalization and capitalism — things got a lot worse for the world’s largest surviving land mammal. Sport hunting and — catastrophically — hunting for ivory, along with expanding human populations and the loss of elephant habitats, has crippled elephant numbers.

Asian Elephants once roamed throughout large parts of China and the Middle East as well as on the island of Java, but are now extinct in all these territories. In the past 6-7.5 decades total Asian elephant numbers are estimated to have halved, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUNC). A single decade (1979-1989) was all it took for a population of as many as 3 million African elephants to decline by as much as 80 percent, with numbers as of 2012 hovering around 450,000.

Asia’s elephants are abused and feared, but also loved

Elephants in Asia continue to be worked for entertainment, transportation and menial labor. They increasingly come into conflict with farmers and villagers in India due to habitat loss, isolation and environmental degradation. Elephants kill about 300 people each year in India alone.

Nonetheless, we can see a lot of goodwill towards these majestic giants, in Asia and beyond. While international efforts have focused on combating the ivory trade, there are projects and actions to conserve elephants and improve their welfare across Asia, including the recent rescue of 22 circus elephants in the Indian city of Pune.

From Australia’s ABC News:

Wildlife SOS, PETA, India’s Apex Animal Protection Organization, police and forest departments joined forces to confiscate the animals after claims of cruelty were raised against the circus, which has been operating since 1991.

Meanwhile, award-winning environmental journalist Sangita Iyer’s documentary Gods in Shackles, which depicts the plight of abused temple elephants in the Indian state of Kerala, has already garnered several awards and significant international attention.

An example of a more spontaneous variety of goodwill is this video showing a team of locals rescuing a baby elephant who had fallen down an uncovered drain in the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota. The calf’s mother waited impatiently while she was kept at bay with smoke bullets. The two will be reunited after the calf is given a clean bill of health.

Still, what with rampant poaching and elephant-killing Australian lawmakers, the scales of animal justice are far from even. You can’t even blame this African bull for charging the ‘Governator’.

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