Killer Elephants in India: Why They Attack

Four elephants tore down the streets of the Indian city of Mysore June 8, killing a man. According to news reports from India, they had become separated from their herd after villagers threw rocks at them.

One of those elephants ended up in city streets, where it trampled the man and killed several cows. 

Elephants are generally regarded as gentle giants. Why would they become enraged to the point of killing?

"From the video, it looked to me like the elephants were young males who had been separated from their herd," Mike Keele, director of elephant habitats at the Oregon Zoo, told Life's Little Mysteries. "Young males can form these bachelor groups which are like little gangs."

Keele adds that humans can share the blame with the pachyderms: As elephants get squeezed into smaller and smaller spaces by humans, they will often wander into human places just for survival – looking for food and water. If the villagers tried to chase them from their fields, elephants easily could end up scared and desperate in the streets of a city. [Read: Are Elephants Really Afraid of Mice?]

When the elephants rampaged in Mysore, Keele says, they were probably just lashing out and trying to get away from perceived attacks, a sort of aggressive defensive tactic. "In a situation where an elephant is frightened and frantic, anything that moves is fair game. The elephant's thought process is: 'It moves and therefore it's a threat to me.'"

Stressed-out elephants

Other experts see a deeper level of traumatic injury in human/elephant conflicts. "Incidents like this show the extent to which elephants are being driven to madness by human violence," says Gay Bradshaw, an elephant behavior expert who wrote the book 'Elephants on the Edge' (Yale University Press, October, 2009). "That's scientifically documented, consistent with what we know from research in neuroscience, psychology and psychiatry."

Bradshaw says elephants are simply reacting as people would when under siege. People are shooting, spearing, poisoning the big animals: "From a psychologist's perspective, that's trauma. If you look at elephants and people, that's the same thing we see with people under siege and genocide."

Bradshaw likens the conflict between humans and elephants to colonialism, with the people taking over the elephants' indigenous culture, and with "elephants fighting to keep their culture and their society as they are pushed into smaller places and killed outright."

Part of the conflict is simply over resources. In Asia, there are between 35,000 and 50,000 elephants — and an enormous human population. By comparison, elephants in Africa number 600,000, and the human population is lower than in Asia.

Elephants need a large space to roam, with lots of vegetation and abundant water supplies to help them digest all that roughage. When those areas are taken up with human crops, elephants are happy to adjust to eating corn or other plants meant for people. Sometimes they become a bit too happy with human foods: They will enter villages and destroy huts or houses if they smell food, says Marshall Jones, senior conservation adviser at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

Jones has analyzed the number of fatalities in human/elephant conflict zones. He estimates that in India up to 300 people die from elephants per year, and as many as 200 elephants per year are killed in the conflict.

"It's actually amazing how tolerant people in Asia are towards elephants already," he said. "If there were an animal in the United States that was killing hundreds of people per year, it would be gone."

Still, these experts agree it's up to humans to promote harmony. One idea, according to Keele, is to put fences around human villages instead of around elephant areas: Confine the people, not the animals.

Bradshaw says people need to stop committing violent acts against elephants, take down roads and railroads that cause deaths, and create better elephant corridors with enough food and water so the animals don't need to wander into human areas.

"Humans are very plastic as a species," she says. "The only thing we lack is willpower."

This story was provided by Life'sLittleMysteries, sister site to LiveScience.

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