Elephants on the attack

Charles Siebert of the Times had a story this weekend about aggression by young bull elephants. It has a name now, HEC (human-elephant conflict). And it has taken a chilling turn:

Still, it is not only the increasing number of these incidents that is causing alarm but also the singular perversity -- for want of a less anthropocentric term -- of recent elephant aggression. Since the early 1990's, for example, young male elephants in Pilanesberg National Park and the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve in South Africa have been raping and killing rhinoceroses; this abnormal behavior, according to a 2001 study in the journal Pachyderm, has been reported in "a number of reserves" in the region. In July of last year, officials in Pilanesberg shot three young male elephants who were responsible for the killings of 63 rhinos, as well as attacks on people in safari vehicles. In Addo Elephant National Park, also in South Africa, 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.

Personally, I think that 6 percent is impressively high -- that is a huge toll in a species with such long life histories.

In human deaths:

In the Indian state 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.

It's a long story that goes into the study of elephant social behavior and relates psychological trauma in elephants to the mechanisms underlying it in humans. There's also a fascinating account of the time that a man-killing circus elephant was hanged (yes, hanged) for the crime.

UPDATE (10/10/2006): From Reuters:

Indians flee as elephants search for dead friend
RANCHI, India - Thousands of people in eastern India have fled their homes in fear as elephants crash through villages looking for one of their herd, which fell into a ditch and drowned over the weekend, officials said Tuesday.
Residents of Banta in Jharkhand state gave the 17-year-old female elephant a quiet burial three days ago, but 14 marauding elephants have been raiding the village ever since.

I find it eerily creepy the way that the journalists in these stories have chosen to anthropomorphize the elephants. Now, to be sure the elephant reactions may well involve a very similar psychological process to humans in similar situations (loss of companions, crowding in unfamiliar habitat). But here they are described in almost exactly the same terms that one would describe humans in the same situation (fighting off encroaching development, dealing with losses at the hands of other people):

With forest cover dwindling in eastern India, elephants and other animals regularly leave their forest homes in search of food, triggering conflict with locals.

The description of the rhino-raping is one of the few elements that really stand out as inhuman, and that's why it is so striking. But these stories have a very consistent theme, and it is a theme taken straight from Edgar Rice Burroughs. Somebody should teach these journalists better.