When Americans stop to think about elephants at all we usually envision a circus or a zoo. One of the first phrases a child learns when visiting either locale is “playful pachyderm” and not “plundering predator.” It is because of their cute and benign image that we tend to equate these multi-ton behemoths with teddy bears, frolicking nude hippos and bikers who like kittens. They just seem too cute to be menacing.
But in the real world, bears, hippos and bikers are not cute and cuddly. They can be downright deadly. As it turns out, so can elephants.
Jeremy Hubbard, Natasha Singh and Lauren Effron of ABC News report on a disturbing development; Indian elephants are killing and eating people.
Humans aren’t natural prey for elephants and tigers, but in the Sundarban islands of West Bengal, India, an alarming number of people have been attacked — even eaten — by these wild beasts.
In one part of the country, there have been reports of elephants going on a rampage, trampling homes and killing around 200 people in the past year. In one bizarre case, this typically plant-eating animal reportedly ate a human.
In another part of the country, tigers, who have developed an appetite for human flesh, reportedly killed 14 people in one village alone last year.
“Tigers generally aren’t man eaters,” said Dave Salmoni. “It’s anomaly when an animal decides to start eating people.”
Salmoni is a zoologist and an animal trainer who specializes in predators. The host of several Animal Planet shows, Salmoni will also appear on the upcoming Animal Planet special, “World’s Deadliest Towns,” on Feb. 21.
A tiger that can weigh up to 650 pounds and grow up to 11 feet long is clearly at the top of the food chain, and Salmoni explained that these fierce animals have overtaken the land in the Sundarban islands.
“It’s the only place in the world I’ve ever been in the bush…I feel like I’m being hunted,” he said.
The World Wildlife Fund estimated that only about 3,200 tigers are left in the world. At the same time, the number of tiger attacks in this part of India is up 30 percent over the past decade, according to Salmoni.
Some experts believe environmental issues and a rapidly growing human population in the region are reducing their habitat and their natural food supply, and forcing them into villages.
The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change announced in 2007 that rising sea levels could submerge 17 percent of Bangladesh by 2050, which would completely flood the mangrove forests that are the natural habitat for the Bengal species.
Thousands more humans are also going into the Sundarban forests to hunt and clear more land for farming, which further encroaches on the tigers’ and elephants’ territories, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
As food becomes scarcer, Salmoni explained, these large animals might turn on humans because they are easy prey.
“A place like the Sundarban, that’s happened,” Salmoni explained. “They’re creating a culture of man-eating where moms are teaching cubs, people are easy prey.”
Humans are also easy targets for elephants. Once revered as peaceful animals, elephants are becoming more aggressive and wandering onto farms looking for food. Salmoni explained that villagers will try to chase the elephants away — some will even use fireworks — which only make the elephants angry.
“That’s exactly what’s going to get someone killed,” Salmoni said. “This is absolute suicide right now.”
People are little competition for a four-ton behemoth. Salmoni explained how an elephant will use its whole body during an attack.
“She’ll just backhand you,” he said. “She’ll knock you miles and you could die. The other thing she’ll do is she gets you down by hitting you with the trunk … she’ll ram you into the ground.”
Salmoni also pointed out that mother elephants will do whatever it takes to protect their young, and charge if they feel threatened.
“I was petrified when I was there,” he said. “It’s really more heartbreaking than petrifying. These guys (the villagers) are saying, ‘Yes I’m scared of these elephants … I either get trampled to death by an elephant or starve to death because he eats my food.'”
These villagers are also unable to protect themselves because as Hindus, they worship elephants and can’t kill them. However, Salmoni said that local wildlife officials were granted special permission to take out one particularly violent female elephant that reportedly killed 17 people.
Her necropsy revealed that this herbivore had consumed human remains. Shocked, animal specialists believed that this elephant had been driven over the edge when her young calf was being chased in a rice field by villagers.
“I think maternal instinct is something we all relate to,” Salmoni said. “We all know how a human mother would react if she has to protect her baby.”
The best long-term solution would be to give these animals space to roam without being encumbered by the growing onslaught of humans. It’s a difficult task in a country like India, where the population is a whopping 1.3 billion people.
This is the most extreme case of “something’s gotta give” I’ve ever seen. In 1972 India drafted, and enacted, it’s Wildlife Protection Act which made it a crime to harm wild animals except in very specific circumstances. The problem they face now is that, with greatly reduced acreage for the animals to roam and a population that is spiraling out of control, if they rescind the act all those animals will quickly become extinct. If they move the people out, then already overcrowded cities will become necropolises.
Another, obvious, solution would be for families to have less children. While there is no theological basis preventing the use of birth control in the Hindu religion, there are centuries of traditions which exalt large families. It is darn near impossible to overcome that kind of inertia. In America the problem was solved through capitalism. Families simply couldn’t afford ten kids any more. China solved the problem by government edict and strict fines. India has no history of either and is unlikely to embrace anything like them any time soon.
So the problems persist and the solutions remain elusive.
While I know that many people enjoy the fun videos I post at the end of my blogs, this one is not fun. It is the ABC Nightline video that shows elephants and tigers attacking people. It is very graphic and not meant for our more sensitive readers.
Don’t worry, I’ll be funny tomorrow.