Nature Shock - Tuesday January 15

nature shock
the revengeful elephant (2/6)

This fascinating series of documentaries examines freak occurrences in the natural world. Using testimony from scientific experts, interviews with the key players and dramatic reconstructions, the programmes tell the stories of unique discoveries that have shocked naturalists and led to a broader understanding of the animal kingdom. This programme examines a series of seemingly unprovoked attacks by elephants on a range of animals across Africa.

In 1992, South Africa’s Pilanesberg National Park was the site of a bizarre series of grotesque killings that seemed to lack motive. Spread over an area of 212 square miles, Pilanesberg was set up to act as a safe haven for wildlife, but a number of rhinoceros were turning up dead with injuries that defied logic. In some cases, the victims’ shoulder blades were smashed and their backs broken, meaning that the attacks cannot have been conducted by humans or other rhinos. “Something was not right,” recalls the man charged with protecting the animals –field ecologist Gus Van Dyk.

Some 1,700 miles away in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, another spate of bizarre deaths was occurring, this time involving cattle. Again, the injuries were horrific, with many of the cows left with their intestines hanging out. However, in these cases, there were witnesses –the Maasai villagers who owned the cattle swore that elephants had been killing their animals. Elephant project manager Soila Sayielel recorded 185 deaths of cattle, collected dozens of eye-witness statements and began to try to identify the culprits of the attacks.

Sayielel found that the attackers in Amboseli were all mature females, many of whom had suffered violence in the past at the hands of Maasai villagers competing for land. Could the elephants have remembered the attacks and sought revenge on the villagers by killing their cows? Dr Joyce Poole, a leading authority on the behaviour of African elephants, thinks so. “Of course they can make that association,” she says. Recent studies into elephant intelligence support this theory. Dr Felicity de Zulueta, a consultant psychiatrist in psychotherapy heading the Traumatic Stress Service in the Maudsley Hospital, London, thinks that elephants have similar coginitive capacities as humans and suffer distress in a similar way. “We share the same attachment system,” she explains.

Back in Pilanesberg, Gus Van Dyk had also concluded that elephants were responsible for the attacks on the endangered rhinos. “It was perfectly obvious that elephants were involved here,” he recalls. By May 1996, 49 rhinos had been killed, with the rate of deaths rising from one a month to one a week. Only one set of elephant prints was found at each scene, but each set was different – meaning that several young males were responsible, rather than just a rogue individual.

Dr Poole’s theory suggests that the young elephants’ violence was a direct result of trauma. When Pilanesberg was created in the late 1970s, it was populated with young male elephants who had witnessed the culling of their parents before being transferred to a new location and left to fend for themselves. “These kind of events become etched in their brains and have a longterm impact on them,” says Dr Poole. Much like with humans, when young elephants are left without adult role models, they can become withdrawn and insecure and exhibit violent and uncontrolled behaviour. “Family is very important to an orphaned elephant,” says naturalist Dr Dame Daphne Sheldrick.

Dr Zulueta takes this theory one step further and suggests that elephants can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder –a severe emotional reaction to psychological trauma. Any human involvement in elephant societies, she posits, can instil in the animals a real sense of grief and loss, which, if not corrected, can lead to “traumatised societies”. At Pilanesberg, the theory was put into practice and a number of adult males were reintroduced into the elephant community. The action had an immediate effect and no rhinos have been killed since.

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