Bridging the gap between humans and elephants: from anthropology to ecology

By its very name, anthropology tends to restrict itself to the study of humans. But in the early 2000s, anthropologist Piers Locke found himself questioning that constraint while conducting fieldwork for his PhD, which dealt with the lives and practises of elephant handlers in Nepal.

“I suddenly realized that it’s not just the humans that are my informants,” explains Locke, who is now faculty at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. The training of an elephant involves active participation on all sides: the human and the nonhuman must get to know each other during this process, forming a bond that may last decades. In Locke’s terms, elephant training is a “multi-species rite of passage.” To focus on just one half of this process is to miss the actual picture—and yet there is a clear practical challenge to focusing on both halves. Anthropologists are not trained to work with or think about animals. How do you begin to perform ethnographic research on a subject whose language you do not speak?

One step that Locke took was to fully immerse himself in the process by which trainers themselves get to know young elephants. Over the course of his PhD research, Locke served an apprenticeship with elephant handlers at the Khorsor Elephant Breeding Center in Chitwan, Nepal. In anthropology, such immersion is called “active participant observation.” Anthropologists recognise that they are always a participant in that which they study: as in the case of Schrödinger’s proverbial cat, there is no way to fully decouple one’s data from the act of observing that data. To actively participate in observation, then, is to accept and control one’s participant role, while seeking a fuller comprehension of the object of study.

Such an approach may seem alien to an ecologist. In ecology, as with all of science, the invisible wall between (human) researcher and (non-human) observed is held to be almost sacred. Scientists are trained to detach, to efface themselves and their own subjectivities from the research that they do. It wasn’t so long ago that Jane Goodall was criticised just for naming her chimpanzee subjects. But to go beyond that, and attribute to animals their own agency, histories, and emotions is to step far outside the traditional bounds of the subject. Ecology, as a discipline, is largely lacking in the vocabulary to speak about the inter-species relationships that Piers Locke saw in Nepal, just as anthropology grasps for the right tools of study when it comes to personal interactions that involve the non-human.

The present “animal turn” across the social sciences and humanities attempts to address this particular disciplinary blind spot — as does the rising body of work in animal behaviour studies that looks at nonhuman culture and cognition. But Locke points out that the paucity of academic precedent in examining how humans and nature intertwine is no accident. This gap goes back to the historical divide between the natural and social sciences, which itself says something about how we conceive of humanity. As a species, we tend to view ourselves as transcendent above the natural world. The Enlightenment ideal of “civilisation” places, as its opposite, the primordial soup from which we rose, along with the entire animal kingdom.

But we live right now in the so-called Anthropocene, where our culpability as a species in the dismal state of the natural world far outweighs our ability to rectify the damage or outrun its effects. As boundaries between nature and civilization break down, Locke points out that we need to be blurring disciplinary borders as well.

“, you’ve got all these increasingly specialised people who don’t understand how to talk to each other,” Locke explains. “And yet all the real-world problems—climate change, disasters, how humans and elephants share environments— require the kind of expertise that traverses .”

A desire to foster conversations about human-elephant coexistence across academic specialities brought an unlikely assortment of people—including Locke and his graduate student, Paul Keil—to a conference on the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) campus in Bangalore, on a series of sun-burnt days in April 2016. The School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS), University of London, has held many cross-disciplinary animal-themed conferences in past years (revolving around the camel, the donkey and the war horse), but the conference held by SOAS and hosted by the Centre for Ecological Sciences at IISc was the first to deal with the elephant. The SOAS conference spanned a wide swathe of topics: from the need to take elephant individuality into account in Gudalur’s crisis-level human-elephant conflict situation (by Tarsh Thekaekara of the Shola Trust) to how mammoths once migrated the globe in response to a changing environment (by Régis Debruyne of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris). Each talk was an act of translation: Debruyne diagrammed phylogenetics for the non-biologists in the audience, while Rachel Dwyer of SOAS defined the concept of umwelt—a German word adopted here to describe one’s personal experience of the world. In this case, Dwyer referred to the challenge of understanding the parallel world that is viewed through an elephant’s eyes. But given that it can be an impossible task even to understand the umwelt of another human being, how do we come close to knowing the world of an elephant?

Sitting over coffee on the morning after the conference, Piers Locke and his graduate student, Paul Keil, talked about the idea of how to know someone else’s world: how to translate between long-divided disciplines, and what changes when you view an animal as a person. Locke has coined the term “ethnoelephantology” as an umbrella term for the interdisciplinary conversation he hopes for, borrowing a page from ethnoprimatology. The term echoes both ethnography and ethology, two disciplines that Locke says have much to learn from each other.

One could argue that the word ethnoelephantology represents an objectively impossible task. As described above, ethnography and ethology have deep philosophical differences that are difficult to reconcile. And viewing animals as people runs the real risk of anthropomorphism: instead of describing an animal’s point of view, we might just be reflecting our own.

Phanit bathing his elephant without getting wet

But more than natural scientists, researchers in the social sciences and humanities are trained to think deeply about words and metaphors as entities in themselves. Word choice matters, because words both shape and reflect thought. How you label a problem decides how you approach it. Thus, for Locke and Keil, ethnoelephantology represents not an endpoint where widely divergent disciplinary methodologies and philosophies are evened out, but a dialogue. Likewise, introducing the word umwelt into animal studies is an invitation to a question: how do our stories and our methods change when we see animals as thoughtful, biased beings? Paul Keil’s research out of Macquarie University in Australia deals with elephant trails in Assam. The rugged terrain of Assam comes under a region that some scholars have called Zomia—a geographically contiguous area across the mountains of Southeast Asia, from China to Nepal to Burma.

Political scientist James Scott argues, in The Art of Not Being Governed, that Zomia has managed to stay marginally autonomous until the present day because of its inhospitable geography that only locals know how to traverse. What Keil’s work builds upon is the theory that the human world of this isolated realm was shaped by elephants. People followed in the footsteps of elephants, who physically broke trails through the forests.

And what difference does it make to see these migrating elephants as thinking beings? Keil says that this mindset allows him to push back against anthropocentrism. In Assam, wild elephants live in the midst of human turmoil. “I like to think – are creating their own worlds, their own pockets?” he says. “Are there places that humans can’t go because elephants go there?”

Locke echoes this concept by saying we need to view elephants as “world-makers” alongside humans. For example, in 2013, Locke worked with Charles Santiapillai and Shanmugasundaram Wijeyamohan, researchers at Rajarata University in Sri Lanka, who were developing new methods to resolve human-elephant conflict. The village that they focused on was under a huge amount of stress at that time. “ weren’t getting any sleep, they were being harassed by elephants,” says Locke.

But what was vital here wasn’t just to examine the present crisis but also its historical context, and what that context said about how both sides of the dispute related to this particular landscape. The villagers revealed that they had been absent from the village for 17 years, displaced three times by war. They returned at last to land that had been taken over by elephants. Or, as Locke puts it: “A nonhuman person was thinking of their land as home.”

The solution that Santiapillai and Wijeyamohan came up with was novel. Rather than penning the elephants inside sanctuaries with electric fences (which elephants can learn to circumvent in any case), they put the fences around the people. In addition, the fences were solar-powered and built such that locals could easily fix them and shift them around. “ can expand if their crops expand,” explains Locke. “They can move it in. It’s easy to manage. If it’s easy to manage, it can work. So far, the results are encouraging.”

”Locke points out that the tools of anthropology can also help conservationists work with local communities, in the case of participatory conservation efforts. Ecology students have approached him in the past with the problem that they could not get locals to answer their questionnaires when they needed to gather data about ecological issues. What these researchers really needed, Locke says, was formal training in ethnographic methods. With such training, they would learn that “you need to build relationships of trust and rapport with people before you can start asking questions.” And much closer relationships with people might tell you, for instance, that clipboards and questionnaires can be intimidating for some. “They might associate with government, and they may have a problematic relationship with government,” says Locke. Both Locke and Keil feel that conservation biology could benefit from engaging with the social scientific approach to human communities. “As anthropologists, we give a lot of privilege and gravity to histories and culture,” says Keil.

And yet that empathetic engagement has the potential to go too far, once transferred from the human to the animal. It can be too easy to cross the thin line between accepting that animals have an inner world, and assuming we know what that world must be. “That’s why we need the biological sciences as well, who make concerted efforts to try and detach themselves,” says Keil. “We need the biological sciences to keep us in check.”

It can be difficult to stimulate such cross-talk between disciplines. But one prerequisite, says Locke, is the willingness on all sides to step back and examine disciplinary assumptions and limitations. Only with that deeper understanding of where we stand can we reach out to others and find common ground. This includes researchers across the academic spectrum engaging with the philosophy and history of science: from Karl Popper’s formulation of falsifiability as a driver of scientific progress to Thomas Kuhn’s notion that scientific evolution occurs through paradigm shifts, to Bruno Latour on the social construction of scientific knowledge. “How do we know what we know?” says Locke. “How do we conduct research? What kinds of claims to the status of knowledge do we make?”

The solution that Santiapillai and Wijeyamohan came up with was novel. Rather than penning the elephants inside sanctuaries with electric fences (which elephants can learn to circumvent in any case), they put the fences around the people.

The SOAS elephant conference was the second gathering thus far to fall under the umbrella of ethnoelephantology. The conference followed a symposium along similar lines held at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand in 2013. The result of that symposium was a book titled Conflict, Negotiation, and Coexistence: Rethinking Human-Elephant Relations in South Asia, edited by Piers Locke and Jane Buckingham, which will come out in September 2016.

“ is trying to suggest that greater interdisciplinary collaboration can provide new perspectives and policy approaches to dealing with all the dilemmas of elephant conflict and coexistence,” says Locke.

With the current need for better dialogue between the social and natural sciences about human-elephant coexistence, Locke hopes that these two conferences will inspire something much deeper than “a trendy term.” The disciplinary gap where human meets nature could provide us with a new window into troubling environmental times, by recentring our vision of a world in which humanity is only one small part.”

Photographs: Pierce Locke

This article is from issue


2016 Sep