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Empathy for elephants

  • Published at 06:11 pm March 22nd, 2014
Empathy for elephants

The Asian elephants, our majestic mammalian relatives, are facing a grave crisis. Their populations are dwindling fast throughout Asia but much more alarmingly in our own backyard. It is believed that as little as 220 or less of these gentle mammoth pachyderms now exist in Bangladesh’s wilderness.

Another 100 migrate between the Bangladesh-Myanmar border zone, and less than a 100 are living miserable lives in captivity of loggers, circus masters and zoos. They are close to extinction. There are a few wonderful organisations working to protect and conserve our elephants but progress is slow, funds limited, and respect accorded to the issue by those around us especially in power, scant.

If we don’t do something to aid the elephants, and fast, our future generation, my son, your daughters, will not grow to experience the magic of these most humane of animals. For a religious country like ours, how can we all claim to love God and not love all his creations?

Elephants are highly intelligent. If you spend any time getting to know them, the universal draw towards these animals is undeniable. Their grace, despite their size, is astounding. They possess the ability to feel complex emotions.

Like us, their priority in life is love for their family. Their herds are built with members who look out for each other with adults protecting the young. The matriarch guides, protects, and teaches wisdom.

It’s been scientifically proven that elephants have highly developed emotions. They have complex thoughts and feelings. The array of those feelings closely mirror our own, in that they express anger, they can show joy, feel grief for their young, or deceased family members for months, play games, and pass on wisdom from old to young.

In several examples, it has been witnessed how they have mourned the death of humans they shared a bond with, by walking hundreds of miles to the site of a funeral. When family members are reunited after a separation, they greet each other often by crying tears, running towards each other, and upon contact, rubbing against each other, spinning around, flapping ears, clicking tusks.

Community amongst their ranks affect them both in joy and in trauma. In both instances, they feel in numbers, just like us. And currently, elephants in Asia are suffering in silence. Lost in a changing world where no one seems to care for them anymore. 

Their habitat is fast diminishing. Legal and illegal deforestation is a significant culprit, overpopulation plays a part too. Disgustingly, poachers remain strong and belligerent like ever before in the illegal trade for their skin and ivory.

The strict routes they have travelled for generations, remembered by the matriarchs for seasonal migration, are now changed and blocked by human development, disorienting these animals. Their food supply chain is uprooted, leaving them homeless and hungry in their own environment.

Because they are herbivores, they eat a variety of fruits, plants, and vegetation, all leading to a conflict with us when they traverse our farmlands in search of food and a path in their journey. In a particularly twisted irony, many loggers still employ elephants as slave labour in the hill tracks, forcing them to destroy their own habitats so that we can harvest wood for our shiny furniture.

They remain in poor condition in circuses all over Bangladesh, where ringmasters in need of subsistence use them for our entertainment. This is not to even mention the poor, dangerous, and unfathomable disgrace that we witness daily in Bangladesh of elephants being used to beg. Proceeds go largely to the animal-keepers as livelihood and some of it goes to feed these giants.

Needless to say, to our great detriment, we treat these animals very poorly. We grew as a modern society, never sparing a thought to their needs, the way countries such as Thailand and Sri Lanka did.

Graydon Carter most eloquently described the spirit of the scenario where he said: “We admire elephants in part because they demonstrate what we consider the finest human traits: Empathy, self-awareness, and social intelligence. But the way we treat them puts on display the very worst of human behaviour.” 

So what can we do? A lot really. In Thailand, the royal family has banned the usage of elephants for forced labour and begging with heavy fines, buying back elephant herds to sanctuaries designated and rehabilitating their keepers for livelihood. We can surely do that for our captive elephants, because their population in Bangladesh is small, and the financial burden would be finite.

For wild elephants, we can mark road crossings on their migratory routes for our safety and safe interaction with them, who have of late lashed out at us, resulting in tragic deaths of humans. We must force the forest authorities, including our ministries concerned, for a change in the wildlife laws, to reflect specific protective measures and sanctions against breaking them.

We need to replant our environment so they have new sources of food they can use in their traditional routes. We must help farmers fence their lands, and safely repel the elephants from their crops. We can do a better job of protecting the forests and routes they now travel seasonally between India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar.

Lastly, we must fund research to find out more of how we are impacting their lives, and what we can do to mend them. We must educate our adults and children alike in the wonderment of these creatures, so that they can lend a hand in their conservation, and so that we can live beside each other in harmony.

It’s not going to be easy, but neither is it the toughest thing to do. It just requires continued resolve and empathy from us and the government. It requires that we have a significant working partnership between all parties helping elephant conservation groups such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature and other similar organisations, both home and abroad, who are trying to help us in this most urgent of situations. 

I, for one, hope to do something about it, and no matter how small, I hope you will too. If not, ask yourself, who else will?