Thursday, December 31, 2009

Zombie Elephants

Next up in Mad World: rampaging elephants.

Frequently, evidence of the madness that our sped-up entropy unleashes on the world is most clearly seen in the animal kingdom. Animals are a collective canary in the coal mine. Their delicate ecologies are highly susceptible, and vulnerable, to the outputs of our high-energy societies. The costs and consequences (unintended or otherwise) of our energy consumption are typically passed down the food chain to the furthest reaches possible, to where the animals live. Most of us do not see the effects because we live in communities that have long ago been beaten back the wilds. Still, there are boarder lands. And in much of the developing world, the wilds are always close and constantly encroaching.

Case in point: have you heard all the reports about elephant rampages in India and Africa in the last couple years? In the northern state of Assam, where there are 5,500 wild elephants, 500 humans have been trampled to death in the 1990s; in all of India, between 150 and 200 humans were killed by elephants. In this decade, these stories are growing even more common. Scientists had to invent a statistical category to continue to monitor the problem: Human-Elephant-Conflict, or H.E.C. (

There are competing theories as to why there has been an increase in rogue packs of rampaging elephants. The ecologists say that a shrinking habitat, matched with a rise in elephant population has caused their deranged behavior. Local people in India claim that elephants have discovered a liking for rice beer called “laopani.” Indeed, last year a pack of elephants broke into a distillery, drank the beer and started a drunken rampage that tragically ended in an electricity plant, where all the animals were electrocuted.

Animal behaviorists have another theory. Elephants live in highly socialized, matriarchal societies. The females are the leaders and the teachers:

Poaching kills many of the elder mothers and matriarchs of the herds, leaving young elephant mothers without direction, help, or guidance. Many young elephants witness their mothers being shot, and this causes them much distress, just as it would a human. These young elephants must somehow mature without their mothers, and thus the male elephants, already prone to violent outbursts and general instability, grow uncontrollable and go on rampages. As the social structure of the elephants grows weaker and weaker, they will become more unstable and violent (

Here is a list of causes for annual elephant deaths in India:

120 poaching for ivory or meat
25 poisoned
20 cattle born disease
16 electrocution
10 hit by trains
10 miscellaneous


Sped-up entropy, unsustainable energy use, passing the costs to others and other life forms instead of equalizing energy costs—all of these factors contribute to the rending of not just physical and ecological fabrics, but also the intricate social tapestries that rise out of them.

It is instructive to relate to the elephant’s plight on your own level. Imagine the most dire, chaotic disaster movie plot you’ve ever seen, where the order of society has completely collapsed, and the townspeople become crazed, insane, homicidal maniacs. That’s what it must feel like for these elephants—except there is now hero unaffected by the insanity. There is no hope.

It is a mad world out there.