Elephants Attack as Humans Turn Up the Pressure

Brian Handwerk
National Geographic Channel
for National Geographic News
June 3, 2005

Elephants are being pushed into smaller and smaller spaces. And increasingly, they're pushing back.

According to the National Geographic Channel documentary Elephant Rage, some 500 people are killed by elephant attacks each year. Such attacks are becoming increasingly common, researchers say.

"I do think that elephants are becoming more aggressive towards humans in very compressed areas where they are being shot at and harassed," said Caitlin O'Connell-Rodwell, a biologist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

"It is a difficult dilemma in areas where elephant habitat is shrinking and the human population is increasing such that poor farmers have little choice but to expand their farms to make ends meet," she said in a telephone interview from a Namibian field camp.

Elephants are the world's largest vegetarians. They don't attack any animal for food—yet food is at the root of many elephant conflicts.

An adult elephant may eat over 400 pounds (180 kilograms) a day. A herd can consume an entire field in one night. Fences and other deterrents are often useless against hungry herds.

Not only can elephants grow as large as about 13 feet (4 meters) tall and weigh as much as about 6 tons, but they can run 25 to 30 miles an hour (40 to 48 kilometers an hour).

Yet despite their size, intelligence, and speed, elephants fare worse in human-elephant confrontations. According to the Elephant Rage documentary, perhaps a thousand elephants are killed each year for their ivory or food, or because they have become a danger to humans living around them.

Overall, elephant numbers have declined dramatically. The conservation nonprofit WWF, for example, estimated that there were about 1.3 million African elephants in 1970. By 1989 that number had slid to 600,000.

In some African locales, though, elephant populations are stable or growing because of preservation measures such as bans on ivory trade.

Many protected areas, however, seem to be too small for their increasing elephant populations. As a result, officials often take steps to reduce elephant numbers through controlled hunts and other measures.

In some areas, including much of Asia, humans continue to invade elephant country even as animal populations are dwindling.

Continued on Next Page >>


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