Elephants and media: balanced or berserk?

Wild elephants, more often than not, get a raw deal from us, people. Yet, news reports tend to dominate with stories of people apparently at the receiving end. It is refreshing, then, to see a more balanced or thoughtful article appear, such as  this one by G. Ananthakrishnan on the cover of today’s The Hindu Magazine. It is perhaps not fair to contrast articles such as this with news reports that are more hit-and-run, yet, it may be instructive.

Early last year, I chanced upon a news article with an accompanying video on the Reuters website. The piece going with the provocative title When elephants go berserk spoke of African elephants in Kenya. It spoke of elephants that “escape from a  national park”, “destroy crops” and so on. The piece provoked me to write a response to Reuters through their website, for which I received nothing in return except an electronic reply saying something to the effect of how busy everyone at Reuters was.  I have a bunch of thoughts on elephants, such conflict issues, and their portrayal in the media, all of which will have to wait for a later post. Right now, I thought I would put up this link and my response to Reuters to see what others think of this. Comments are welcome!

Take a look at the link here, first. And here’s what I wrote them:

This refers to a video on your website with the caption “When elephants go berserk” (http://www.reuters.com/news/video/videoStory?videoId=76199)

As a practicing wildlife scientist in India, where Asian elephants similarly enter crop fields or areas with people during their movements, I felt that the caption used in the news item was unnecessarily sensationalist and rather insensitive. The video really only shows elephants scared out of their wits and running in absolute trauma, with at least one individual narrowly escaping being trampled by another of its own herd.

When reporting theft or murder by humans, news agencies routinely use words like ‘allegedly’ or ‘apparently’; in fact, such cautious wording may be necessary to prevent libel suits. Why is no such caution used when describing what large and indeed, intelligent, animals do? Is it because the elephants can’t sue news agencies if they are labelled raiders, rogues or (wanton) killers, or if they are said to go “berserk”, cause “terror” etc.?

Our field research over many years, here in India, has indicated clearly that a large majority of cases of conflict between humans and elephants is due to accidental or incidental reasons, often as innocuous as a herd walking along its migratory route (trying hard to avoid people) which is now taken up by cultivation or development. Most cases called by the media as “rogue killing” or “manslaughter” should really be called “accidental deaths of people encountering elephants” usually in the dark or when in an inebriated state. What is called “raiding” is often better labeled “damage” or “incidental damage” and so on. In some cases, there is absolutely no damage caused and the media still plays up the issue.

I could go on… but I just wished to plead to whoever is reading this (and I hope someone in a senior-enough editorial position is) will take a more sensitive and accurate stance in using the right words to describe these issues. Asian and Africal elephants are endangered species—what the media write about them can help them enormously or hurt them further. Do you really want to be another agency that is beating an animal that is already down?

I would be happy to share our learnings/discuss this matter further because if an international news agency of such repute and importance as Reuters can be persuaded to review this aspect, then there is much hope.

Sincerely.—

***

While the media, as a group, vacillate between balanced and berserk, elephants, as a species, walk a tightrope for their survival.

A tusker treads the thin line between forest and cultivation.
A tusker treads the thin line between forest and cultivation.

10 thoughts on “Elephants and media: balanced or berserk?

  1. I was left wondering if the elephants were actually going ‘berserk’ since helicopters were chasing them in the video. It would have been nice if Reuters had also published what the communities in the village felt about this and if this is a regular problem…thanks for the post Sridhar.

  2. “I agree with Sridhar about the article except on one count. Hari and I were discussing (and have written a response to the newspaper about this) that the point that Ananthakrishnan puts forward in his article is that elephant-caused human deaths is not a very important issue and should not be hyped. This is because it is insignificant compared to human mortality caused by other factors like road accidents. This we feel is both insensitive and in the long-run might cause more harm than good for the cause of wildlife conservation.
    Unlike economic losses, we think that the loss of lives (either human or wildlife) should not be discussed merely in terms of numbers and statistics; every such incident is unfortunate and needs to be dealt with in a context-specific basis. This is important not just from the point of view of social justice but also to secure the support, of people living in and around elephant areas and for elephant conservation in the long run.”
    Will be good to get more discussions on this?

  3. I completely agree with Vena. A discussion in terms of “death tolls” reduces each of the lives lost to just a number with no meaning except as part of the whole, and leads to the conclusion that only when the whole is a big enough number should we worry. In this case, when elephant-caused deaths is comparable to those caused by road accidents!

    Ananthakrishnan also suggests that economic losses from crop damage might not be much and provides figures from Valparai in support. But the low damage in Valparai is because most of the landscape is tea. I think losses would be much higher in landscapes in which crops palatable to elephants are grown.

  4. The crucial difference is that people use roads with full knowledge of the risks involved. Roads, airplanes, trains, etc. offer people benefits and therefore they will take risks to gain these benefits. With elephant-related deaths, this not the case – what benefits do people derive from living next door to large and potentially dangerous animals?

    Moreover, the people who lose their lives in conflict with animals, are usually from highly underprivileged communities who already lose a lot to protected areas while enjoying little of what these places offer – this makes such comparisons highly insensitive.

  5. Thanks for the comments. I think the issue of people who are killed by elephants has always been and continues to be a high concern for all— field biologists, media, and government authorities. About Ananthakrishnan’s article itself, however, I don’t think that some of the above comments are fair. Nowhere in the article does he say that “it is insignificant”, that “it is not a very important issue”, or that “only when the whole [number of people killed] is a large enough number should we worry”. Perhaps the fact that your attention was drawn to the actual scale of the problem made you think of these things, but what Ananthakrishnan himself says in the article is just the plain statement that death toll is low (around 200 people per year) compared to other chronic scourges. To me that fact, that the number of people killed is relatively few and localised, gives hope for on-ground conservationists who are trying to reduce this even further or avoid human deaths completely. If it had been thousands of people across huge areas, it would fill me with despair. In fact, my friend Anand’s work here, while recognising that only few people (2-3) are killed annually, worked to address the cause (lack of information on elephant presence thereby leading to accidental encounter-deaths), and resulted in no people being killed for a period of nearly 3 years during the study.

    The mention of road accidents is just one of several contrasts he could have chosen to offer a perspective. Perhaps the parallel to see is that many of the human deaths due to elephants are also accidental (not deliberate killing by so-called ‘rogues’)?

    About economic costs, the point is again that it may not be high “in a given landscape”, in this case Valparai; perhaps there are other such places as well. Elsewhere in the article, he points out that “crop raiding is frequent” in other parts of India and that “losses to farmers have to be compensated”. Sounds balanced?

    While most media articles have been one-sided pieces against elephants, this one presents both sides of the coin and a realistic perspective, I feel. Similarly, about Pavithra’s point, much has been written about the costs borne by people living near protected areas (PAs); has anybody balanced that against the benefits they derive: water supply, free fuel-wood, pollination services, medicinal plants, grazing for livestock, forest produce, jobs within the PA, thatch, house construction material…?

    Incidentally, my post was mainly about the Reuters article. What did you think of that? Did you feel that it was accurate and my response was insensitive? Did any of you feel like writing to Reuters, as well?

    1. The “death toll is low” only in comparison to the very large number that Ananthakrishnan has chosen to make his point. What if he had chosen to compare it with some other number, say, the number of humans killed by Grizzly attacks in North America; or by elephants in Kenya? Would he have a different take on the death toll then? I’m not suggesting that these comparisons are any more valid, but that all of them are meaningless at some level because they are completely different situations requiring completely different solutions.

      The problem is that these numbers – 200 vs. 94,968, “a mere Rs. 35 per hectare” – stick in the minds of readers and colour the messages they take home. Ananthakrishnan does mention that “crop raiding is frequent” in some parts of India but he also doesn’t mention that losses as low as Rs. 35 per hectare are likely only a small proportion of landscapes.

  6. Yes, I wrote to Reuters. Yesterday. Will post my letter to them here after this.

    1. If you read Ananthakrishnan closely you will see that his comparison (between elephant caused deaths and accident related ones) is not nearly as nuanced as your reading of it. And I think neither the other commenters nor I have a problem with the scale – even if comparable numbers of people died in conflict with wildlife, the comparison would still be an odious one.

    2. With regard to your response to my point about costs borne by local people – I think what you are forgetting is that these “benefits” – water, fuel, etc – are all gained under immense stress because obtaining them is illegal. It is illegal for good reasons, but to make it illegal without providing any alternatives is a double whammy for people. To criminalise what people do to merely survive is simply cruel and will win conservationists no friends among the very people whose support they need.

    If what local people get from these PAs is measured at all, they should be measured as sustenance, not as “benefits”.

    The other things I had a comment about was Anand’s quote in the article “the story of Chamarajanagar district in Karnataka to illustrate the point about elephant behaviour. When the Karnataka government funded farm borewells, farmers shifted from dry cropping to high value wet crops such as sugarcane. It was only a matter of time before they were visited by elephants, which earlier had no fancy for the area.”

    Dryland agriculture is not nearly as profitable as irrigated cultivation. It bothers me that we would expect people (far far poorer than us, with fewer opportunities, etc) to make these sacrifices. Not only is that expectation unfair, it is clearly not going to be met. We need to work with reality that people will seek better lives and more profitable and less painful livelihoods – and that they have a right to do so.

  7. Good discussion points—clearly we need to be as sensitive to human concerns as well as elephants, even if some sections of the media tilt on one side. Most field workers probably genuinely have and try to address these concerns in various ways. See this post by A. Christy Williams on the BBC news Green Room, for instance.

    The discussion also reminded me of the following Emily Dickinson poem:

    A Man may make a Remark—
    In itself—a quiet thing
    That may furnish a Fuse unto a Spark
    In dormant nature—lain—

    Let us deport—with skill—
    Let us discourse—with care—
    Powder exists in Charcoal—
    Before it exists in Fire.

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