Elephants are famous for their incredible memories and their superior intelligence. In addition, though, they have also become notorious for their violent rage and sometimes fatal outbursts. Their strength and affinity for rage make elephants one of the most potentially dangerous animals in the world. Such behaviour is often preceded by a rocking motion. This is true of both wild and captive elephants in stressful situations, but is more common in those kept in a zoo or circus. This is largely due to the excess frustration felt by such large, free-roaming beasts as they are restricted to tiny areas and, often, abuse.
In India and Africa, elephant bulls have been known to attack entire villages, killing people and destroying rural homes. Presently, elephants kill up to 200 people a year in India and up to 50 in Sri Lanka. Elephants have a remarkable memory and many of these killings are inflicted upon villages that were involved in mass culling, even decades prior to the attacks.
One of the reasons that males become particularly aggressive and violent is their state of musth. This word is actually Hindi for “madness” and is a periodic state at which testosterone levels may peak to up to 60 times higher than usual. Bulls also secrete a smelly liquid called temporin from the temporal ducts at this time. This is also the period of increased sexual activity for the bull and humans do well not to interfere in this process.
Another possible reason for these attacks is revenge. As noted, elephants have a memory that rivals almost all other creatures. They have been known to remember those that have hurt them or helped them years after the fact. After extended periods of poaching and culling, elephants suffer post-traumatic stress disorder from witnessing the slaughter of their families and young ones.
Another effect that these killings had on the herds hails from the fact that hunters would often kill the oldest and largest elephants, those that would usually take the lead in the herd. This meant that more inexperienced teenagers were forced to look after themselves without the guidance of an experienced animal. This led to a delinquent generation.
These unpredictable attacks may similarly be a function of abuse inflicted on working elephants, whether in zoos, circuses or industry. Out of loyalty and because of their compassionate nature, elephants will endure a fair amount of abuse before they snap. When they do give in to their frustrations, though, the incident frequently ends in the death of a human being.
Like humans, elephants experience frustration and anger for a variety of reasons. What is becoming clear, however, is that the more exposure elephants have to humans, the lower their tolerance to these destructive beings. In fact, exposure to people has even proved to make elephant males more violent and aggressive toward one another and other species. Such is the enormous effect that our greed and disregard has had on wildlife. It can only be excepted that more and more instances of elephant rage are going to happen in the future.
Andrew Keet has been watching elephants in the game reserves of South Africa for over five decades and is intrigued by the growing attention elephant rage is recently attracting.