Humanity and Elephants in History

Asian Elephant in pond. Shot in Munnar, Kerala, India.

The elephant is an integral part of Indian history and culture. Being the National heritage animal and Lord Ganesha’s avatar, it enjoys a place in the annals of India.

In the past, kings captured elephants from the forest and domesticated them. They served various roles in these kingdoms, from vehicles of kings to cavalry in battle. Their immense size and fearful demeanour made them a vital part of the military.

Now since elephants consume vast amounts of fodder, rearing them became uneconomical. So kings would let them grow wild till they were 20 years old when they were caught and put in stables.

Forest stream

Then began the domestication process. Wild elephants possess a tenacity that is befitting of their species. Taming them is a rigorous and arduous process. It involved several beatings and long-drawn starvation, which shattered their wild instincts. Unspeakable cruelty broke their spirits, forcing them into slavery.

Elephants play a crucial role in seed dispersal, spreading seeds far and wide. This ensures the continuity and survival of vast tracts of forests. Some trees require their seeds to pass through the intestinal tract of elephants to germinate properly.

Once tame, they proved highly useful— as transporters of heavy materials to fearsome perches to wage wars from. They were a visible sign of an army’s fighting potential.

Herd of Elephants Bathing. Shot in Bandipur Tiger Reserve, Karnataka, India.
The Elephantine Bath

In capturing elephants, the kings would often employ the indigenous forest people. They were learned in the subtle intricacies of the forest and thus knew how to ensnare these beasts. With their help, they amassed a sizable number of elephants.

The capture of elephants was an intriguing endeavour. Sanskrit literature speaks of 5 methods, one of them being the “Khedda Method”. In this approach, wild elephants are driven (Khedna means drive in Hindi) into a stockade by mahouts atop “kumkis” (domesticated elephants). Then they would separate members of the captured herd, ensnaring individuals with ropes and tying them to sturdy trees. (Read about it here)

The ancient kings of India needed elephants and thus required the forest. As a result, they took strong measures to preserve the environment. The jungle was offered the same protection as any other province. They brought the forest, its people and animals in kinship with the rest of the kingdom. The need for war elephants, and the subsequent economic gains, tied the kingdom to the forest.

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Today we are a world away from the use of elephants in war. Now elephants are used primarily for agricultural or religious purposes(Read my post on Temple elephants here). But while the elephant is still relevant in our lives, our attitude to them has changed.

No longer do we afford them and their habitat the same care. As we speak, corporate giants cut down their habitats searching for resources. With this habitat fragmentation, they venture into fields, thus coming in contact with people.

Elephant Herd on NH766. Shot in Wayanad, Kerala, India.
Elephant Encounters

The human-elephant conflict has reached drastic proportions. The lack of edible foliage pushes these animals into fields, where they gobble up vast swathes of crops. In retaliation, farmers set out to kill elephants, resulting in heavy casualties on both sides.

No longer do we see any economic gains from preserving elephants. And this has several repercussions.

The habitat of the elephant has drastically reduced over the years. Their decline has rapidly increased over the last two centuries. The elephant’s evolution makes them an indicator of the environment’s health. This is seen in their inability to recover from significant habitat changes.

Their need for large quantities of fodder and water, their slow reproductive cycle and their vulnerability to cold makes them highly vulnerable to environmental changes.

While the past kings brutally caught wild elephants, they understood the value of the forest and its animals. They strived to protect their environment, realising that the jungle was vital to the kingdom.

Female Asian elephant. Shot in Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, Kerala, India by Ishan Shanavas
Female Asian elephant

Because we don’t see an economic gain from saving elephants doesn’t mean they have no benefits. For one, elephants play a crucial role in seed dispersal, spreading seeds far and wide. This ensures the continuity and survival of vast tracts of forests. Some trees require their seeds to pass through the intestinal tract of elephants to germinate properly.

And just because there is no direct economic benefit to saving elephants, does that mean we forgo them altogether. Are they not fellow inhabitants of this planet, like you and me? Many millennia have gone in their evolution, culminating into magnificent beings. As Earth’s apex species, we must safeguard the tenants we share this world with.

The elephant is a striking and sentient animal. They carry themselves with a certain grace, symbolising all that is majestic about India. It would be a terrible dereliction of duty to let them fade into the books of history.

For further information, read Thomas R Trautmann’s “Elephants and Kings – An Environmental History“.

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Published by Ishan Shanavas

I am a young adult, interested in nature, photography, art and culture. An aspiring polymath, I share my learnings through my blog. I also include insights from my favourite books.

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