Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad in Pakistan on 2 May 2011, say the news reports. Really?! Or should I say—not again?! He’s been killed twice in India already! Once in 2006 and again in 2008. Yes, it made news splashes even then, although not as large a splash as his most recent death. Osama’s first death occurred in December 2006 in a tea estate in Assam in north-east India, at the hands of a hunter, a hired gun tasked with taking out the terrifying serial killer. And as if that was not enough, he was killed again in May 2008, in the Indian state of Jharkhand, at the hands of an empowered mob of government authority—the Forest Department and the Police. The second death was not easy. It took 20 bullets to silence Osama. And from the recent news, it seems even that did not work, after all.
The painful truth is that the first two deaths of Osama referred, not to the terrorist mastermind and leader of al-Qaeda, but to two separate individual Asian elephants Elephas maximus, Asia’s largest land mammal, with the contrasting reputation of being the gentle giants of its forests. These individuals were named after a feared human, on the most-wanted list of a distant superpower. They were labeled serial killers and raging bulls, as rogues and as terrorisers. And yet, when people came to see the prostrate corpse of the killed elephant, they placed flowers on its body, even as many asked whether the right animal was killed or it was just another innocent elephant victim.
Splashes of red dot the evergreen canopy, like blood on green canvas. The canarium, stately white and tall, holds a red flush of new leaves above verdant, multi-hued forest. Skimming spectacularly over the trees, a great hornbill brushes grandeur onto the canvas. In the company of hornbills, a new year dawns on an unsuspecting rainforest.
He was standing behind the building when we first saw him. Dignified and stately, yet aware and watchful, for he had some business of his own. We had come to see him unannounced, but he held no wish to meet us.
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:
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 African 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.
While the media, as a group, vacillate between balanced and berserk, elephants, as a species, walk a tightrope for their survival.