Elephants and electricity

Topsy the circus elephant, electrocuted in 1903 by Thomas Edison's technicians in carrying out her death sentence while demonstrating the dangers of AC current.

Topsy the circus elephant, electrocuted in 1903 by Thomas Edison’s technicians in carrying out her death sentence while demonstrating the dangers of AC current. Photo: Chicago Tribune

By Ilja Van Braeckel

New York, anno 1903. The city stirs as dawn breaks. Woken up by the distant rumble in the neighboring tenement, you might join the breakfast table. You might appreciate your morning cup of chicory root coffee and nibble on some hard-earned buttered toast. You might scratch your head and raise an eyebrow or two as you open the newspaper and read how none other than Thomas Edison electrocuted Topsy, the 28 year female Asian elephant. You might learn how the murderous ‘beast died without a trumpet or a groan’, in Edison’s slanderous attempt to discredit his rival’s discovery of alternating current, per demonstration of its potential hazard.

Uda Walawe today, some 14 000 km and 110 years away. Neither Topsy nor Edison outwitted the tusk of time and all that remains of the unfortunate elephalectric turn of events is the original video footage and the alternating current that proved innovative. In fact, electricity is now commonly used to separate humans from other animals and this is no different in Uda Walawe, where the national park is delimited by an electric fence line. In reality, however, frequent power cuts make its efficiency questionable to say the least and the elephants, keen creatures that they are, seem to have learned to jostle over the fence poles.

You might wonder why the elephants venture out of the park boundaries in the first place. After all, farmers generally don’t take kindly to elephants, and attempts to prevent or resolve human-elephant conflicts include night watches, fire, intentional electrocution, and the use of fire crackers, explosives, poison, and guns. The main reason for these conflicts is undoubtedly the high density of elephants (Sri Lanka encompasses about 10% of the wild Asian elephant population on 2% of the global range) facing habitat fragmentation and loss, in combination with fairly large home ranges (about 30–160 km² for females and 53–345 km² for males) and a large and expanding human population. Land use is another key factor and national parks are sometimes used illegally by farmers, which lead their cattle under the fence line into the parks, and even cultivate parts of it. These patches of guerilla farm land together with delicacy crops surrounding the parks are prone to crop raiding, as they not surprisingly attract attention of foraging elephants with a fine dining appetite.

Formerly a common sight in Uda Walawe, an elephant lounges in front of a sign telling people not to feed the wildlife.

Formerly a common sight in Uda Walawe, an elephant lounges in front of a sign telling people not to feed the wildlife.

This means that elephants occasionally cross the electric park borders. And that’s where the proverbial dung hits the fan. Only recently, for example, a striking tragedy reminiscent of Topsy occurred. A young bull elephant had made its way out of the park which, as many adventurous elephants, encountered an agitated farmer that didn’t appreciate its presence. The next morning its cadaver was found. The park vet discovered he was shot seven times, in reaction to which he had panicked and tried to return to the relative safety of the park. As this happened overnight and elephants have limited eyesight, the unfortunate animal slipped, got the lower electric fence line stuck in its mouth, and was electrocuted. This hardship seems extraordinary, but it’s only one-in-many cases of aggravated human-elephant conflict.

So where does it go from here? In a nutshell, the process of rethinking human-elephant conflict prevention strategies is complex, and population dynamics, home range size, habitat fragmentation and loss, public awareness, socio-economics, and agricultural land use are to be incorporated. Eventually, a form of coexistence might prove favorable over the fruitless attempts to keep elephants on one side of the fence and humans on the other.

Related articles:

The Elephant In The Room – An examination of the challenge of feeding the growing human population while preserving the ecosystems on which we rely, as exemplified by the pressures confronting Asian elephants. Fair Observer, 24 February 2012 by S. de Silva.

One thought on “Elephants and electricity

  1. Ilja, great article. A really interesting subject. I’d be interested in learning more about the coexistence between humans, elephants and food production. I’m not surprised to hear that people are using part of Uda Walawe for crop cultivation. I’m sure the elephants appreciate it!

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