Explosive Food and What it Tells Us About Ourselves

By SdS

Injured elephant in water.

Photo by Mohan Krishnan of injured elephant in the water.

Somewhere, there is a hungry elephant, following her nose, wandering an ever-diminishing forest in search of food. She ventures to her usual places, finds them lacking. She wanders further from where she feels safe, considering what she may find closer to the villages nearby.

Somewhere there is a hungry person. Perhaps a farmer, perhaps a hunter. He is looking to drive away pests from his land, or maybe to earn a bit of money from bushmeat. He selects a large fruit or vegetable, say a pumpkin or pineapple. He hollows it out, hides an improvised explosive inside, leaves it where some animal will find it.

We know what happens next.

In the past days, there has been an uproar concerning the sorry fate of a pregnant elephant in Kerala who encountered baited fruit that ended not one, but two lives, in a most horrific manner. There have been many expressions of outrage and disgust, cartoons and caricatures of the ugliness of humanity, as revealed by their deaths. At the same time, some friends and colleagues have questioned why people seem suddenly so upset now, at this particular story, when such awful incidents are unfortunately all too common.



They remind us that everyone shares a responsibility for what happens to wildlife, and the environment at large – including those in urbanites whose consumption habits lie at the roots of environmental injustices and conflicts around the world.

We appreciate both sets of sentiments – the outrage itself, and the questioning reaction to it. June 5th is World Environment Day, so we wanted to unpack this story and the tensions it reveals, to aid the sensitivities and understanding of those who are not so familiar with the issues conservationists, particularly those who work on elephants, are all too familiar with. We also wanted to look at elephants themselves, and contrast what these incidents reveal with the romantic notions people have about the incredible abilities of these animals.

First the question – why now? Let’s look at the trends in Sri Lanka, where use of similar explosives (known locally as Hakka patas or “jaw explosion”) has been on the rise for years (read: related article on Mongabay), illustrated in this graphic (source: Devini Senaratne on Medium, based on data here and here):

Causes of elephant deaths in Sri Lanka 2005-2018.

Use of explosives, hakka patas, along with other unknowns (e.g. suspected poison) is increasing even as shootings are declining in Sri Lanka. The Department of Wildlife Conservation has an interesting hypothesis to explain this – that as they have cracked down more severely in prosecuting those responsible for shootings, people have switched to other fatal methods that are more difficult to trace back.

HEC news article.

The headlines change little from year to year.

Explosives are widely used throughout Asia both as a means to punish crop pests such as wildboar and elephants, as well as for poaching. The use of poison is also widespread.  This is one way people retaliate against wildlife that are perceived to cause them hardship. Because let’s not forget, in addition to losing their subsistence crops, hundreds of people are killed by elephants each year as well, comprising the other half of the casualties in the war labelled “human-elephant conflict” (reviews here and here). The grieving families may rightly ask – where is the righteous outrage when a child or grandmother is killed in their own home by an elephant? Absent help from the outside world, some take matters into their own hands.

So what’s so special about this story? For a start, the original heartfelt and emotional post by a forest officer, who personified the elephant and described her innocence suffering as he imagined it (click on  post to see translation):


Then there were the media, who took his words and reported it as though the animal had been hand-fed this bomb (“…after locals fed it to her…”), though this is probably not what happened and there is no way to know (perhaps some would call this a subtle difference, but psychologically, it is a much more powerful and emotion-invoking image which the media surely understands).  Whatever the circumstance, it doesn’t lessen the cruelty of the outcome (Read related post: Morning walk).

So now we have this moment, what do we do with it? If the only thing that happens is that people express anger and vitriol online, then simply go about their daily lives afterwards, the death and the attention will have been pointless. My colleagues are correct to call on everyone to examine their own lives, and how they contribute to the greater catastrophe of environmental degradation, of which this incident is just a single outcome.

I do think though that this is an opportunity.

As conservationists, we often struggle for air time to get recognition for grave problems that we may be all too familiar with but the rest of the world seems to have no clue about. Human-elephant conflict is one of them. Rather than question why people suddenly seem to care, we should be grateful – grateful that people care at all, and have constructive conversations about what needs to change. For those who didn’t know that things like this happen – now you do. Without merely placing blame on the nameless faceless people who daily live with the hardships of having elephants next door, if you can ask yourself what role you play in the bigger picture, and what you can do to change it, that would be more useful (Read related post: Feeding our Waste to Wildlife).

It would be tone-deaf here not to mention what is happening in the United States and juxtapose the two. Having struggled for centuries with racial biases and inequality, faced with yet another atrocious horrible death it doesn’t do to question why people are suddenly so upset now. The more useful response is to seize the moment, keep up the awareness, and mobilize for change. It may have happened a thousand times before, but the hope each time is that this time will be different, that SOMETHING important will change.

Don’t think that it’s absurd to draw this parallel. What’s the value of human life, of different colors? Of animal life? Of one individual vs. many? Do they compare? The world long since stopped paying attention to the Rohingya refugee crisis, but the massacre still occurred and the city-sized camp is still there, in the midst of an elephant corridor. Where is the outrage and in which direction should it go? These are not easy questions. Each individual has to figure out for themselves how they weight these things, what they’re willing to do or give up.

For my part, I wish the elephants would wise up. I’m sure many people have wondered this – dogs can sniff out explosives, can’t an elephant? Some years ago, researchers noticed that elephant herds in Angola seemed to be able to avoid minefields left behind by war. They wondered whether this could eventually help save human lives. But animals have to learn to associate a sight, sound or in this case smell, with danger. A lot of elephants had to get killed or injured first before herds recognized what they needed to avoid. They trained themselves. This doesn’t seem likely with threats like food bombs, which are rare, irregularly placed over a vast landscape, and may often be encountered by solitary animals that later perish.

So let us not diminish the legitimate anger people feel, and let us express our grief and sorrow without self-righteous finger pointing or demonization of Others whose lives we can barely understand. Let us continue learning, empathizing, struggling, to make the world a bit better however we can.

Why We Study The Asian Elephant

Guest post by Drs. Priya Davidar & Jean-Philippe Puyravaud, Sigur Nature Trust
All photos courtesy of Drs. Davidar & Puyravaud

During the 2017 drought in Tamil Nadu, up to 25 elephants per day were coming to drink water in our water tank.

We were trained as plant ecologists but have made the decision of venturing into research on the Asian elephant. The reasons are two-fold: first, we have a lot of respect and affection for this animal, second is our concern about the demonization of the elephant by the media where it is held responsible for intentionally causing ‘conflicts’ that harm human interests and cause loss of human lives (1). Although the destruction of its habitat, increasing human density and expansion into forest areas are routinely mentioned in most publications, interventions to arrest the loss of habitat and population connectivity is rarely considered a mitigation issue. The human-elephant ‘conflict’ (HEC) mitigation however is given a high priority for funding agencies and research (2,3), although its not clear how successful these efforts have been. Our ultimate reason to get involved in conservation biology however is somehow self-centered. If people don’t learn now to live in harmony with nature, including elephants, then our civilization will alter the biosphere to such an extent that humanity itself will suffer. To us, this is an unacceptable but possible outcome that we attempt to fight. Continue reading

Hyena girl meets elephant girl – A Chat for Skirts in Science

Some colleagues at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science have started a series featuring conversations by female scientists called Skirts in Science.  The goal is to make women in science more visible to students, especially young women and girls.

I had a lot of fun in this chat with Sarah Benson-Amram, now faculty at the University of Wyoming.  Here is a brief window into our work:

Many thanks to Paula Cushing, Kimberly Evans, and Marta Lindsay for inviting us to be part of this great series.  Check out their channel here.

Part 2 will have a discussion of how we came to do what we do. Stay tuned!

~ SdS

Wildlife-Viewing is Not Thrill-Seeking

Baretail and Batik with their newborns.

Baretail and Batik with their newborns.

We sometimes forget how fortunate we are to be able to watch peaceful, calm, habituated elephants in Udawalawe.  It’s easy to take for granted when they stand there, threshing their grass en masse, as though it were the most natural thing in the world to have a horde of humans gawking at them from a few meters away. This post may seem self-evident to a younger generation of wildlife watchers, who have grown up in a world packed to the breaking point with human beings and who realize that wilderness is an increasingly rare and precious thing.  But it may challenge the thinking of some, particularly those of an older generation, for whom wilderness was a vast and ominous space teeming with dangerous things.  For the latter, seeing wildlife might satisfy the need for a thrill in the same way as watching a frightening movie or visiting an amusement park – especially if that wildlife acts fierce and ferocious, such as charging elephant might do. This view still prevails among more than a handful of people today, who might think that seeing the “tame” elephants of some national parks is not as much fun as getting a much more “wild” experience in more secluded areas where the animals elicit more mutual terror.

If this is you, or someone you know, then read on and share. This post is for you.

Loch Ness monster?

Loch Ness monster?

Continue reading

How does empathy help elephants?

By S. de Silva

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A small family of elephants in Uda Walawe wanders upon a dead calf which does not belong to them. Yet they show great interest, touching and hovering over the body for hours, refusing to let any observers near until they finally decide to move off. Photos: UWERP

In the past week a paper on reassurance behavior in elephants by Plotnik et al. in PeerJ has been generating quite a bit of buzz. The study, which you can learn more about from the researchers themselves here, collected a series of observations on a group of captive elephants in Thailand documenting how they reacted when one of their companions was distressed.  It showed that when some individuals were disturbed in some way and expressed their distress, other individuals approached them and interacted in ways (such as touching, vocalizing) that suggested that they might be trying to comfort or console their companion.  Such behavior would indicate that elephants have the capacity for empathy, along with a handful of other species.

The title of this post is meant to work on at least two levels. First, we might wonder at a biological level – what is the function of the curious  behavior elephants sometimes show toward others in distress? Why might it have evolved? Whom does it benefit? Second, we might wonder at a practical level – should the capacities of elephants endow them with additional conservation value? Should it matter on the ground? So today, the first ever World Wildlife Day, I’d like to examine these two sets of questions, which are very distinct. Continue reading

First day

Guest post by Michael Pardo, Cornell University

Wild boar

Curious boar.

December 18, 2012

A breathtaking expanse of bushes peppered with trees.   That is my first impression of Uda Walawe National Park as we pass through the entrance gate in the early hours of the morning.  The shrubs grow densely packed on either side of the ochre-colored road, like a vertically challenged forest.  They are interspersed with teak saplings, a reminder of the days when this park was a timber plantation.  Towering banyan trees soar above the surrounding vegetation, peacocks perched in their uppermost branches.  In the distance, I can see the blue mountains and waterfalls of Nuwara Eliya, and above them, a steely sky striated with rain-laden clouds.  A grey mongoose crosses the road ahead of us, stopping briefly to stare at our jeep before disappearing into the wall of greenery.  Flocks of Common Mynas and Spotted Doves spring into the air as we rumble past.

Continue reading

The Magnificence of Mud

It’s October, and the monsoon is in full force.  As we wrote in an earlier post the elephants love mud.  They’re just oversized piggies with big floppy ears.  Here’s a video for your amusement:

Why do they love mud so much?  As anyone who has seen or enjoyed a muddy spa retreat can tell you, it’s good for the skin and helps with thermoregulation.  Because elephants don’t sweat, when it’s hot outside the evaporating mud cools them off.  Rudyard Kipling so mischievously wrote in ‘The Elephant’s Child’:

‘Don’t you think the sun is very hot here?’ [says the Rock Python]

‘It is,’ said the Elephant’s Child, and before he thought what he was doing he schlooped up a schloop of mud from the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo, and slapped it on his head, where it made a cool schloopy-sloshy mud-cap all trickly behind his ears. Continue reading