Elephant Trauma Recovery
Building Elephant Futures Through Psychological and Cultural Recovery
We are not myths of the past, ruins in the jungle, or zoos. We are people and we want to be respected, not to be victims of intolerance and racism.
—Rigoberta Menchú Tum, Nobel Peace Prize Winner, 1992
A similarity of circumstance and mind leaves Elephants and human refugees faced with common issues. In the wake of violent upheavals, both communities are on an uncertain journey to recovery. Both are challenged to create new cultural identities that favor survival under conditions significantly changed from historical times. In this light, conservation expands from a paradigm devoted to species and habitat preservation to one dedicated to Elephant self-determination.
Principles of Wildlife Self-DetermiNation
Wildlife social justice is the understanding that well-being depends on the ability to exercise self-determination, to engage in self-authority and governance. Core to this understanding is that other animals possess language comparable to that of humans. It is therefore part of our mission to foster and reflect nonhuman animal values, ethics, and communication. While this sanctuary project focuses on wildlife, domesticated animal self-determination is implicitly included.
Aligning with Trans-Species Science
Scientific theory and data have overwhelmingly established the comparability of human and other animals’ mental and emotional states and installed a new, trans-species science, a unitary model of Elephant and human minds. However, research, scientific practice, Elephant social justice, policy, and public law and are not yet aligned with current knowledge and remain founded on the premise that Elephants do not share fundamental qualities possessed by humans. Even within advocacy circles, there is a tendency to work from the past hierarchical, two-tiered (e.g., animal ethological/human psychological) model.
To move law and scientific practice from exploitation to protection, it is essential to solidify and extend the trans-species science paradigm within and between research and Elephant advocacy communities. Three main steps are entailed: (i) create a coherent expanded scientific platform; (ii) obtain interdisciplinary endorsement; (iii) extend and translate trans-species science to ethical and legal platforms.
Current Scientific Understanding
Elephant trauma has a diverse etiology. Trauma may result from capture, witnessing the injury, loss, or death of a loved one, social breakdown, unaccustomed violence, isolation, deprivation, abuse, loss of homeland, developmental trauma, and chronic fear due to environmental uncertainty.
Elephant psychological and cultural recovery mechanisms have not co-evolved with existing dominant stressors. Widespread war, genocide, environmental degradation, and social breakdown over the past century are evolutionarily unique. By extension, human-caused trauma sustained by Elephants, including circumstances of captivity, differs in extent and nature substantively from the stressors to which Elephants have evolved.
Successful psychosocial recovery depends on the ability of Elephant communities to function compatibly with current and future environmental conditions. Present and future environmental conditions contrast significantly with those of the historic past. Food resources, habitat extent and quality, demography, and disturbance regimes have altered. An inability to adapt psychologically and socially to accommodate these changes increases stress and diminishes viability.
Conserving Elephants involves conserving their psychological and social capacity and resources to restore their cultures and self-determination. Restoring agency — the ability to make choices and act upon those choices — and sense of self are core to trauma recovery and well being.
Anticipating Elephant Futures
Humans will continue to be a significant factor shaping Elephant behavior and culture in sanctuary and free-range communities. Humans are the primary driving agent of wildlife cultural change and viability. Education, economic, and other programmes will stimulate positive changes in human perceptions and behavior towards Elephants. However, during this process and beyond, Elephants will be exposed to humans in multiple ways including hunting, habitat encroachment, disease, and ecotourism.
Sanctuaries, reserves, and conservation programs are critical biophysical and cultural resources for Elephant individuals and communities. By force of circumstance, Elephants are dependent on humans to aid in their recovery. Sanctuary and conservation programs function as cultural mediators for Elephants as they negotiate recovery in human-dominated environments within and outside captivity. In this context, human influences on Elephant wellbeing may have positive or negative effects (i.e. the degree to which Elephants are able to exercise agency and maintain wellbeing) depending on how well the environment in which Elephants live reflects the psychological, social, and ecological expectations they have developed and the quality of resources available to them.
Definitions of Elephant trauma recovery and wellbeing based on historical data may not be suitable for present and future conditions. Developmentally and culturally, the majority, if not all, Elephants will live in a bicultural-hybrid environment where concepts such as “wild” hold meanings different from the past. “What has been lost is the continuity of the past,” wrote Hannah Arendt on human genocide, “What you are left with is still the past, but a fragmented past, which has lost its certainty of evaluation.” Ecological discontinuity (habitat change) and social discontinuity (changed community demography and structure) produce psychological discontinuity (stress and trauma). Subsequently, diagnoses, methods, and definitions of recovery are contingent on Elephant compatibility with present and evolving socio-ecological conditions.