I was reading Field Negro's great post on the senseless murder of Derrion Albert in Chicago and had a light bulb moment. One of our first posts on this site was a bit prescient in that it (sadly) commented upon the root causes of the barbarism that we witnessed in Chicago this week--and which we have seen all too often in our communities many, many times. Sadly, here is a We Are Respectable Negroes flashback from July 28, 2008. It is all too telling as we try to explain the savagery among the ign't classes as of late:
Besides the ape, the elephant ranks among my favorite creatures. They possess a certain power, wisdom, dignity, grace, and intelligence which is in my opinion, without equal among land mammals. I also love the sea cow, a.k.a. the manatee.
In fact, I so love elephants that on principle I do not attend circuses (creepy clowns) or zoos (even as a child I thought they were cruel, and I will not let my children go to zoos or circuses either). Besides belonging to the World Wildlife Federation, my support for the elephant is so great that I root for the elephants when they escape their cruel handlers and commence to get some revenge by laying the smackdown on their human captors. Making them even more ideal as subjects for study, elephants hold funerals for their honored dead (and this has been documented to include humans whom the elephants are fond of), have their own version of the telephone game, and are highly social. In total, this makes them great mirrors for examining human behavior.
The Straight Dope, a weekly syndicated column, recently featured a piece on the rise of social dysfunction among elephants. It seems that an absence of older elephants, and the violence facing elephant herds by poachers and Africa's litany of civil wars (these countries can't get their act together can they? and now the elephants, and the great apes, are paying the price for human foolishness) has damaged the social cohesion of elephant society. The older male elephants, the elephant OG's/elders are not around to control the young elephant ign'ts. And the female elephants can't keep these young elephant ign'ts in check. This breakdown is so profound that the young male elephants are killing innocent rhinos, fighting each other without cause, and then raping their dead and defeated adversaries. When reading the column, I couldn't help but think about the eerie parallels this has with the breakdown of social cohesion among the underclass. It seems that elephants, like mankind, are facing a crisis of "youthocracy"--Robin Kelley's word not mine--where the natural balance among families and communities is being upended by a crisis in elephant manhood.
Here is the article:
I've read that elephants are now exhibiting aggression previously unseen — including raping rhinos on the African savannah. Have we truly screwed up the elephants that much, or is this merely one of those myths that is now perpetuated in the media? — K. Honey, Georgetown, Ontario
As far as I've seen, the most unambiguous published claim that male elephants do with some regularity rape rhinoceroses appears in an October 2006 New York Times Magazine article titled "An Elephant Crackup?" In opening his argument that a specieswide breakdown in social cohesion has led to an upsurge in violence by elephants, author Charles Siebert offers evidence that elephant aggression has been marked by what he calls a "singular perversity": "Since the early 1990's, for example, young male elephants in Pilanesberg National Park and the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve in South Africa have been raping and killing rhinoceroses; this abnormal behavior, according to a 2001 study in the journal Pachyderm, has been reported in "'a number of reserves' in the region." That's an assertion guaranteed to catch the eye of even the most inattentive reader, and it's since appeared in other discussions of animal behavior, often phrased in ways suggesting the NYT article was the source.
But is it true? Sitting down with the Pachyderm study Siebert cites — Slotow et al, "Killing of Black and White Rhinoceroses by African Elephants in Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park, South Africa" — we learn that between 1991 and 2001 the park's elephants dispatched 63 rhinos, mainly by goring. The authors suggest that the animals responsible were young males who had grown up in social groups from which older males had been "culled" (read: slaughtered by government-commissioned hunters as a population-control measure) and as a result entered a state of heightened, testosterone-fueled aggression called musth much earlier in life than they ordinarily would have. Since similar incidents at Pilanesberg stopped after large adult males were reintroduced into the population, thus reestablishing the natural male hierarchy, the authors advocate trying the same thing at Hluhluwe-Umfolozi.
Wait a minute, you say — what about the raping part? That's what I said too. I went back through the study a second time, then a third. The reference to abnormal behavior seen in "a number of reserves" has only to do with elephants killing rhinos; nowhere is any mention made of rape. Seeing a clear need for some inside info, I had my assistant Una get in touch with one of the article's authors, Rob Slotow, director of the Amarula Elephant Research Program at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Professor Slotow's reply was straightforward: the young elephants seemingly got into ritualized combat situations with the rhinos, as males are wont to do, but having no experience being in the musth state, didn't know they were supposed to back off when the rhinos backed down, with the result that the rhinos wound up dead. "There was," Slotow concluded, "nothing sexual about these attacks." (He went on to report that, sure enough, the attacks on rhinos subsided almost entirely once older males were brought back on board.)
That would suggest a problem in the NYT quote above. Best case, I figured, was that the article got the underlying facts right — i.e., elephants really were raping as well as killing rhinos at the parks in question — but named the wrong study in support. That was Siebert's best guess as well, and he sent me to G.A. Bradshaw, an animal psychologist at Oregon State, who'd been a key source for him on the Times piece. Bradshaw maintains that the elephants have been observed mounting their rhino victims and that it's ridiculous to dismiss the possibility that the attacks have a sexual aspect. Though she prefers the term "false copulation," she says, "it is unlikely that the act was consensual as so many rhinos were killed, so in that context and in light of current science, 'rape' is not inappropriate."
There's little doubt that decades of poaching, culling, and habitat loss have played havoc with elephants' complex social and emotional lives, and a traumatized elephant is clearly capable of some scary behavior. But so far experts don't agree on what to call it.
Maybe I read too many issues of the comic the Elephantmen, but in considering the mayhem in the elephant community I couldn't help but visualize an elephant Bill Cosby lecturing the young elephant men on manhood, "come on elephant people we can do better!"
Or maybe a elephant Sudhir Venkatesh or William Julius Wilson doing ethnographies on the social networks of the elephant 'hood. Perhaps, there is an elephant version of Daniel Patrick Moynihan studying this issue and making policy prescriptions to correct the chaos among the elephant youth? Of course, there would also be the obligatory elephant John McWhorters and Stanley Crouches (maybe being an elephant would actually improve the latter's looks) railing against the social evil that is hip hop--or its elephant equivalent.
And guess what, when older male elephants were returned to the elephant herds the anti-social behavior of the young elephant ign'ts virtually ceased. Perhaps we should borrow that model in order to improve our own communities? But then again, where would we find these responsible, wise elders? And would they want to return to the 'hood?