Almost everyone who has been on holiday to India or Sri Lanka has a story about their encounter with an elephant: getting stuck in a traffic jam behind one in Delhi perhaps, riding on an elephant in Rajasthan, or being blessed by the temple elephants of Tamil Nadu. But my own encounters with the elephants of the subcontinent have been rather more unsettling.
The first time I saw a wild elephant was on a remote jungle road in West Bengal in the dead of night. It was a bad stretch of road, known to be frequented by bandits and separatist militants. We shouldn't have been out there so late at night, and we were going too fast in our hurry to get back to civilisation.
Suddenly we noticed something blocking the road ahead. There was another car coming in the opposite direction, and all we could see was the silhouette picked out between the lights. It was about the size of a cow, but the shape was all wrong.
The driver blew the horn, but the shape didn't move. Nervously, he began to slow. As we drew closer, we saw what it was: a baby elephant trying to cross the road, trapped between the headlights of cars coming from both directions. If we hadn't slowed down, we would have killed it. And then, as our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we saw them all around us, some of their eyes glinting where they caught the lights from the cars: a entire herd of wild elephants on either side of the road, waiting patiently to cross.
A couple of days later I visited a village near by that had been demolished by a herd of elephants. It looked like an earthquake had hit it. It wasn't just the traditional flimsy bamboo huts that had suffered. Twenty-foot palm trees had been uprooted from the ground. The villagers told us the elephant herd had stood patiently by while a single male wreaked all this destruction on his own. And they were in no doubt about why he did it. The road had cut through the elephants' traditional migration route. They were making a new route, and were not happy at finding the village in the way. Then there was the night in Sri Lanka, another nerve-racking drive, on the way back from interviewing Tamil Tiger rebels. Military convoys were coming under regular attack on the road, and it wasn't a good place to be, but we weren't expecting the huge bull elephant who suddenly came out of the foliage and blocked our path. After a tense standoff, the big male eyeing us suspiciously, he finally moved on and let us pass.
But as we drove on, we saw what had made the elephant nervous. The Sri Lankan military was setting light to the jungle, to clear away possible hiding places for Tamil Tiger ambushes. A herd of elephants was watching from a distance as the soldiers set fire to their habitat, to the leaves that were their food. The elephant was not the aggressor here: man was. Now new research has begun to emerge, suggesting that the incidence of elephant attacks on humans is growing because elephants are suffering severe trauma as a result of seeing so many of their kin killed by humans, according to a report in the New York Times Magazine. Charles Siebert describes how male elephants have begun raping and killing rhinoceroses in South Africa. He reports that 90 per cent of male elephant deaths at one South African reserve are now attributable to other male elephants - compared to only six per cent in more stable elephant communities.
That elephants are capable of ferocious violence is nothing new: they are not quite the cuddly animals the West seems so fond of portraying. They were the tanks of the ancient world, used to charge in battle by the Persians and the Indians, a practice that was quickly copied by Alexander the Great. When Alexander's army mutinied after his death, the generals put paid to the insurrection by throwing 300 offenders to the elephants, who crushed them. Hannibal, of course, crossed the Alps with his war elephants in tow. …