20 March 2023

An Ethnography of Human-Elephant Relationships in Kerala

Anu Karippal grew up in the biodiverse state of Kerala, India, where elephants are more than conspicuous. In her master dissertation, she critically examines human-elephant relations amidst the bigger debates on animal rights, the emergence of elephants as a flagship species of conservation, and concerns regarding elephant captivity. Her findings, which she details in this interview, won her the 2022 Prize of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology and are now published in open access thanks to the support of the Vahabzadeh Foundation.

How did you come to study the relations between humans and elephants?
Growing up in the biodiverse state of Kerala on the Western ghats, one could not escape the presence of other species, especially not elephants because they are giant and urge our admiration. Not a month goes by without sighting an elephant decked up for temple festivals, walking with grandeur, with his human handler. On the other side of this spectacle were the frequent human-wild elephant conflictual encounters in India, and the training of captive elephants to fight the wild elephants that cause havoc, with human handlers. While much work has been done on companion species, ethnographic attention to the diverse human-elephant sociality seemed lacking, perhaps also because human-elephant relations are not as extensive as our relations with other companion species. I felt that these unique forms of interactions demand scholarly interpretation. In addition, there have been growing studies on elephant intelligence in behavioural studies that led to the questioning of the ethicality of elephant captivity in conservation discourse. With shifting policies regarding elephant management and the everyday surveillance of human-elephant relations, the topic was promising both in the intellectual and public spheres. And it brought together my areas of interest – ethics and morality, interspecies relations, and my curiosity about elephants.
What were your research questions and your methodology to approach those questions?
I was interested in exploring the moral and sensorial realms of human-elephant sociality in south India. On one hand, I wanted to know how humans and elephants learned to attune to each other, and gain and give trust. On the other hand, I was interested in examining how elephant handlers and owners reacted and responded to the shift in elephant management policies, the ban on further elephant captivity and the associated ethical questioning of human-elephant relations. To study these questions, I did ethnographic research with people and elephants in Kerala in 2022 and conducted in-depth interviews, participant observation and sensorial ethnography – by taking part in various activities such as bathing and feeding elephants.

What are your major findings?

In studying human-elephant attunement, I found that deep hanging out and knowing each other through “touch” were central to forming a strong human-elephant bond. Much like anthropologists, elephant handlers need to be attentive to shifts in elephant behaviour such as gaze, movement of the body, etc., and produce a thick description in order to be “in tune” with the elephant. Further, while the relationship has its pitfalls, the study suggested that the critique of the human-elephant relation as violent within the conservation discourse did not sit well with the extraordinary forms of sociality between humans and elephants. A grounded and phenomenological interpretation of the relation opened another approach to ethics and morality – one that is grounded in attunement and relations, as opposed to a top-down, normative notion of ethics. Moreover, the study found that the epistemology of elephants as conceptualised by animal studies scholars and popular discourse is not very different from how my informants understand the elephant, where their intelligence, memory, social bonding, etc., are acknowledged and valued.

What are you doing now?

I am currently a PhD student in linguistic anthropology at the University of Virginia, where I continue to research human-elephant sociality in south India. For my PhD I will specifically look at how humans and elephants learn to perform joint actions and attain joint attention through multimodal forms of interactions such as touch, gaze, and voice qualities such as rhythm, loudness and pitch. Further, I intend to examine how humans learn to read the minds of elephants, and what it can tell about notions of elephant personhood.

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Back Then It Was Culture, Now It Is Animal Torture: Moral-Phenomenological Milieu of Human-Elephant Entanglements in Kerala was published thanks to the financial support of the Vahabzadeh Foundation. It reproduces Anu Karippal’s master dissertation in Anthropology and Sociology (co-supervisors: Valerio Simoni and Aditya Bharadwaj), which won the 2022 Prize of the Anthropology and Sociology Department.

How to cite:
Karippal. Anu. Back Then It Was Culture, Now It Is Animal Torture: Moral-Phenomenological Milieu of Human-Elephant Entanglements in Kerala. Graduate Institute ePaper 47. Geneva: Graduate Institute Publications, 2023.

Banner picture: part of a photograph by the author.
Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.