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The Complicated History of the Human and Elephant Relationship

While humans and elephants have existed side-by-side for millions of years, the rise of colonialism introduced the exploitation of the word's largest land animals. They were hunted for food and ivory. They were turned into beasts of burden and used for transportation. They were imported for circuses and zoos. They became protagonists in beloved children's books. And now that the elephant population has seriously declined, we are turning to saving them. “Game Change: Elephants from Prey to Preservation” is a new exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History that shows how elephants went from prey to a revered species that represents our relationship to nature.  

“To see [elephants] as the ecologically important beasts that they are, means they are not Babar,” says Marshall Jones of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, who spoke recently at a panel discussion on the occasion of the show’s opening. “There is still another evolutionary step we have to go through in our own understanding,”

While the cartoons Babar, Horton and Dumbo, are childlike, playful and fun, global human-elephant relations are serious fare. African elephants face a poaching crisis. Asian elephants, numbering just a mere 40,000—a tenth of the African elephant population—are fending off encroaching extinction. In communities across Asia, elephants regularly destroy homes, crops and livelihoods. In Sri Lanka alone, a country close to the size of West Virginia with 20 million people and 5,000 elephants, roughly 70 people and 250 elephants are killed annually due to the human-elephant conflict.

“Could you imagine us tolerating, in West Virginia, 5,000 of an animal that . . . kills people?” Jones asks. “We wouldn’t tolerate that in this country, and yet [the people of Sri Lanka] do and they’re trying to achieve that balance.”

Read more about the human-elephant relationship, and how it has changed over time, at Smithsonian magazine.


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