About the author
Locke and Keil are return authors on the Elephant Collaborative website. This post is part of and adapted from a larger talk delivered by Locke (and written by Locke and Keil) at the American Anthropological Association conference in 2018.

Some of the recent research on human-elephant relations in the last ten years point to the promise that interdisciplinary engagement might yield, opening up new questions for social and natural sciences alike, and where a multimethodological approach would yield a richer and more complex understanding of human and elephant lives.

Laine’s (2016) work on the collaborative working elephant relationship opens new questions about nonhuman agency and the sophistication of elephant cognition in discriminating, making decisions about and coordinating with handlers in shared working tasks. Laine’s naturalist observations of elephant behaviour could be augmented by closer (and potentially experimental) analysis by trained ethologists and comparative cognitive scientists. Maan Barua (2014), attached to a local NGO, tracked herds through reported sightings and interviewed those people who engaged with these elephants, performing what he calls a geography defined by interspecies interactions. Although compared to the rich data obtained from humans, elephants remain somewhat hidden, revealed only through the fleeting encounters and perspectives of informants. A coordinated study with elephant ecologists and biologists, for example, might reveal in more detail how elephant herds negotiate this human-elephant landscape, and how stress in both species might arise and be mutually reinforced in human-elephant in conflict scenarios.

This is not to say that all humanities research on the human-elephant relationship would benefit from a collaboration with natural scientists. For the most part, social scientists engage with questions that are not necessarily of interest to, or can significantly inform the questions of the animal scientist, and vice versa. These are questions that build from distinct sets of literature that seek answers in regard to very distinct processes and units of analysis.

Just because there might be a lack of meaningful overlap does not imply that researchers from natural and social sciences interested in the broader question of elephants should ignore each other’s research. Adopting a multi-disciplinary reading list and drawing from other perspectives can allows us to “[know] more at the end of the day than at the beginning” (Haraway, 2008). Taking the time to consider the perspectives of other researchers may also transform our conception of elephants and produce unexpected questions. Part of the Elephant Collaborative website’s purpose is to create this multi-disciplinary space, to enable the time for researchers to hear each other out, to not be bound by the concerns that typically define the disciplinary silos that elephant researchers regularly inhabit.

Beyond multi-disciplinarity, a genuine interdisciplinarity seeks a deeper integration and mutual co-development of questions, units of analysis and methodologies: a form of collaboration that produces emergent answers. This is what the Piers Locke outlined in his vision of “ethnoelephantology”. As it stands at the moment in the world of social and natural elephant sciences, this integration is still along way off. Some of us are only producing the first steps towards this interdisciplinary approach in the elephant sciences. And first steps are important.

Anthropology’s engagement with the natural sciences has tended towards critique, challenging the natural-cultural binaries, positivist assumptions, anthropodenial (deWaal, 1999), and the problems of history, politics, and power inherent in scientific practices and, in regard to elephants, conservation practices. Critique and reflexivity in a discipline are important, as the history of the crises of anthropology illustrate, and is a process that (at least to anthropologist eyes) the natural sciences are distinctly lacking.

However, merely pointing out the shortcomings of natural scientific approaches does not constitute a collaboration. These forms of engagement merely attempt to pit one epistemological and methodological approach against the other. They produce further division and compartmentalisation rather than the desired integration of approaches.

So what constitutes a positive steps towards interdisciplinary work?

To begin – for anthropologists at least – we have to decentre our own epistemological and methodological biases and take seriously the research practices in the animal sciences and “the statements that biological scientists make about their objects of knowledge” (Watson, 2016: 166). We need to be generous in our time to listen to other disciplines and consider how their processes worldview can inform our own.

Second, instead of anthropologists writing for an anthropological audience (and writing on lofty subjects that aim to deconstruct and redefine Western concepts of sociality and animality) we can instead write towards the more grounded concerns of the elephant sciences. What is it that the elephant scientists are trying to understand, and how can our frameworks and units of analysis assist in this endeavour? How can we build on the science of others in different disciplines in a way that opens possibilities for greater insight and potential collaboration?

The case of musth in captivity

Musth is one potential area of study. Musth is commonly defined in the elephant sciences as a temporary physiological change in male, post-pubertal, Asian elephants. It is a shift commonly studied in wild populations. Behaviourally, this change is often expressed through animosity and aggression towards unfamiliar elephants and other animals (especially mahouts in captive situations), increased sexual activity, a shift in hierarchical relations between other males in sexual competition (Vidya & Sukumar, 2009; Chelliah & Sukumar, 2013), and increased ranging areas (Riddle, Greenwood, & Rasmussen, 2006; Fernando, et al., 2008). From a bio-chemical perspective, musth refers to the related chemical shift and heightened testosterone, what this might communicate to other elephants, and how it intersects with social relations with con-specifics (Lincoln & Ratnasooriya, 1996). Behavioural and biochemical interpretations of course, are made further sense through evolutionary models of the role of musth in reproductive success.

Bull elephant chained during musth, Thailand

In the context of captive relationships and modern science, musth it seems has been generally understudied. From a captive and welfare perspective musth has been framed as a management problem, such as the limits it places on the elephant’s availability for work, or how to handle an elephant in this state without hurting other humans or elephants (Santiapillai et al. 2011). Captive elephants in musth generally become less responsive to commands from mahout handlers and are considered unpredictable.

Anthropology’s expertise on humans and social organisation naturally lends itself to captive elephant situations. We see two potential avenues by which anthropologists might assist understanding how musth affects human-nonhuman relationships.

First, we can analyse how musth behaviour is not merely a biological constant across elephants but also represents an enactment of the specific socio-ecological conditions within which the elephant lives (whether that is a zoo in the United States, Burmese logging camp, Indian temple elephant, etc). Research has found that bulls in musth are found to be particularly aggressive when permanently bound during this period, as is common practice in Sri Lanka (Santiapillai et al. 2011). Alternatively, the emergence of musth in free-ranging males in wild populations is found not to be a stressful condition (Ghosal et al., 2013). How a bull elephant in musth behaves towards people can vary according to the culturally specific practices of elephant-keeping. Understanding this cultural specificity can also include analysing local perceptions of elephant agency in musth. These perception may arise in practical interaction and through broader discourses. Musth bulls can often reduced to “aggressive”, “dangerous”, and “crazy” subjects, perceptions that can affect how handlers in turn approach elephants.

An anthropological approach would conceptualise elephants as products of the cultural contexts in which they are embedded. Also by attending to local knowledge, anthropology can allow for an evaluative consideration of a range of management approaches.

Second, if we take the elephant camp as the unit of analysis (rather than merely the elephant, or the mahout) it is possible to understand musth as a group level phenomenon. Keil in his research on mahout-elephant relations in India, found that when a male went into musth this shifted the social dynamics of the multispecies community, human and elephant alike. During musth only the regular mahout was allowed to interact with this elephant, all other mahouts kept their distance. The mahout did not wash his clothes, maintaining a familiar smell about him. He also worked independently during this period, away from the three other elephants and their accompanying mahouts. Likewise, elephant intraspecies relations shifted too. Another male was kept at a distance in case of fighting. The older female kept avoided the bull in musth, yet the younger female entered into estrus and both engaged each other more frequently than usual, although no mating was involved.

The configuration of human and elephant actors shifted from their regular interactions and routines throughout the year, particularly during the three weeks that musth was at its most intense. The group dynamics of the elephant camp underwent a temporary state change. If describing what musth is from the group perspective, it is not so much a biological or behavioural phenomenon of an individual actor but rather a shift in relations across the entire assemblage of actors (humans, elephants, tools, environment). Through this analysis musth is revealed as phenomenon of social transformation.


A social scientific analysis of musth offers positive paths towards collaboration. It is an analysis that potentially will complement and mutually inform other biological and ecological understanding of musth and elephants. It shows that we can think of the elephant sciences within an integrative social and natural scientific framework and that coordinated studies and questions across different disciplines might bring new insights into how we understand elephants and elephant relations.

It is possible that such an approach might be extended to wild human-elephant relations, such as conflict scenarios.


Chelliah, K. & Sukumar, R. 2013. The role of tusks, musth and body size in male-male competition among Asian elephants, Elephas maxmius. Animal Behaviour, 86: 1207-1214.

Fernando, P., Wikramanayake, E.D., Janaka, H.K., et al. 2008. Ranging behaviour of the Asian elephant in Sri Lanka. Mammalian Biology, 73:2-3.

Ghosal, R., Ganswindt, A., Seshagiri, P.B. and Sukumar, R., 2013. Endocrine correlates of musth in free-ranging Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) determined by non-invasive faecal steroid hormone metabolite measurements. PloS one, 8(12), p.e84787.

Haraway, D.J. 2008. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Lainé, N. 2016. Conduct and collaboration in human-elephant working communities of Northeast India. In P. Locke & J. Buckingham (eds.), Conflict, Negotiation and Coexistence. Rethinking human-elephant relations in South Asia (p. 180-204). New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Barua, M. 2014. Bio-geo-graphy: landscape, dwelling, and the political ecology of human-elephant relations. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 32 (5), pp. 915-934.

Lincoln, G.A. & Ratnasooriya, W.D. 1996. Testosterone secretion, musth behaviour and social dominance in captive male Asian elephants living near the equator. Journal of Reproduction and Fertility, 108: 107-113.

Riddle, H.S., Greenwood, D.R., & Rasmussen, L.E.L. 2006. The shifting chemical signals of musth. GAJAH, 24: 39-44.

Santiapillai, C. Read, B., Jacobson, G., Wijeyamohan, S., & Rambukpotha, S. 2011. A paradigm shift in the management of musth among bull elephants in captivity in Sri Lanka. Ceylon Journal of Science, 40(1): 25-32.

Vidya, T.N.C. & Sukumar, R. 2009. Social and reproductive behaviour in elephants. Current Science 89(7): 1200-1207.

Watson, M.C. 2016. On multispecies methodology: a critique of animal anthropology. Theory, Culture & Society, 33(5): 159-172.