Many people feel a connection to elephants. They are awe-inspiring animals, seemingly larger than life and different in appearance, yet in their actions we recognise something or even someone familiar, beings who are deeply social, emotional, and intelligent.
But how many people are aware of the profound impact elephants have had on human society, shaping who we are today? That elephants and their ancestors modified the ecosystems homo-sapiens evolved within? The symbolic and religious significance of elephants across Asia and Africa? The role of the mighty war elephant in Asian kingdoms that connected India to Europe? Or that working elephant-human relations produced unique interspecies cultures, which allowed us to perform feats that were impossible alone?
A conversation on human-elephant interactions often revolves around the problem of keeping both animals “separate”: wild elephants conflict with people and can only survive living in natural spaces free from humans; elephants in working relations are dominated, abused, and kept captive against their will. The message and strategy of giving elephants space and respectable treatment has undoubtedly helped improve the lives of elephants and conserve their population.
On the other hand, exclusively focusing on the message of separation overlooks the rich and ongoing relationship we share. There are positive and unexpected aspects of our connection with elephants that are worth drawing attention to. We can learn from the attitudes and insights of those who live in landscapes together with wild elephants, or the diversity of management traditions of mahouts who live intimately with elephants and work collaboratively as a team. Through such examples, we can learn to understand elephants better, ourselves better, and learn to live better together. Our historical and cultural connection to elephants can help serve conservation efforts.