Death by Elephant

You don’t want to experience a tusker in the bush at 6 in the morning.  They’re large, dangerous creatures that can be quite aggressive.

This study takes a look at 14 human fatalities in West Bengal between 2007 and 2010. The epidemiology of the attacks is interesting. First, all of the victims were rural inhabitants. This is attributed to the rural farming practices of the area, and outward encroachment into natural elephant habitat.  Fragmentation of the herds is also believed to have a part in the increase in human/elephant interaction.

The pre-winter months of July-September are the worst time of year for attacks.  This closely coincides with the annual “musth” state, which is characterized by heightened reproductive hormones in male elephants.  Testosterone makes elephants more aggressive towards people, other wildlife, and even fellow elephants.

Twelve of the 14 attacks occurred between 4 and 6 am.  Why so early you say? This is attributed to the local practice of waking up, and going to use the bathroom at the edge of the village where the bush starts.  With that in mind, it makes sense that males made up 78.6% of the victims.  Only 1 attack occurred on a worker in a field.

Young male victims were attributed qualitatively to have more injuries.  This was attributed to a propensity to fight off or attempt to escape from the elephant.  “Females and older men are less likely to put up much resistance” is pulled directly from the paper. This may be true, but I would tend to err on the side of putting up a fight.

Finally, all of the deaths involved crushing, with one also involving a fatal penetrating tusk injury to the head and chest. Twelve had crush injuries to the chest, while another 2 had isolated crush injuries to the head. The authors attribute an instinctual sense of the elephant to know where to inflict the most injury.  While elephants are intelligent, I won’t give them this much credit.  This isn’t a big cat going for the neck to kill.  This is a large mammal stepping on something until it stops moving, usually done in a flight of heightened aggression.  Further evidence is given by the lack of using the tusks as aggressive weapons.

Suffice it to say, there are only a few take home points from this paper.  Don’t go alone into the bush of West Bengal (or anywhere!).  Avoid elephants during musth.  And finally, if you have to go to the bathroom early in the morning, try to hold it.

Human fatalities from wild elephant attacks – a study of fourteen cases
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21550563

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *