What Eats People, Part 14: Elephants

Croconut pointed me to this interesting report about an elephant killing 17 people. The scenario is familiar: people and elephants in competition for the same land and its produce. Elephants remember the places where they like to feed and will return to them even after months of absence. When they find a favored feeding spot infested with people, they may react the same way a human does when he finds ants eating food he things of as his. In this case, the humans killed the elephant’s young, which may have led her to kill humans on sight. We don’t know exactly how similar an elephant’s emotional life may be to ours, but one interpretation here would be rage.

None of this is unusual. What’s different about this story is that the elephant seems to have eaten human flesh. This sounds quite shocking, and of course this simple-minded TV show points up the abnormality of it. The truth is, we don’t have enough context for evaluating this behavior. It may be that elephants have done this before; how often do their stomach contents get checked, even in cases of human death?

We do know that one of the elephant’s many weapons is its bite. They have certainly been observed biting people. I often hear claims that herbivores simply don’t eat flesh, but this is wrong and simplistic. Many animals will consume things outside their usual diet on occasion. Sometimes this is the result of a pica, an abnormal craving caused by nutritional deficiencies in the diet. It’s the same reason some people feel a compulsion to eat dirt. The elephant’s teeth are designed for grinding plant matter, but it has more than enough power to grind animal flesh if motivated. (Whether its stomach can actually digest this matter is another question.) In its January 12, 1948 issue, Time magazine reported this interesting behavior in a zoo elephant:

SWITZERLAND: An Elephant with Imagination - TIME: "One day, Chang brusquely snatched a doll from the arms of a little girl. For this he was banished to his pit. Then on a stormy November morning three years ago, zoo keepers saw blood on the floor of the pit. In Chang's straw bed they found a bloodied human hand and toe. The horrified keepers and police learned the unbelievable truth. Chang had devoured a young woman; he had swallowed her clothes, her hat, and even her large handbag."

This report, if true, lends some support to the pica hypothesis. Until recent decades, the nutritional needs of animals were not well understood, and they often suffered picas in captivity.

I don’t actually think that’s the cause of the anthropophagy in this recent case, however. This was not a predatory attack, but an adjunct to retaliatory violence. We know many other animals, even if not particularly disposed to take human flesh, will eat it once it becomes available—which happens if, for example, the animal itself happens to kill a human for non-predatory reasons. Domestic dogs sometimes kill a stranger who enters their yard, then eat him. This looks like violence incited by a territorial defense, followed by opportunistic eating of the body once it’s dead.  There’s a well-known case of a photographer named Bill Tessinsky who apparently made a mother brown bear feel threatened. She killed him in defense of her cubs, then fed on the body. The elephant is obviously not a carnivore, and perhaps it’s not subject to this same urge—but this one had been driven away from plant food.  Her hunger may have led her to a dietary experiment.

So there’s a  possible scenario, and here’s a wilder one. Eating is itself an aggressive behavior. One theory of human cannibalism is that it terrorizes survivors into flight or submission.  To eat, or otherwise mutilate, an enemy is to advertise how dangerous you are to other enemies.

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  1. Fascinating, thanks a lot for this post :D I do remember reading about a man-eating elephant before; I don´t know if it's Chang. According to my old source (sorry, can´t remember what book it was), the elephant, along with other animals, had been abandoned in a zoo during war, and so it was slowly starving. A woman took it as her duty to feed the elephant for as long as she could, but one night she made the mistake of staying in the animal's enclosure (I think to seek refuge against a storm) and next morning people found that the elephant had eaten the woman.
    Dunno if it's the same report, or how much of it is truth; of course in this case it was just extreme hunger, since the elephant didn´t seem to be aggressive towards the woman until that night.

    Again thanks! :D

  2. Thank you for the link, Croconut. I heard a similar story about Chang, but it doesn't seem to fit with the facts reported in the Time story. Chang's human-eating escapade happened in 1937, so the war part, especially, doesn't seem right. I wonder if somebody conflated his story with the one about zoo elephants in Japan during World War II. They didn't eat anybody, but they did face starvation, despite the efforts of children to keep them fed. There's a children's book about them. Its story is told at a level that won't interest most adult readers, but the illustrations, by the extraordinary Ted Lewin, are well worth the look.

  3. Never heard about that book, thanks!

  4. Here's a link to it on Amazon:


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