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How Similar Are Elephants To Humans? Prominent Writers Answer This In A New Book

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Edited by Jean-Philippe Puyravaud and Priya Davidar

Note: This article has been republished from Down To Earth.

A new book Giant Hearts: Travels In The World Of Elephants, Edited by Jean-Philippe Puyravaud and Priya Davidar, recounts the intimate experiences of prominent writers with elephants. Here are a few exclusive excerpts.

Much Like Humans — Michelle Henley

The similarities between elephants and humans are far reaching and call for an attitude of human-elephant coexistence. We, in the absence of medical advances, share a similar lifespan of around 60-70 years. Like humans, their mammary glands are located between the forelegs which enable the nursing young to be constantly reassured by the prehensile trunk. As a mother can stroke or even groom her suckling baby in a dexterous way, elephant cows ensure strong bonds with their infants right from the start by making extensive use of their tactile and flexible trunks.

Image source: Hamish John Appleby

Elephants’ brains have large storing capacity. At birth, an elephant’s brain is 35 per cent of the adult weight which is comparable to 26 per cent in man as opposed to 90 percent of the adult weight in most other mammals. Hence, elephants and humans both share a prolonged period of learning and flexibility in behaviour as they slowly develop into adulthood. Elephants’ brains have a relatively large hippocampus (a component of the brain that is involved in storing memory) compared to primates which may explain their long social and chemical memories. Consequently they keep track spatially of where other individuals are relative to themselves, and it has even been shown that elephants can recognise groups of humans that pose different degrees of danger.

The author co-founded the Transboundary Elephant Research Programme. 

Thread Of Emotions — Hamish John Appleby

Elephants are known to be “hypersensitive”, being able to pick up, feel and react to a broader range of stimuli than we can. Sadly, this state of “hypersensitivity” is often negatively perceived and even described as “abnormal” or excessive in its psychological or physical response—particularly in societies that regard reason and logic as the fundamental ways to apprehend life.

Their ‘hypersensitivity’ is often negatively perceived and even described as ‘abnormal’. However, I would argue that the idea of hypersensitivity should be regarded as a positive state, enabling living beings to pick up on and respond to one another’s emotions with greater sensitivity, from which there could be so many benefits. For example, a heightened sense of sensitivity and self and others would allow us to be aware of how we affect one another, and how we feel about situations as they unfold. This has the potential to reduce conflicts and help us to lead richer and more connected lives.

The author is a freelance photographer studying in Germany.

Sound Of Mourning — Rajeev K Srivastava

My staff wanted to finish all the formalities of postmortem, but I stopped them. I sat on a boulder, as a helpless soul for hours, also mourning, letting the elephants alone. But my responsibilities were to lead a team and establish facts, as per the law.

She placed her feet gently on the leaning pine and pushed it in front of her baby. The Range Officer and staff tried different methods to chase the mother away by making noise and creating smoke, but in vain. She turned frantic and chased the staff. Suddenly she looked around and saw a pine tree that was leaning across the road. She placed her feet gently on the leaning pine tree and pushed it in front of her baby. After forming this barricade she stopped for a few minutes in silence, to give a last look sadly at her dead child and then quietly left the place. The veterinary doctor conducted the postmortem and gave a report that the calf died by asphyxiation due to a fire set a few days ago.

The author is additional principal conservator of forests, Tamil Nadu Forest Department.

Image source: Dipankar Ghose

Captive Life — Suparna Baksi Ganguly

It is a common sight to see captive elephants begging on roads, standing for hours in a temple, taking tourists for rides, being used in weddings, garlanding politicians and a host of unnatural activities that contribute to their stress and torture. There is no institution in the country, apart from the Forest Departments, that can afford to keep elephants without using them for commercial purposes. Elephants, with their unique emotional and physical needs, are worst suited to captivity. They suffer from severe isolation and depression with stress related diseases in temples, circuses and tourism industries.

Elephants suffer from severe isolation and depression with stress related diseases. Elephant calves are smuggled, trucked and walked after being illegally captured from the dense forests of north-east India. They are distributed through illegal networks to the urban ghettos of Rajasthan and garbage dumps under flyovers in Punjab. They are sent for begging alms to mathas (monastic establishments) and temples of central and south India, and used and exploited as eco-tourism props in shady tourist camps of Goa. Relentless torture in festivals in Kerala is the worst that could befall these magnificent animals. For many, as we can see, the elephant remains an insensitive beast. Is it because of ignorance, insensitivity, greed or simply because the law is not clear enough?

Ganguly wrote Gods in Chains, a book on the plight of captive elephants in India.

Pair Bonding —Fred Kurt

Expert opinions differ on the meaning of musth. Modern biologist would call it “rut”, a period with enlarged testicles, increased levels of male sex hormones and active skin glands. Tribal elephant people would agree, since they know that during his musth period, which lasts a maximum of three to four weeks, an adult bull spends most of his time in search or in company of estrus females. Later he will defend his mating partners against potential competitors and will scent-mark his respective position with urine drips and the secretion of his temporal glands and communicate with infrasonic signals.

Buddhist and Hindu temples would quote age-old wisdom of the relation between duration of musth and wealth of the kingdom and its ruler. However, elephant trainers and keepers in a traditional circus or zoo would consider musth as a sign of mental disease or malfunction of the liver. And the priests in Buddhist and Hindu temples would quote age-old wisdom of the relation between duration of musth and wealth of the kingdom and its ruler. Such extreme discrepancies in interpretation of a biological phenomenon reflect different sources of knowledge for the respective expert and/or different keeping systems for the respective elephants. As a matter of fact, keeping system differs extremely.

The author is involved with the First European Elephant Management School in Hamburg.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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