Journal article / Histories of Human-Elephant Interaction in Kerala’s Western Ghats

Oommen, Meera Anna. ‘The Elephant in the Room: Histories of Place, Memory and Conflict with Wildlife Along a Southern Indian Forest Fringe’. Environment and History 25, no. 2 (May 2019): 269–300.

Abstract (edited): This paper traces past and present entanglements between people and elephants along a forest-agriculture fringe in Kerala’s Western Ghats. In doing so, it explores the evolution of conservation-linked conflict and its problematic impacts.

Over the centuries, the region’s elephants have played a dominant role in its mountain landscapes: as antagonists to cultivators; as sources of ivory, labour and revenue to forest traders, local rulers and imperial administrators; and as cultural and religious icons straddling forests and countryside. Environmental protection arrangements in recent years ushered in a new elephant, a charismatic flagship beloved of conservationists, but also a key actor involved in fluctuating tensions along the forest edge.

In this study, I explore long-term engagements between people and elephants by interrogating three critical phases in history, each incorporating a changing identity for the place in question: as a bountiful, ivory-rich forest at the turn of the Christian Era; as a site of capitalist production during the colonial period; and eventually as a contested conservation landscape. I show that these identities are predicated as much by extra-local processes such as migration and capitalist enterprises, as by embedded engagements with non-human agency.

Contemporary conflict is, therefore, a complex ongoing narrative fuelled by a dynamic interaction between the persistence of human and animal memories as well as by multi-scale sociopolitical catalysts with long histories of influence. By ignoring historical contingencies and diverse discourses, contemporary conservation interventions may overlook the proverbial and sometimes literal elephant in the room.

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Reposted from Kerala Scholars eGroup

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