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.

More info: doi.org/10.3197/096734018X15217309861559
Reposted from Kerala Scholars eGroup

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