Between gods and demons


back to issue

An object of worship, target of hunters, a beast of burden, a burden to the people, gentle in captivity, dangerous in wild, the pride of kings, the companion of mahouts, a machine of war, an envoy of peace, loved, feared and hated, the elephant had a glorious and an infamous association with man in Asia. For its sheer contrast and splendour, this association is unequalled by any other interaction between animal and man in the world.

– R. Sukumar1

THE purpose of this essay is to provoke conservationists to critically reflect upon the cultural dimensions of elephant conservation in India. It asks why Asian elephants are effective flagships for biodiversity conservation, and explores how this role has played out historically and in contemporary practice. Flagship species have been an enduring concept in conservation. Defined as high profile, charismatic species that serve as symbols or rallying points for conservation goals, flagships are deployed as a strategic tool to elicit public support and stimulate positive conservation outcomes. Their uses in conservation have been numerous, ranging from generating funds to protected area creation, promoting ecotourism, to influencing conservation policy.2 The Asian elephant in India is perhaps one of the few species that has effectively catalyzed all these goals.

Whilst it is almost taken for granted that elephants are effective flagships in the Indian context, an analysis of how it fulfils this role is lacking. Such an intervention is likely to be a fruitful endeavour given that the country faces major challenges in conservation and is seeking to chart a new vision for elephants leading up to the middle of this century. To this end, the article first unpacks how cultural factors and the charisma of elephants help constitute them as flagship species. It then provides a broad historical outline of elephant conservation in India to show how it has operated as a flagship and what practices it has helped legitimize. The article then turns to some o f the challenges facing the deployment of elephants as flagships on the ground. It concludes by discussing the implications of this cultural analysis for future conservation practice.


Culture constitutes an important dimension in the framing and deployment of a flagship species. Species that resonate with audiences are typically those that have a prominent place in the specific culture, are easily identified with and engender sentiments of affection and care. This is not to say that culturally prominent species become flagships by default: they are mobilized by the state, conservation NGOs and other institutions in specific ways that harness the species’ charisma to engender public appeal and interest.

For instance, whales have been effectively deployed by organizations such as Greenpeace to sum up and stand against unsustainable resource exploitation. Here, biological attributes of different whales that resonate with people – for instance being the largest animal on earth (Blue whale), endangered (Bowhead whale), having a pleasant and varied song (the Humpback), of being friendly (Grey whale) – are brought together to create a conservation totem that summons support for anti-whaling campaigns.3

Similarly, the Giant panda was transformed from a relatively obscure species to an international icon through its adoption as a national symbol in China during the Mao era and by its use as a logo by the World Wildlife Fund in 1961. Contrary to popular belief, panda symbolism was almost absent in China’s historical past. Rather, panda motifs were circulated through ‘traditional’ arts and crafts in order to create a sense of tradition and history.4 The ‘cuddly’ characteristics of the panda, its association with the childhood teddy and the exotic Orient, were equally integral to the rise of what is perhaps the most famous conservation symbol in the world.


Cultural geographers have sought to unpack why certain species are perceived as charismatic. This is a combination of both the attributes of the animal concerned, and how these are perceived as interesting or enchanting by people in a specific cultural context. In the case of the Asian elephant, a combination of ecological, aesthetic and corporeal factors are at play. The elephants’ large size and strength, combined with its intelligence, is integral to the creature’s long association with royalty and nobility in India. In fact, indigenous taxonomies of elephants categorize the animal into different types, depending on the creature’s built and bodily dispositions, the Koomerah, or ‘princely archetype’, being the epitome of a perfect elephant.5 This cultural appreciation of the elephant body is frequently depicted in Indian art, a famous example of which is the rock carving in Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu. More recently, there has been a growing phenomenon of ‘celebrity’ elephants in Kerala where fans compare and contrast their favourite animals based on morphological characters and the charisma of individuals.

Like other flagships such as the great apes and the big cats, elephants have forward-facing eyes. This anatomic configuration of the elephant’s body allows face-to-face contact with upright, bipedal humans for whom vision is the primary register of engaging with the world. The presence of a ‘face’ in certain animals makes them near-human; it allows for emotional associations to be made, and fosters ethical relations with the creatures concerned. Posters, websites and publicity material of NGOs working on elephant conservation are replete with frontal images of elephants. They accentuate the charisma emanating from face-to-face encounters with elephants, and when coupled with messages about endangerment, work as a strong force in harnessing public support.


A similar logic is at work in the West, where childhood engagements with elephant luminaries such as Dumbo, Babar and Elmer, contribute significantly to citizens’ sensibilities toward elephants in later life. Stylized cartoons, working on a logic of sensation, accentuate elephants’ eyes. These partly anthropomorphized renderings highlight elephants’ sentience, portraying the creature as lovable and in need of human care. The Elephant Parade, a global initiative that has raised millions of dollars for Asian elephant conservation, deploys similarly anthropomorphized sculptures to engage publics and generate support (www.

Asian elephants’ ethological and ecological attributes also play a strong role in their framing as a cultural icon and flagship species. The creature’s strong social bonds, herd behaviour and ability to display compassion bridge with human ideas of society and collective living. Indian mythological narratives, such as the Vaishnavite story of Gajendramoksha, where Gajendra the king of elephants is trapped by a crocodile in a lake, often draw upon observations of elephant ethology. Elephants’ intelligence, their ability to use tools, and numerous feats they perform in captivity, lend to framings of these creatures as human companions. The human-elephant relationship in India has been the subject of numerous books (e.g. Kipling’s Toomai of the Elephants), and films (including the popular Bollywood Haathi Mere Saathi) the world over.

Finally, there is the deification of elephants in India. The creature is seen as a living embodiment of the immensely popular deity Ganesha, an icon that is not only pan-Indian, but has forms that have travelled as far East as China and Japan. This plethora of cultural associations serves to enhance the charisma of the elephant, charisma that one would argue is co-constituted by the physical and ethological attributes of the creature. These cultural connotations provide strong logics that conservation organizations have used over time when promoting the Asian elephant as a flagship for the conservation of India’s forests and natural heritage.


This use of elephants as symbols and rallying points for landscape-scale conservation in India has had a long, and one might add fraught, history. Conservationists frequently cite Kautilya’s treatise on statecraft, the Arthasastra, where he refers to the need to maintain Hastivanas or elephant-forests, as one of the earliest known examples of elephant-landscape conservation in India.6 References to such texts help build a narrative that India has had a long tradition of conserving elephants, and works to legitimize contemporary conservation practice. Environmental historians would no doubt be critical of this slant toward Whig historiography. Digressions aside, one would argue that the current framing of the elephant as a National Heritage Animal pages back to developments in the late 19th century when strong links between the elephant and the state were formalized.


The elephant was already a commodity in pre-colonial India, captured and trained to be used as a beast of burden, as a spectacle in royal stables or as a machine of war. Trade networks were well established, with elephants sourced from various parts of the country. The East India Company, which sought to gain control over the elephant trade run primarily by feudal estates and private contractors,7 slowly introduced a set of legislations that would ultimately lead to state monopoly over the animal. Initially this was through creating forest reserves, whereby elephants, like timber, became ‘produce’ of state-owned forest to which the colonial government had privileged access.

In 1879, an ‘Elephants’ Preservation Act’ was constituted, prohibiting capture and killing of elephants, unless permitted by a license granted under the act. It meant that elephants became state property, irrespective of whether they were in forest reserves or outside. This transformation not only made the state the sole body governing human-elephant relations, it gave it the authority to dictate how modes of human-elephant cohabitation should unfold on the ground. This initial protection afforded to the elephant was driven by an economic logic rather than a desire to conserve the species per se.


The idea that the elephant was an animal belonging to the state was cemented in the public imagination. Forms of elephant conservation that arose in post-independence India, notably during the environmentalism of the Indira Gandhi era, were based on these earlier logics of rule. Preserving India’s ‘cultural and biological identity’ through retention of ‘representative patches’ of flora and fauna in their ‘original state’ was a priority for the young and emerging nation.8 Whilst the tiger occupied centre stage, displacing the lion to become the country’s national animal,9 elephants were also integral to the heritage post-colonial India sought to preserve.

Elephants had an exalted position in India’s history and culture, making it an ideal flagship to leverage conservation goals, especially since many remarked that ‘it would be difficult to imagine an India without elephants.’10 The animal was elevated to Schedule I of The Wildlife (Protection) Act in 1977, which meant that the creature was afforded the highest level of state protection, and could no longer be killed for destroying property or crops.

The emergence of a new elephant conservation science was also a contributing factor to how the Asian elephant became a fulcrum for landscape-scale preservation in the country. In 1976, the formation of the IUCN/SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group, led to some of the first biogeographical maps showing population status and contractions in the animals’ range. Asia-wide surveys were critical in terms of highlighting the fact that long-term survival of elephants could ‘no longer be taken for granted.’11 The prevailing American science of the day, notably the newly tested Equilibrium Theory of Island Biogeography, informed debates on how elephant reserves should be constituted and managed. Elephant reserves in India were seen as fragmented, operating in isolation and unsustainable for retaining viable elephant populations.12 Project Elephant, launched in 1992 and a flagship government initiative for elephant conservation, was a response to contending problems of the times, notably, ‘man-elephant confrontation’,13 a failure to take ‘into account the range-utilization strategies of elephants’ and the need to quell deforestation in existing protected areas.14

In summary, the rise of the Asian elephant as a flagship for conservation within the Indian state has a particular historical trajectory. Three interrelated logics constitute this. First, there is the commodification of the animal and its transformation into state property. Second, its charisma and eminence in Indian heritage lent to post-independence nation-building practices. Finally, the creature’s large-scale habitat requirements enabled preservation to be exercised across landscapes, fostering the hope that significant proportions of India’s biodiversity would be conserved as a by-product.


Whilst framing the elephant as a flagship through narratives of heritage and imperatives of landscape-scale conservation seems to have become central to Indian conservation, this is often challenged on the ground. Escalating human-elephant conflict in the country has resulted in failure in its effective deployment as a flagship, notably in terms of eliciting rural farmers to support elephant conservation initiatives.15 I would argue that there are three dichotomies that lend to this problem, dichotomies that need to be urgently accommodated by conservationists when shaping visions for the Asian elephants’ future.

First, conservationists and ecologists have long emphasized that human-elephant conflict is an age-old phenomenon, but what perhaps is seldom brought to attention is the tradition of vilifying the animal in Indian mythology, a tradition that runs parallel to oft-cited references about the elephant’s godlike status. The first of these is Kuvâlayapida, a demon in elephantine form who is ultimately slain by Lord Krishna. The other is Gajasura, literally meaning ‘elephant demon’, who is said to have gone on a rampage destroying homes and killing people, until he meets his nemesis when confronted by Shiva, the lord and keeper of animals. Both these myths possibly arose in agrarian societies,16 and indicate that the symbolism around elephants is far more ambiguous then normative conservation narratives posit.


The need to be attentive to this alternate symbolism is highlighted by the recent rise in a number of troublesome bull elephants being labelled ‘Bin Laden’ across parts of the country. During the early 2000s, in the district of Sonitpur in Assam, villagers poisoned over twenty elephants and scrawled ‘Paddy thief elephant Laden’ on the body of one dead animal. Another bull by this name, reported to have killed fourteen people in Assam, was declared a rogue and was shot by the government.17 In 2008, a ‘serial killer’ Bin Laden was killed by the police and forest authorities in the central Indian state of Jharkhand.18 Labelling elephants Bin Laden is not necessarily a recent erosion of cultural reverence. This practice bears an uncanny resemblance to myths of elephant demons, mythic templates that are prevalent within society. The myth is re-enacted when the animal is killed by a powerful authority, in this case the state and not some divine being.

The second pertains to differences between how elephants are portrayed and appreciated in the West and perceptions of the animal on the ground in India. As I have argued earlier, western renderings of the creature work with a logic of sensation, accentuating elephants’ sentience and positing it as an endangered animal in need of care and support. The benefits such perceptions bring to elephant conservation, notably in the form of funds and donations, cannot be denied. Yet, the same logics may be difficult to harness when relations between people and elephants on the ground are very different. Instead, conservationists have sought to use other arguments to foster support, for instance the religious connotations of the animal and associations with Ganesha, exemplified by slogans such as ‘God in distress’.


However, purchase from cultural associations may be limiting when conflict overrides other concerns. Whilst conducting ethnographic fieldwork on human-elephant relations in Assam in 2010, a woman I interviewed shared some of the sentiments distraught villagers upheld; ‘Elephants have become thieves. People have become bad, and so have the gods.’ Such sentiments are particularly difficult to accommodate when elephants are appreciated through logics of aesthetic sensation, sometimes even leading to positing people as ‘environmental villains’, although both the rural poor and elephants are victims of conflict.

Third, the strong links between elephants and the state has also had ramifications in terms of how the creature is viewed by local communities. People often perceive elephants as ‘government property’ and redirect their anger on crop-raiding elephants toward the state. A similar logic is perhaps at work in other elephant range-states, including countries in Africa where the creature is sometimes referred to as ‘government cattle’ by rural farmers.19 This view is an outcome of the colonial legacy of ownership over the animal, reflecting how past histories continue to have influence on human-elephant relationships in the present. Positioning the elephant as a flagship for preserving India’s heritage, when led through centralized, state-based visions, may fail when they rub against concerns of those who cohabit with animals on the ground.


Through engagements with elephants’ charisma, and by unpacking cultural dimensions of human-elephant relations, this essay has shown why the Asian elephant makes an effective flagship species. The appeal that the creature generates, both in India and the West, is perhaps unparalleled by any other animal. These factors work in favour of the elephant and are likely to sustain conservation action and funding in the foreseeable future. However, as this analysis has shown, the deployment of the elephant as a flagship for biodiversity conservation is not entirely straightforward. There are certain ambiguities at work and several challenges that need to be met.

The first pertains to rethinking the way elephants have been framed and promoted as a flagship for landscape-scale conservation. The historical trajectories through which this has unfolded, notably state ownership of the animal, and subsequent entanglement in nation-building exercises, has meant that the animal, at least to a large part of the populace, is viewed to be the property of the state. The recent reframing of Asian elephants as India’s National Heritage Animal by the government was certainly a right step, as it sought to imbue collective ownership and responsibility toward the creature. Nonetheless, the difficult task of translating this label to action and acceptance on the ground still needs to be achieved. There is a need for greater reflection on the fraught colonial pasts that haunt elephant conservation and to think of ways through which its adverse impacts might be undone.

The second challenge relates to how conservationists might think of using elephants as flagships amidst western audiences. Human-elephant conflict, and the discontents it brings about to both humans and elephants, is not an issue that works well with the lay western public donor or philanthropist. At times, it is only the plight of elephants that is highlighted. In other cases, key issues facing those who cohabit with elephants, some of whom are amongst the poorest people in the world, may be edited out. Making publics aware of the complexities of the situation, the different ways through which humans and elephants relate, is much needed. This may be particularly difficult in a world driven by capitalist sensation and media frenzy.


Finally, there needs to be greater integration of cultural complexity into elephant conservation planning and governance. Till date, the ecological sciences have been the most prominent spokespersons for elephants in India, and the significant body of research conducted continues to drive conservation policy. This analysis points to some of the important cultural issues that need to be grasped if elephants are to continue as flagships for 21st century biodiversity conservation in India. Human-elephant relations are multiple in nature, not all of which are about reverence or appreciation. The question is how might we acknowledge cultural complexity and enable both people and elephants to flourish in a not always perfect world? Easier said than done, but as conservationists, it is a critical imperative for understanding human-elephant relationships and to ensure that both parties are better-off in the future.


* Maan Barua is a cultural geographer. His research involves looking at political economies of nature, environmental politics in South Asia, and the geographies of global biodiversity conservation.


1. R. Sukumar, The Asian Elephant: Ecology and Management. Cambridge University Press, 1993.

2. M. Barua, et al., ‘Defining Flagship Uses is Critical for Flagship Selection: A Critique of the IUCN Climate Change Flagship Fleet’, Ambio 40, 2011, pp. 431-435.

3. A. Kalland, ‘Management by Totemization: Whale Symbolism and the Anti-Whaling Campaign’, Arctic 86, 1993, pp. 124-133.

4. E.E. Songster, A Natural Place for Nationalism: The Wanglang Nature Reserve and the Emergence of the Giant Panda as a National Icon. ProQuest, 2004.

5. F. Edgerton, The Elephant-Lore of the Hindus: The Elephant Sport (Matanga-Lila) of Nilakantha. Motilal Banarasidass, 1985.

6. R. Sukumar, The Living Elephants: Evolutionary Ecology, Behaviour and Conservation. Oxford University Press, 2003.

7. N. Nongbri, ‘Elephant Hunting in Late 19th Century Northeast India: Mechanisms of Control, Contestation and Local Reactions’, Economic and Political Weekly, 26 July 2003, pp. 3189-3199.

8. M. Rangarajan, ‘The Politics of Ecology: The Debate on Wildlife and People in India, 1970-95’, Economic and Political Weekly 31, 1996, pp. 2391-2409.

9. Z. Futehally, ‘Conservation in India: 1972 in Retrospect’, Biological Conservation 5, 1973, pp. 233-234.

10. D.K. Lahiri-Choudhury, ‘The Indian Elephant in a Changing World’, in C.M. Bordeon (ed.), Contemporary Indian Tradition: Voices on Culture, Nature, and the Challenge of Change. Smithsonian Institution Press, pp. 301-321.

11. D.K. Lahiri-Choudhury, ‘Conservation of the Asian Elephant – 1971-92: An Overview’, in J.C. Daniel and H.S. Datye (eds.), A Week With Elephants: Proceedings of the International Seminar on the Conservation of the Asian Elephant (June 1993). Bombay Natural History Society, 1995, pp. 19-31.

12. R.Sukumar, ‘The Elephant Populations of India: Strategies for Conservation’, Proceedings of the Indian Academy of Sciences (Anim. Sci./Plant Sci.), Supplement November 1986, pp. 59-71.

13. J.C. Daniel, ‘Introduction’, in J.C. Daniel and H.S. Datye (eds.), A Week With Elephants: Proceedings of the International Seminar on the Conservation of the Asian Elephant (June 1993). Bombay Natural History Society, 1995, pp. 1-6.

14. D.K. Lahiri-Choudhury, ‘Saving Elephants for Posterity’, IUCN/SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group Newsletter 6, 1991, pp. 18-19.

15. M. Barua, et al., ‘Mutiny or Clear Sailing? Examining the Role of the Asian Elephant as a Flagship Species’, Human Dimensions of Wildlife 15, 2010, pp. 145-160.

16. D.D. Kosambi, Combined Methods in Indology and Other Writings. Oxford University Press, 2002.

17. Anon, India’s Killer Elephant Shot Dead. BBC News, 2006.

18. T.R. Shankar Raman, ‘Death of Two Osamas’, Deccan Herald, http://www., 2011.

19. C. O’Connell, The Elephants’s Secret Sense: The Hidden Life of the Wild Herds of Africa. Free Press, 2007.