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The Elephant in the Room: Histories of Place, Memory and Conflict with Wildlife Along a Southern Indian Forest Fringe

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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 socio-political 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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Keywords: Human-wildlife conflict; conservation; elephants

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: May 1, 2019

This article was made available online on April 18, 2018 as a Fast Track article with title: "The Elephant in the Room: Histories of Place, Memory and Conflict with Wildlife Along a Southern Indian Forest Fringe".

More about this publication?
  • Environment and History is an interdisciplinary journal which aims to bring scholars in the humanities and biological sciences closer together, with the deliberate intention of constructing long and well-founded perspectives on present day environmental problems.

    Environment and History has a Journal Impact Factor (2017) of 0.538. 5 Year Impact Factor: 0.792.
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