Tania James’ new novel, The Tusk That Did the Damage, explores the fine line between corruption and conservation in a Keralan wildlife park. Writing exclusively for Women On The Page, the author shares her inspiration behind the book.
In the forests of Wayanad, Kerala, where I did most of my research for The Tusk That Did the Damage, it wasn’t unusual to see a pedestrian crossing sign in which the pedestrian was a silhouetted elephant. My taxi driver had known a couple whose car had been stomped by a rogue elephant, though thankfully, they had escaped. My host said he’d flashed his torch on an elephant that had strayed into his yard for a midnight banana snack. He said he wasn’t scared, that coexisting with animals is a fact of life. Maybe so, but in Washington DC, I’m spooked when a squirrel gets too close.
Humans and elephants have been rubbing shoulders for thousands of years, but in the last twenty, we’ve begun throwing elbows – knife-tipped elbows, in the form of poaching and habitat fragmentation. With time, it seems the wild elephant will go the way of the aurochs, the mammoth, the mastodon, and almost every mega-mammal that has walked this earth.
But what fascinates me about elephants is the way they’ve reacted to these stressors. Some stories I encountered had a comic touch, like the elephants in Orissa who got hooked on hooch after raiding a rice farmer’s illegal distillery. Some stories were plain disturbing, like the young male elephants who raped and killed rhinos on a South African game reserve. I read about the latter in Dr. Gay Bradshaw’s Elephants on the Edge, in which she links this unusual aggression to a past trauma; the young elephants had witnessed, as calves, the killing of their own mothers and aunts. As with humans, Dr. Bradshaw argues, an episode of violence can embed itself in the elephant’s consciousness, resulting in post-traumatic stress.
Elephants offer many obvious marvels—their grandiosity, their tusks, their finger-tipped trunks. But their minds hold mysteries we are only beginning to understand. And that is where my own exploration began.
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