Pondering pachyderms

The New York Times discovers a new class of victims:

Still, it is not only the increasing number of these incidents that is causing alarm but also the singular perversity — for want of a less anthropocentric term — of recent elephant aggression. Since the early 1990’s, for example, young male elephants in Pilanesberg National Park and the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve in South Africa have been raping and killing rhinoceroses; this abnormal behavior, according to a 2001 study in the journal Pachyderm, has been reported in ‘‘a number of reserves’’ in the region….

For a number of biologists and ethologists who have spent their careers studying elephant behavior, the attacks have become so abnormal in both number and kind that they can no longer be attributed entirely to the customary factors. Typically, elephant researchers have cited, as a cause of aggression, the high levels of testosterone in newly matured male elephants or the competition for land and resources between elephants and humans. But in ‘‘Elephant Breakdown,’’ a 2005 essay in the journal Nature, Bradshaw and several colleagues argued that today’s elephant populations are suffering from a form of chronic stress, a kind of species-wide trauma. Decades of poaching and culling and habitat loss, they claim, have so disrupted the intricate web of familial and societal relations by which young elephants have traditionally been raised in the wild, and by which established elephant herds are governed, that what we are now witnessing is nothing less than a precipitous collapse of elephant culture.

I’d like to think I’m not a rhinophobe or a pachychauvinist, but there’s something disturbingly funny about rampaging elephants raping rhinoceroses. And before we condemn the elephants out of hand, it would be only fair to examine the previous history of the rhinoceroses as well as the way in which the rhinos may have sought these exotic encounters.

More seriously, though, if human beings are animals, what makes our sociologists think that young male humans will fare any better outside of “the intricate web of familial and societal relations” in which they have traditionally been raised than do the young male elephants?

True, humans are not elephants, but the available data seems to strongly suggest that similar pathologies will result from an abandonment of traditional child-raising, although I, for one, would be tremendously surprised to witness the advent of rhino rape in American society.