Version classiqueVersion mobile

Back Then It Was Culture, Now It Is Animal Torture

Anu Karippal


Texte intégral

Satheeshan showed me a photoshopped picture of him next to a hippopotamus on his phone and said, ‘if there are no more captive elephants, I will have to stand like this.’ It was a joke and we both laughed. But if there is a next life and if Satheeshan is not around, then Satheeshan would prefer Shekharan elephant to remain in the forest.

1For most of my informants, it wasn’t the big debates on elephant captivity that mattered, but the local moralities emerging from the ordinary relations that they shared with their elephants. In his lecture ‘The Anthropology of Trouble’, Rappaport points to the cruciality of ethnography in making other discourses audible when they are made inaudible or unintelligible through the domination of privileged discourse, amplified further by mass media (Rappaport, 1993). Juxtaposing the dominant narratives—scientific, philosophical and activistic—that echo contemporary notions of what it means to be an elephant, this paper puts forward a missing piece – a grounded perspective on human-elephant relations. Concurring with Rappaport’s outlook, this research argues that an ethnographic perspective into human-elephant entanglements through a phenomenological-moral approach makes for riveting viewpoints. Moving beyond moral totalities, as anthropologists who study ethics and morality urge us to do, the study investigates the phenomenologically attuned relationships between humans and elephants, suggesting that the ethical turn in anthropology can offer us an alternate path to conceptualising the human-elephant relation beyond the defines of torture. This paper also challenges the moral position in animal rights discourse—that elephants belong in the wild— by probing how the strict nature-culture, wild-domestic binaries dissolve into fuzzy continuums in the human-elephant milieu in Kerala. Although the paper finds the scholarly-activistic epistemology of elephant and the local epistemology of elephant as competing in terms of the diverging moral alignments they enable (such as whether elephants should live in forests or with humans), this research argues that both understandings of elephants are surprisingly convergent. The ways through which mahouts maintain an attuned relation with a giant being and attend to the sensory modalities of the elephant evidence that such a relationship is impossible without an understanding of elephant intelligence and an elephant’s way of being-in-the-world, in much the same way that animal studies and activistic discourse conceptualise elephants as highly intelligent beings.

2The intention here, however, is not to make a moralising claim, such as to uphold human-elephant relations in Kerala and remain blind to the pitfalls that exist in the relationship. I agree with Zigon and Stoczkowski when they propound that anthropology is in danger of sacrificing epistemological values when the research is motivated by a moral-political commitment (Stoczkowski, 2008; Zigon, 2010). As this study has shown, mahout interests and elephant interests are not always complementary. Among the many reasons, the constant change of mahouts and drunk-driving were attributed to causing human-elephant conflict encounters, where a lack of attunement disrupts the instinctive reading of elephant cues, thus also showing that the claims of the animal rights discourse are not arbitrary but grounded in grave concerns that need addressing. Furthermore, some of the instances of the benign human-elephant relation that I describe in the third chapter could be how my informants reposition themselves amidst the popular discourse narratives.

3While I acknowledge these complexities embedded in human-elephant sociality, what this paper does is slightly different. Instead of depending on a top-down, normative approach to morality to resolve consequential questions concerning whether the human-elephant relation is a bond defined by torture or whether the elephants belong to the wild or with humans, this paper advocates going beyond moral totalities to explore what a grounded gaze, a thick description that incorporates what the conceptual tools in the anthropology of morality and ethics can put forth, for a contextually nuanced understanding of moral assemblages through which humans and elephants entangle and attune a narrative that is missing in the big discussions on elephants. Beyond demonstrating what interspecies studies in anthropology can gain by dialoguing with the ethical turn, this paper makes far-reaching contributions in dissecting the big questions on the captivity of the cosmopolitan elephant, as many contemporary court cases show.12


1 Animal Legal Defense Fund (2021) (accessed on 9 March 2023).

2 The New Yorker (2022), ‘The Elephant in the Courtroom’, (accessed on 9 March 2023).


Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.


Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search