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Animal Antics: Drunken elephants rampage Indian cities

By MELANIE HSU | November 15, 2012

Since the 1990s, Indian pachyderms have made the news for their supposedly drunken behaviors. In 1999, a herd of elephants rampaged through the village of Assam, killing four people and injuring six others. The causes, according to the papers, were habitat loss and a few casks of rice beer.

In 2010, a 70-strong herd of apparently drunk elephants plowed through villages in the states of Orissa and West Bengal, claiming three human lives and 60 homes over the course of four days. That same year, six elephants electrocuted themselves while allegedly under the influence of – you guessed it, rice beer. And you thought that human drunkards were scary.

Just a week ago, the Times of India reported on yet another “drunken elephant” attack. According to the newspaper, the 50 or so “inebriated jumbos” were drawn from their forest habitats by the strong smell of mahua, an alcoholic drink made from the sweet flowers of the tropical mahua tree Madhuca longifolia, and they proceeded to raid the shop that sold the drink. Even after downing 18 containers of mahua, the herd ransacked nearby huts in search of more booze.

Armed with tusks and weighing up to 5000kg, Indian elephants can flatten almost anything in their paths, whether sober or drunk. Unfortunately, due to habitat shrinkage, these elephants clash with humans quite frequently. According to Marshall Jones, senior conservation adviser at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, an estimated 300 people perish in conflicts with elephants every year in India, while up to 200 elephants are killed by humans annually.

For a long time, researchers have wondered whether wild elephants lust for alcohol as much as the news reports claim. In addition, there remains the question of whether elephants that got their trunks on a liquor store would guzzle enough of the drink to upgrade their ordinary rampage to a so-called drunken rampage.

Research on drunken elephants has unearthed some interesting facts. In 1984, psychiatrist Ronald Siegel discovered that both circus elephants and elephants living in wildlife preserves readily drank unflavored, 7 percent alcohol-by-volume (ABV) solutions despite the availability of food and water sources. When Siegel fed them mint-flavored alcohol, which the elephants adored, they willingly consumed a 10-percent solution. However, they refused to drink anything stronger.

In 2005, a study by the late Steve Morris, a biologist at the University of Bristol, disproved the myth that African elephants could intoxicate themselves on fermented fruit in the wild. According to Morris’s calculations, a 3.3 ton (or 3000 kilogram) elephant, which was considered thin for a male Indian elephant and mid-range for a female, needed to speed-drunk at least 2.6 gallons (10 liters) or a 7-percent ABV drink in order to get buzzed enough to undergo changes in behavior.

According to 1998 study in the journal Alcohol Health and Research World, however, the mahua that fueled the latest incident has an alcohol content that far exceeds this safety threshold: a staggering 20 to 40 percent. Shermin de Silva, a cofounder of Sri Lanka’s Elephant Forest and Environmental Trust, says that wild elephants are hard-pressed to consume enough liquor to get drunk, unless the alcohol is exceptionally sweet and appealing in taste. While mahua flowers are sweet in their raw form, the drink actually has a pungent odor.

De Silva, who studies conflicts between elephants and humans, describes elephants are picky to the point of being selective about the water they drink. Hence, the interpretation of a booze-provoked rampage, while sensational, may not be very accurate. Most likely, the rampaging elephants just happened to consume some alcohol after they broke into some houses, and then broke into some more houses.

In response to reports of elephants having a preference for Indian rice wine, which most likely contains less alcohol than mahua (possibly a meager 10 percent in weaker brews), de Silva confirms that elephants do have a tendency to invade rice paddies, and speculates that this attraction may carry over to fermented rice products.

All that said, most pachyderm attacks on humans and farmland are actually the work of sober elephants. Hence, the majority of elephant stampedes cannot be explained by alcohol. Instead, elephant attacks may be the result of confusions and resource shortages that occur as humans take more and more of their land away from them.

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