SOAS University of London

Department of History, School of History, Religions & Philosophies

Elephant Conference @ SOAS 2016

Camel conference

Date: 4 April 2016Time: 12:00 AM

Finishes: 6 April 2016Time: All Day

Venue: Bangalore, India

Type of Event: Conference

Our first Elephant Conference will be held in India, and is kindly hosted by the Centre for Ecological Sciences [CES] at the Indian Institute of Science [IISc], Bangalore.

The conference programme will address all aspects of elephant culture, past, present and future and in all continents. It will deal with both material and cultural concerns, and will cover both the Indian and the African elephant.

Registration: The conference is open to the general public.

Conference fee: £25 / £10 for concessions (2,500 INR / 1,000 INR)

Please note that Monday 4 April will be a half-day session.

If you wish to register for the conference, please write to the conference organiser at

SOAS Elephant Conference Website

SOAS Elephant Conference Facebook page

This conference builds on previous conferencing activities mobilised by Ed Emery and William Clarence-Smith at the School of Oriental and African Studies [SOAS, University of London]. We have built a "stable" of quadruped conferences, including mules, donkeys, camels, and war horses. 

The outcome has been the establishment of vibrant international research networks, with programmes of ongoing work. [See web-links at the end of this document.]

We are happy that our research activities will now be extended to include elephant studies – not least because, along with the camel, the elephant features prominently in the coat of arms of our School.

Conference Chair William Clarence-Smith [SOAS, University of London]

SOAS Crest

Conference Organiser

Ed Emery [SOAS, University of London]

For registration inquiries –

Advisory Committee

Raman Sukumar [Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore]

Rachel Dwyer [SOAS, University of London]

Ishani Sinha [Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore]

Our next conference on this topic is planned for 2018, and will be held in Africa.



By alphabetical order of principal presenters


On the deification of Guruvayur Kesavan: Making of an animal religious subject through cultural productions

Tresa Abraham (IIT Bombay) [Link to abstract]


Trunk Calls in Antiquity

Shibani Bose [Department of History, University of Delhi] [Link to abstract]


Cultural aberrations in the management of captive elephants

Prajna Chowta [Aane Mane Foundation, Bangalore, India] [Link to abstract]


Elephants in Islamic history

William G. Clarence-Smith [SOAS, University of London] [Link to abstract]


Contribution of comparative genetics to the understanding of the evolution and distribution of elephants

Regis Debruyne [Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris] [Link to abstract]


Imagining the inner life of the Asian elephant in India

Rachel Dwyer [SOAS, University of London] [Link to abstract]


The Elephant in England

Ed Emery [SOAS, University of London] [Link to abstract]


Elephant trade in Sonepur: Illegal wildlife trade under the guise of tradition?

Shubhobroto Ghosh [TRAFFIC India] [Link to abstract]


Elephants in modern Afghanistan: From imperial functionality to post-colonial national foil

Shah Mahmoud Hanifi [James Madison University (USA)][Link to abstract]


Wildlife Crime, legal prosecution and experience in combatting Wildlife Crime in the illegal trade of elephant calves in Sri Lanka

Sujeewa Jasinghe and Sudarshani Fernando [Centre for Eco-cultural Studies (CES), Diyakapilla, Sri Lanka] [Link to abstract]


Colonising in the footsteps of elephants: Interspecies pathways through North-East India & beyond.

Paul G. Keil [Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia] [Link to abstract]


Working with elephants in Northeast India

Nicolas Lainé [Laboratoire d’Anthropologie Sociale, Collège de France (Paris)] [Link to abstract]


Elephant training in Nepal: Rites of passages in an interspecies community

Piers Locke [University of Canterbury, New Zealand] [Link to abstract]


The journeys of elephants: An Indian circus trail

Nisha P R [Department of History, University of Delhi] [Link to abstract]


What a spectacle: Touring elephants and scientific investigation in the early Royal Society

Florencia Pierri [Princeton University] [Link to abstract]

Elephant ecology and the emergence of the state in Great Lakes Africa

Andrew Reid [Institute of Archaeology, University College London] [Link to abstract]

Elephants on board the Manila Galleon: From exotic gifts to Hispanic-Philippine ivory sculptures.

Ana Ruiz Gutiérrez [University of Granada] [Link to abstract]

Corruption in the Keddah: Elephants, fraud and environmental history in colonial Burma

Jonathan Saha [University of Leeds] [Link to abstract]


Elephants, zamindars and state: History of contested hunting rights in Western Assam

Arupjyoti Saikia [Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati] [Link to abstract]


Topsy, an elephant we must never forget

Kim Stallwood [Independent scholar] [Link to abstract]


Knowledge of the elephant since ancient times

Raman Sukumar [Centre for Ecological Studies, IISc, Bangalore] [Link to abstract]


Local Celebrities – Stories of elephant personalities in the Gudalur Region of the Nilgiris, South India

Tarsh Thekaekara [Shola Trust, Nilgiris and Open University] [Link to abstract]


"A sense of place": finding a balance between African elephant and large trees in the savanna

Maria Thaker, Abi Tamim Vanak, Rob Slotow
[Indian Institute of Science; Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment; and University of KwaZulu-Natal] [Link to abstract]


Shooting an elephant

Thomas R. Trautmann [University of Michigan] [Presentation via video] [Link to abstract]


Fencing in the megaherbivore

Abi Tamin Vanak, Maria Thaker and Rob Slotow [Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment; Indian Institute of Science; University of KwaZulu-Natal] [Link to abstract]


In God’s own country: Elephants as religious and cultural icons, and as celebrities

Sreedhar Vijayakrishnan1, 2, Anindya Sinha1, 2
[National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore / Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore] [Link to abstract]

Tresa Abraham [IIT Bombay]

On the deification of Guruvayur Kesavan: Making of an animal religious subject through cultural productions

Animals play a significant role in Hindu religious tradition. They are venerated as they are the escorts or companions of various deities. The elephant enjoys a place of privilege as it is the vehicle of Lord Indira and as Ganesha, the anthropomorphic God, has an elephant head. In the dominant Hindu culture of Kerala, it is customary for elephants to participate in temple festivals. Most domestic elephants in the state are owned by temple authorities. Famous elephants that served temples include Kandakoran of Kitangoor, Neelakantan of Panthalam, Guruvayur Padmanabhan, Guruvayur Kesavan, Gajarani Lakshmi etc.

In 1973, for the first time in history, the Guruvayur Devaswom Board conferred upon a tusker, Kesavan, the honour of Gajarajan (King of Elephants) and celebrated the golden jubilee of the services rendered by the elephant to the temple. On his death, to commemorate him a 12 feet high statue was erected. Deification is the process through which a person, animal or thing is raised to the status of a deity. In this paper I attempt to read the cultural productions around Guruvayur Kesavan in the form of film, TV serials, features etc. to study discursive practices that lead to the deification of the elephant.


Tresa Abraham completed her M.Phil in English from the University of Hyderabad, India in 2014. She is currently doing her doctoral research on ‘Taxidermy in India’ at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences in IIT Bombay.



Shibani Bose [Department of History, University of Delhi]

Trunk calls in antiquity


Since antiquity, elephants have inspired awe, wonder and curiosity, impressing themselves upon the imagination of the people coming in contact with them and firing the inventive genius of storytellers. As an animal that has amazed as much as it has terrified, the pachyderm has pervaded the human past as well as its present through art, legend, literature and religion.

Despite having enthralled as well as challenged humans across millennia, it would serve us well to remember that the importance of these mega mammals is not merely cultural. We need to expand the lens to look beyond their magnitude and magnificence and be sensitive to their importance as markers of ecology. The fact that India is home to over fifty percent of Asia’s wild elephants is testimony to the long-standing relationship this culture has shared with the animal that it has considered sacred yet exploited. It is the story of this complex interaction that I attempt to put together in this presentation. Weaving together glimpses from art, archaeology and literature, the endeavour will be to reconstruct the elephant trail and chart the fortunes of the pachyderm since prehistoric times till about c.300 CE.


I have an MPhil and a PhD from the Department of History, University of Delhi. My thesis was titled, ‘Mega Fauna in Early North India: A Cultural and Ecological Enquiry (From the Mesolithic upto c.300 AD)’.

Publications include: ‘Human-Plant Interactions in the Middle Gangetic Plains (From the Mesolithic upto circa 3rd century BC): An Archaeobotanical Perspective’ in Ancient India: New Research, Upinder Singh and Nayanjot Lahiri, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009 and ‘From Eminence to Near- Extinction: The Journey Of the Greater One-Horned Rhino’ in Shifting Ground: People, Animals, and Mobility in India’s Environmental History, ed. M. Rangarajan and K. Sivaramakrishnan, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014.

In the past, I have taught at Miranda House, University of Delhi and am currently working as an Associate Editor at Primus Books, Delhi.



Prajna Chowta [Aane Mane Foundation, Bangalore, India]

Cultural aberrations in the management of captive elephants.

All methods used in the management of elephants in captivity originate from traditional practices developed in South Asia since 4000 years. These methods were borrowed and adapted when elephants were exported to Europe and North America for the purpose of circuses and zoos, two forms of captivity that reflected the essence of colonial imperialism and caused the relocation of elephants outside their home range.

Since the 1970’s, the management methods used for elephants in the West became incompatible with the development of Animal Rights principles in North America and Europe and the realisation that zoos and circuses were a complete failure in terms of elephant conservation. Consequently, methods known as Protected Contact and Positive Reinforcement were adopted to address the moralistic concerns regarding cruelty to the animals without questioning the principles of captivity.

Ironically, these so-called new methods are now progressively imposed into the elephant home range countries by Animal Rights organizations with the effects of discrediting the traditional methods and compromising genuine long-term solutions for the conservation of elephants.

The proposed paper will address the contradictions between cultural views on the management of elephants and the reality in the field.


Prajna Chowta was born in 1970 in Ghana. She completed her primary education in Bangalore, then a degree in London and a Masters in archaeology and anthroplogy at SOAS. In 1994, she returned to India and spent several years with tribes in various regions to research the traditional techniques of capturing and taming elephants.

In 2000, she created the Aane Mane Foundation and researched the migration of wild elephants between Burma and India, funded by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. In 2002, she readapted captive elephants to a forest in Karnataka. She also trains young tribal mahouts while modernising traditional techniques according to recent scientific research.

She published the Elephant Code Book (2010) on captive elephant management with the Asian Nature Conservation Foundation and the Ministry of Environment (New Delhi) and participated in various films and documentaries.

In 2014, she released the book Enfant d’Elephant with Elytis Editions in France.




William G. Clarence-Smith [SOAS, University of London]

Elephants in Islamic history

Islamic attitudes towards elephants have been quite contradictory, varying in terms of space, time, previous cultures, and religious evolution. Sura 105 of the Qur’an, ‘al-fîl’ (the elephants, from Persian pîl), tells how divine intervention frustrated the ‘people of the elephants,’ probably meaning Yemeni Christians. Over time, sharia law forbade the eating of elephant meat, hindering Islamisation in parts of Animist Africa and Asia. Arab popular tradition portrayed elephants as ‘mighty,’ but also as ‘dark monsters,’ partly because Persians and Indians fielded them against Muslim invaders, who were mounted on camels and horses. However, the elephant was highly regarded in Persian culture, which revived with the ‘Abbasid caliphate from 750 CE, and spread across the Dar al-Islam. Muslim rulers thus bestowed elephants as prestigious gifts. Further east, where Hinduism and Buddhism treated the elephant as holy, Asian Muslims regularly employed elephants for war, hunting, and animal fights, as well as transport.


William Gervase Clarence-Smith is Professor of the Economic History of Asia and Africa at SOAS, University of London, and chief editor of the Journal of Global History (LSE and Cambridge University Press). He has published on the history of horses, mules, donkeys, camels, elephants, and bovids around the world, as traded commodities, military beasts, sporting champions, sources of symbolic power, origins of food and raw materials, transport animals, movers of agricultural and proto-industrial machinery, and bearers of disease. He is currently undertaking research for a global history of mules since circa 1400.



Regis Debruyne [Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris]

Contribution of comparative genetics to the understanding of the evolution and distribution of elephants


The study of the genetic diversity can provide key arguments to the understanding of the evolution of elephants. Fixed mutations and polymorphisms both embody signatures of historical events at different time scales. Provided the right tools and models are used, the analysis of the amount of within diversity and the extent of molecular divergence between modern elephant groups help us to retrace their genealogy and their demography through hundreds of thousand years.

This paper will review the developments in comparative genetics of the elephants since the early 2000’s. It will contrast the available results obtained from the analysis of the mitochondrial genome and the nuclear genome in each lineage and discuss why their apparently conflicting signals might only reflect the difference in the mechanisms of heredity involved.

I will discuss how only a synergic approach of all genomic information can provide a better understanding of the origin of the current distribution of the diversity among Asian elephants. This strategy should serve as an auxiliary tool in establishing conservation management policies relevant to limit the deleterious effects of inbreeding and maximize the evolutionary potential of the remnant populations of elephants in Asia.


Regis Debruyne is a research engineer in genomics and paleogenetics at the National Museum of Natural History (MNHN, Paris, France). He has a long-lasting research interest in the integrative taxonomy of the elephantids. He has studied the morpho-molecular divergence among the three lineages of Elephantinae: Loxodonta, Elephas and Mammuthus. He has also worked within each genus, with publications dedicated to the diversity between forest and savannah elephants in Africa, and the phylogeography and molecular clocks of mammoths during the Pleistocene.



Rachel Dwyer [SOAS]

Imagining the inner life of the Asian elephant in India


While there has been major scientific research on elephants (Moss 2011, Sukumar 1993) and studies in the humanities have produced works on the elephant in Indian culture (including Sukumar 2011 and Trautmann 2015), little has been written about the way in which elephants are often understood as having thoughts, feelings, and other mental states.  I examine these ways of imagining the inner life of the Asian elephant in India across a variety of texts including Sanskrit treatises (Gajashastra, e.g. the Matangalila), English novels (The tusk that did the damage), Indian films (including Haathi mere saathi, Gajakesari, Kumki), media reports on the elephants of the Dasara festival, as well as by people who work with captive elephants such as wildlife charities. Are these just fantasies which seek to anthropomorphise the elephant or are they ways of trying to understand the elephant as a subjective being?  In what ways might these texts be helpful in trying to breach or communicate across the divide between the human and the non-human?  Do they seek to benefit the elephant or do they misunderstand the nature of the elephant and the relation of the wild to the captive?  How do these understandings fit into wider Indian cultural understandings of what it is to be an animal and a human – or even a god? 

Ed Emery [SOAS, University of London]

The Elephant in England


The elephant in the English imaginary from Roman times to the present. Means of warfare; bearer of allegory; giftings of royalty; anatomical paradox; democratisation as spectacle; imperial killing fields; protective regimes.


Ed Emery is organiser of the following conferences, among others: the Hydra Mule and Donkey Conference; the SOAS Camel Conference; the SOAS War Horses Conference; and the SOAS Elephant Conference. His PhD (pending) is on the Arabic and Hebrew dance songs of al-Andalus [muwashshah and zajal] 1100-1350, and their possible overlaps into the musics of Early Europe. He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Migration and Diaspora Studies at SOAS.


Presenter: Shubhobroto Ghosh [TRAFFIC India]

Elephant trade in Sonepur: Illegal wildlife trade under the guise of tradition?

Investigators : Shekhar Niraj, Head TRAFFIC India and Shubhobroto Ghosh, Senior Programme Officer, TRAFFIC India


Harihar Kshetra, or Sonepur Mela is held during the occasion of Kartick Purnima(Full Moon) every year. The fair that is attributed to the times of Emperor Chandragupta Maurya, is famous for its elephants that are adorned, displayed and traded. This annual conglomeration however has an essence of illegal wildlife trade and flagrant violation of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. TRAFFIC has been monitoring the Sonepur fair for the past fifteen years and has consistently been assisting enforcement officials and lawmakers in various ways to resolve the matter of the illegal nature of this trade. There are individual elephants of all denominations that are exhibited and sold in Sonepur, including tuskers and calves. Many of these animals are sold without proper permits and are brought illegally from other states, including Assam. The animals are also exhibited in conditions that are detrimental for their health and well being and stand to be a danger to human safety, especially animals in musth that are paraded in extremely crowded conditions. The Sonepur display and trade in elephants also takes place due to an ambiguity in the law, Section 40(2B) and 43 of the Wildlife Protection Act, that traders have traditionally taken advantage of. This presentation places the findings of TRAFFIC regarding the nature of elephant trade in Sonepur and what measures can be taken to curb this practice to ensure survival of these majestic pachyderms in the wild. The objectives of this presentation are the following :

  1. To assess the impact of the illegal live elephant trade at Sonepur on elephant conservation
  2. To assess the use of elephants by private people
  3. Expose weaknesses in implementation of the law
  4. To show ambiguity in laws
  5. To make suggestions for tightening law enforcement by ensuring long term conservation
  6. Find linkages of illegal live elephant trade to transborder regions

Shubhobroto Ghosh is a former journalist with the Telegraph newspaper whose work has also been published in The Statesman, New York Times, The Hindu , Montreal Serai, Sanctuary Asia and Nature India online. He is the former coordinator of the Indian Zoo Inquiry project sponsored by Zoocheck Canada and has attended the Principles and Practice Training course at Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. He did his Masters thesis on British zoos at the University of Westminster. He has been associated with a number of wildlife protection groups in India and abroad and currently works as Senior Programme Officer at TRAFFIC India at the WWF India Headquarters in New Delhi.



Shah Mahmoud Hanifi [James Madison University (USA)]

Elephants in Modern Afghanistan:  From imperial functionality to post-colonial national foil


This paper surveys a fast-moving elephantine history in Afghanistan from the mid-eighteenth to the late twentieth century when the elephant’s practical value and symbolic power ebbed and flowed dramatically.  The paper first situates the highly visible practical and symbolic uses of elephants in the Durrani Afghan empire under its founder Ahmad Shah and his son and successor Timur Shah (combined r. 1747-1793).  The second section addresses the largely symbolic use of elephants by the transitional rulers, Dost Muhammad Khan and Shah Shuja, both of whose multiple reigns (combined c.1809-1863) are associated with the first phase of British Indian influence on Afghanistan, including the first Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42) wherein elephants had a relatively low profile and presence, particularly in comparison to their much greater influence in the context of the second Anglo-Afghan war (1878-80).  The final parts of the paper address the highly valued heavy transport-related functions of elephants for the Afghan Amirs Abd al-Rahman and Habibullah Khan (combined r. 1880-1919), and the contrasting largely symbolic ceremonial deployments of elephants by Amanullah and his successors Nadir and Zahir Shah (combined r. 1919-1973) to cultivate a distinct form of national modernity that instead reveal intimate historical and cultural relations with India.


Shah Mahmoud Hanifi is an Associate Professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian History at James Madison University.   He is the author of Connecting Histories in Afghanistan (Stanford University Press, 2011) and a number of essays on the history, culture and politics of Afghanistan.  Hanifi participated in the inaugural SOAS camel conference in 2011.  



Sujeewa Jasinghe and Sudarshani Fernando [Centre for Eco-cultural Studies (CES), Diyakapilla, Sri Lanka]

Wildlife Crime, legal prosecution and experience in combatting Wildlife Crime in the illegal trade of elephant calves in Sri Lanka 



The capture of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus maximus) – a sub-species, found in Sri Lanka – for illegal captivity, was investigated during a period of 18 months. The findings include a description of the capture sites and the types of individuals involved in the crime network, methods of capture, preparation of forged documents and prosecution in combatting Wildlife Crime in relation to elephants in Sri Lanka.

The ongoing investigations have revealed that the majority of elephant calves captured and held illegally for the purpose of commercial uses for the tourism trade, in an “organized” wildlife criminal network, includes its captors, traders, wildlife officials of the State, legal personnel, monks, businessmen, politicians and forest and local communities, among others. The intervention of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and interested individuals responsible for the investigation have succeeded in exposing and advocating forlegal action by the relevant authorities. It involves 99% control in illegal capture of elephant calves from the wild since then, including bringing criminals before the courts. Approximately 65 calves identified as having been illegally registered involving forged documentation have thus, been held illegally. It is further believed that over 80 calves under the age of 4 years were captured from their herds in the wild, with 99% of them being from Protected Areas (PA) and their environs, including wildlife National Parks.


Sujeewa Jasinghe and Sudarshani Fernando serve as co-founderDirectors of the Centre for Eco-Cultural Studies (CES). CES is a research-based training institute located in Diyakapilla, Sigiriya, in central Sri Lanka’s Dry Zone forest setting, facilitating participatory community initiatives in natural and cultural resource management, where the authors serve as anthropologist and environmentalist respectively. The work engaged in includes consultancies and advocacy through volunteer action to promote, conserve and protect biodiversity and Traditional Knowledge and recognize legal mechanisms for law enforcement, focusing on combatting Wildlife Crime, with a special emphasis on illegal captures of wild-born elephant calves.

Sentinels Against Wildlife Crime,

Centre for Eco-cultural Studies (CES)

P O Box 03, Diyakapilla, Sri Lanka


Sujeewa Jasinghe and Sudarshani Fernando
Sujeewa Jasinghe and Sudarshani Fernando

Organiser: Ed Emery [Conference organiser]

Contact email: