The World As It Once Was: The Shifting Baseline In Iconic Megafauna

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Arctic explorer Bernard Buigues contemplates the Jarkov woolly elephant tusks emerging from the frozen landscape in Siberia, 1998. These tusks are about three meters (10ft) and over 45kg (100lbs) each.  There is a growing body of evidence that overhunting is the main cause of the extinction of the mammoths. (Francis Latreille / ©The World As It Once Was)

The World As It Once Was: The Shifting Baseline In Iconic Megafauna

Centuries of trophy and commercial hunting, isolation in captivity and poaching, have caused a baseline shift in the perception of iconic megafauna such as Asian and African elephants, which should actually be benchmarked with their species of 3500 and 150 years ago, respectively. The shifting baseline syndrome can be defined as “a gradual change in the accepted norms for the condition of the natural environment due to a lack of human experience, memory and/or knowledge of its past condition”. Indeed, in his famous Proboscidea monograph (1936), Henry Osborn depicts African elephants with very big ivory, in the same league with prehistoric stars, while Asian elephants sport average ivory, showing that 100 years ago the image of the Asian elephants was already severely damaged by the constant elimination of tuskers.

A plough-the-earth bull Asian elephant known as Bogeshwar in the wilds of Kabini, India. (Kushal M Guttedar / ©The World As It Once Was)

Last of the Plough-The-Earth Tuskers

For Asian elephants, isolation in captivity was the chief cause of elimination of the big tuskers and tuskers in general. The ancient Arthashastra writings from over 2000 years ago prescribed the selective catching from the wild of 20-year-old tusked males, which were preferred to females or maknas (tuskless bulls). About 100 to 150 years ago, big-tusked Asian bulls appear in photos and drawings from all across Asia, including Burma, Cambodia, India, Thailand and Vietnam. They were used in parades, beauty contests and Colosseum-style fights.

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