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Elephant Management in the Brahmaputra Uplands and Beyond: An Historical Approach  

Nicolas Lainé

Drawing on the history of human–elephant relationships in Brahmaputra uplands in precolonial, colonial, and contemporary periods, this article highlights at least long-standing two elephant management systems: the dominant power of each period with its corresponding war, imperialist, or conservation purposes and that of the local populations for whom elephants represent an essential part of their daily life and a source of livelihood, even though they simultaneously remain at the service of the dominant power. Through the ages, the local inhabitants’ relationship with elephants has evolved, and the presence of these animals alongside human societies has shaped the culture, identity, and ecology of the region. In the six centuries of the Ahom kingdom, and the two centuries of British rule, local knowledge of elephants has always played a role in state policy, often by force. However, after independence, international norms of conservation have tended to remove human settlements from elephant habitats and exclude consideration of local knowledge of elephants, to the detriment of all parties. The interests and knowledge of local people need to be engaged if elephant populations are to survive. At the same time, exploring the extensive literature on the connection between humans and elephants could provides fresh perspectives on the region’s history, social structures, and geopolitical significance between South and Southeast Asia.

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Were-Tigers of Odisha in Adivasi Folklore  

Stefano Beggiora

The Meriah Wars, a series of conflicts that bloodied the central districts of the state of Odisha (India) in the 19th century, pitted the indigenous populations of the Konds against the British army. Historiographic sources demonstrate that although the apparent British casus belli claimed an intent to suppress the Konds because of their practice in human sacrifice, the evidence remains unreliable and incomplete on how the Konds actually followed this ritual and indicates that the British Raj’s true motivations lay elsewhere. Sources instead illustrate concretely that the British Raj focused its actual attention on areas that, until recently, drew scarce interest but reflected its increasingly urgent need to extend and consolidate the colonial rule in the belt of central-eastern India. This cultural clash with the Konds would later highlight the limited understanding of Europeans about the crucial role that many indigenous peoples played in the political balance and as social subjects in the buffer zones on the edge of the forests. If it has been reported that the Konds were often chased, persecuted, and shot down like beasts and that their villages were set on fire in this dark page of colonial history, it is also true that their communities were fluid entities capable of evading peace treaties, using the harsh and unexplored jungle terrain to their advantage and sometimes mounting a strenuous resistance. This uncontrollability is probably the main reason for their misrepresentation in colonial sources, which often emphasize the gruesome aspects of human sacrifice and the Konds’ prowess in the witchcraft arts. It is in this context that the ability of some tribesmen to transform themselves into were-tigers and possibly prevail over an otherwise stronger enemy is first recorded. The practice of theriomorphism has survived to this day, along with a shamanic-type religiosity among the Kond minorities still populating the Kandhmal district. Therefore, an ethnographic approach allows not only for a detailed investigation into this still little-known phenomenon and a clearer analysis of certain aspects of this community’s history but also a deeper understanding of the wide relational spectrum of the Konds with their territory and the wildlife surrounding them and as they coped with the challenges imposed by modernity.

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Environmental Change and Chinese Empire  

David A. Bello

Agriculture—especially grain cultivation—informed the primary environmental ground of imperial China (221 to 1912 ce) and was ideally intended to produce human habitat from state-supervised environmental change. The consequent political and socioeconomic development of the empire and its constituent dynasties was conditioned within larger global ecological contexts that can be abbreviated as two major climate shifts, the Medieval Warm Period (MWP, c. 1000–1300 ce) and the Little Ice Age (LIA, c. 1400–1900 ce). Before 1000 ce, China likely experienced a number of less prolonged alternations of cold and warm climate, such as the Sui-Tang Warm Period (650–700 ce). Chinese empire’s adaptations in response were rooted in agriculture, augmented by agro-pastoral and pastoral measures mainly concentrated along and above north China’s steppe ecotone. Critical inputs for the sustainability of environmental relations were maintained throughout the imperial period and came from domestic and foreign sources—most critically including the fertile eroded silt of the north China Loess Plateau, the water resources of the Yellow and Yangzi river basins, a high-yield crop suite of both dryland and wet rice varieties, south China fast-growth tree species, and New World silver and highland crops. Ongoing development and exploitation of these resources across the succession of seven major—and over a dozen more localized—dynasties over two millennia allowed China’s population to expand at globally unprecedented rates, numbering from tens of millions around the year 0 ce to hundreds of millions during the 18th century. In the process, biodiversity—especially that of wild growth forest habitats—was steadily reduced from north to south, successively. The empire’s main resource base and population centers correspondingly relocated south of the Yangzi around the watershed Song (960–1279 ce) period, with the Grand Canal tapping both of China’s major rivers to deliver southern abundance as far north as Beijing by the Yuan (1279–1368 ce). Inner and Southeast Asian peripheries came under comparable agro-commercial developmental pressure only during the Ming–Qing period (1368–1912 ce). With the onset of the 19th century, however, destabilizing environmental pressures emerged across the empire, many of them paradoxically driven by once-effective adaptations.