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Elephant Management in the Brahmaputra Uplands and Beyond: An Ethnohistorical 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.