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Not by Bread Alone: Symbolic Loss, Trauma, and Recovery in Elephant Communities

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Like many humans in the wake of genocide and war, most wildlife today has sustained trauma. High rates of mortality, habitat destruction, and social breakdown precipitated by human actions are unprecedented in history. Elephants are one of many species dramatically affected by violence. Although elephant communities have processes, rituals, and social structures for responding to trauma—grieving, mourning, and socialization—the scale, nature, and magnitude of human violence have disrupted their ability to use these practices. Absent the cultural, carrier groups (murdered elephant matriarchs and elders) who traditionally lead and teach these healing practices, humans must assume the role. Trauma theory has brought attention to victims' severe, sustained psychological damage. Looking through the lens of trauma theory provides a better understanding of how systematic violence has affected individuals and groups and how the pervasive nature of traumatic events affects human-nonhuman animal relationships. The framing of recent trauma theory compels conservationists to create new relationships—neither anthropocentric nor powerbased—with nonhuman animals. The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Kenya, shows how humans, taking on the role of interspecies witness, bring orphan elephants back to health and help re-build elephant communities shattered by genocide.


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