Humans are among the very few animals that constitute a threat to elephants. Yet not all people are a danger — and elephants seem to know it. The giants have shown a remarkable ability to use sight and scent to distinguish between African ethnic groups that have a history of attacking them and groups that do not. Now a study reveals that they can even discern these differences from words spoken in the local tongues.
Biologists Karen McComb and Graeme Shannon at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK, guessed that African elephants (Loxodonta africana) might be able to listen to human speech and make use of what they heard. To tease out whether this was true, they recorded the voices of men from two Kenyan ethnic groups calmly saying, “Look, look over there, a group of elephants is coming,” in their native languages. One of these groups was the semi-nomadic Maasai, some of whom periodically kill elephants during fierce competition for water or cattle-grazing space. The other was the Kamba, a crop-farming group that rarely has violent encounters with elephants.
The researchers played the recordings to 47 elephant family groups at Amboseli National Park in Kenya and monitored the animals' behaviour. The differences were remarkable. When the elephants heard the Maasai, they were much more likely to cautiously smell the air or huddle together than when they heard the Kamba. Indeed, the animals bunched together nearly twice as tightly when they heard the Maasai.
“We knew elephants could distinguish the Maasai and Kamba by their clothes and smells, but that they can also do so by their voices alone is really interesting,” says Fritz Vollrath, a zoologist at the University of Oxford, UK.