National Geographic Daily News
Photo of female elephant.

A female elephant displays an alert reaction—with ears held open and trunk extended—at the Amboseli National Park in Kenya.

Photograph by Graeme Shannon

Virginia Morell

for National Geographic

Published March 10, 2014

When an elephant killed a Maasai woman collecting firewood near Kenya's Amboseli National Park in 2007, a group of young Maasai men retaliated by spearing one of the animals.

"It wasn't the one that had killed the woman, says Graeme Shannon, a behavioral ecologist at Colorado State University, in Fort Collins. "It was just the first elephant they encountered—a young bull on the edge of a swamp."

The Maasai spiked him with spears and, their anger spent, returned home. Later, the animal died from his wounds.

Elephants experience those kinds of killings sporadically. Yet the attacks happen often enough that the tuskers have learned that the Maasai—and Maasai men in particular—are dangerous.

The elephants in the Amboseli region are so aware of this that they can even distinguish between Ma, the language of the Maasai, and other languages, says a team of researchers, who report their findings today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Photo of Maasai herder with cattle.
A Maasai herder leads his cattle to drink at the edge of a swamp in the Amboseli National Park in Kenya.
Photograph by Graeme Shannon

Powers of Discrimination

The results add to "our growing knowledge of the discriminatory abilities of the elephant mind, and how elephants make decisions and see their world," says Joyce Poole, an elephant expert with ElephantVoices in Masai Mara, Kenya.

Indeed, previous studies have shown that the Amboseli elephants can tell the cattle-herding, red-robed Maasai apart from their agricultural and more blandly dressed neighbors, the Kamba people, simply by scent and the color of their dress.

The elephants know too that walking through villages on weekends is dangerous, as is crop raiding during the full moon.

They're equally aware of their other key predator, lions, and from their roars, know how many lions are in a pride and if a male lion (the bigger threat because he can bring down an elephant calf) is present.

And they know exactly how to respond to lions roaring nearby: run them off with a charge.

Photo of a group of elephants.
A group of elephants defensively bunch together, with the matriarch of the family at the front.
Photograph by Graeme Shannon

Flight or Fight

Intriguingly, when the Amboseli elephants encounter a red cloth, such as those worn by the Maasai, they also react aggressively. But they employ a different tactic when they catch the scent of a Maasai man: They run away. Smelling the scent of a Kamba man, however, troubles them far less.

"They have very clear behavioral responses in all of these situations," says Karen McComb, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Sussex, in the United Kingdom. "We wondered if they would react differently to different human voices."

To find out, she and her colleagues played recordings to elephant families of Maasai and Kamba men, as well as Maasai women and boys, speaking a simple phrase in their language: "Look, look over there, a group of elephants is coming."

Over a two-year period, they carried out 142 such playbacks with 47 elephant families, each time playing a different human voice through a concealed speaker placed 50 meters (164 feet) from the animals. They video-recorded the elephants' reactions to the various human voices, including a Maasai man's voice they altered to sound like a woman's.

Watch elephants retreat from a perceived threat:

 

As soon as an elephant family heard an adult Maasai man speak, the matriarch didn't hesitate, the researchers say. "She instantly retreats," Shannon says. "But it's a silent retreat. They sometimes make a low rumble, and may smell for him, too, but they're already leaving, and bunching up into a defensive formation. It's a very different response to when they hear lions."

In contrast, the voices of Kamba men didn't cause nearly as strong a defensive reaction: The elephants didn't consider the Kamba a serious threat.

"That subtle discrimination is easy for us to do, but then we speak human language," says Richard Byrne, a cognitive biologist at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland. "It's interesting that elephants can also detect the characteristic differences between the languages."

Fear Men, Not Boys (or Women)

The Amboseli elephants were also sufficiently tuned in to the Maasai language that they could tell women's and boys' voices from men's, seldom turning tail in response. "Maasai women and boys don't kill elephants," Shannon points out. Nor were the elephants tricked by the man's altered voice; when they heard it, they left at once.

"The elephants' decision-making is very precise," McComb says, "and it illustrates how they've adapted where they can to coexist with us. They'd rather run away than tangle with a human predator."

Why, one wonders, don't elephants retreat when poachers descend on them?

"Unfortunately, there are going to be things they cannot adapt to, things such as humans' ability to come after them with automatic weapons or mass poisonings," McComb says. "And in those situations, we have to protect them—or we will lose them, ultimately."

26 comments
Behzad Amir-Ansari
Behzad Amir-Ansari

so much to learn about these fantastic animals. thanks for the information.

Zoe Feil
Zoe Feil

Elephants are so incredible.

Udeny Dayarathna
Udeny Dayarathna

We always new that the elephants were very intelligent ! But, this research shows that their mental capabilities to distinguish things and take suitable actions goes beyond animal instincts. Very interesting !

E. Ndolo
E. Ndolo

Impressive research. The more we get to understand them, the better we can put forward conservation measures.

shampa rice
shampa rice

oh this breaks my heart ! from a child I use to have dreams that we had an Elephant tied in our back yard :) 

Living in India we work among villagers establishing schools among the poor so yes we face lots of Elephants migrating from one forest to the other forest. 

Lets do all to protect them ! 

Linda Lesher
Linda Lesher

Amazing how the elephants memories serve them well.  Not only their memories, but their hearing and brains.  Elephants are smart! 

S. Duma
S. Duma

Things like this amaze me...

I wish that humans could be more respectful towards animals and nature.


Pius Nthiga
Pius Nthiga

That's something new I,ve learned today about about how amazing Elephants are intelligent!

Nicole Ayrton
Nicole Ayrton

Sam, I thought you would find this interesting, although you probably already knew how amazing Elephants are...

Di Rolands
Di Rolands

Beautiful and intelligent, unfortunately at the mercy of we the human being. 

mao jason
mao jason

elephants are really smart too. I will understand that they will know threats and non-threats.

Yamilet M.
Yamilet M.

 It's amazing how humans do them damage animals. In this case the elephant or the tube that killed woman to be that woman that made ​​him damage or made ​​you feel uncomfortable. That animals are very friendly if you do not pass their limits. We have to be aware ..

Optimuus Prime
Optimuus Prime

For people who have not seen big animals for long time this might astonish. I know from the fact that even cows behave differently to different new people it encounters and refuses to eat or drink when a family member is dead! Now consider an elephant - which has got larger sensory weapons (ears/nose) and ultrasound communication to add. What it knows is difficult to understand. Not to forget the way these mourn to dead!!

Daisy Baibie
Daisy Baibie

i'm not surprised by the elephants reacting to maasais..growing up in kenya..everyone knows the big 5 animals are scared to death of maasais. think you should try that study with lions too and see their reactions.I've heard of several tales or maasais running into lions and lions running away from them scared for their lives because it dates back to tradition when the maasai would kill lions when a boy became a man

Danielle Buma
Danielle Buma

"Nor were the elephants tricked by the man's altered voice; when they heard it, they left at once."


...Why weren't they tricked? That would trick humans.

Susi Allen
Susi Allen

Would volenteer tomorrow if there was an anti poaching position going.....

Clara Fenk
Clara Fenk

I understand that humans run this world, however, when we humans 


over  run all and put ourselves above all of God's beautiful creatures, we 


are worse than the Devil himself! Elephants are extraordinary animals 


and I for one would give up "my space" for them!  

Didier Newman
Didier Newman

After all, what is the difference between the life that is in a cell, an elephant, a chimp or a modern homo sapiens? Do not come and vanishes in the same way, in one breath alone? Isn’t life a single indivisible movement, an information flow that builds up and changes from a common ancestor? So, is the species concept only a weak convention that will disappear with time too, an ephemeral spark? Or perhaps is there a unique quality in the tree of life, a qualitative leap detached from all evolutionary processes and unrelated to the rest of life? Is it the same leap that the human language makes when differentiating between life  and the rest of the universe? Also between human beings and the rest of animals, food and eaters, health and disease, between life and death itself? Along these lines, a  book recommendation, a preview in http://goo.gl/rfVqw6 Just another  suggestion

Virginia Morell
Virginia Morell expert

@Danielle Buma Excellent question! The scientists aren't sure what cue the elephants are listening to in the altered voice recordings; still trying to figure that out.


Les McNalley
Les McNalley

 @Susi Allen  Do you think the elephants would hold that against her?



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