Elephants may be the biggest of all creatures found on land, but believe it or not, even they can react defensively around large predators. For example, a herd of elephants walking through the African savanna will trumpet and chase away a pride of lions that they encounter. This has been documented many times across the safari industry, including here at Londolozi, on more than one occasion.
But why is it that animals weighing in between four and six tons when fully grown act so defensively to predators that are such a small fraction of their size?
These massive herbivores live in herds, which consist of related individuals from successive generations, led by a matriarch (normally the oldest female). Teenage bulls will separate off from family (breeding) herds and form small bachelor herds with other unrelated males or become solitary bulls wandering big distances.
Breeding herds in particular will communicate through low rumbles that can travel over long distances. Part of this constant communication will alert the members of a herd to a perceived threat, causing the herd to quickly surround youngsters and retreat hastily if needed.
Studies in the Chobe National Park of Botswana showed how over a period of over 20 years, lions began predating on elephants more and more. At one point, one elephant was killed every three days by lions. Most of the victims were between four and eleven years of age. This is unusual behaviour by the lions, but shows how they can indeed hunt elephants. Even today in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, Elephants are reputed to make up 20% of the lion population’s diet.
The threat posed by lions will remain in an elephant’s mind, right to the grave.
“At one point, one elephant was killed every three days by lions.” Power and Compion 2009
Fascinating research in Kenya shows how elephants respond nervously to Maasai men that have been known to spear elephants in defence of their crops, compared to little to no response when exposed to the voices of Maasai women whom pose no threat. In a similar fashion, Asian elephants have been shown to react very nervously to the sound of leopard growls, but interestingly not as nervously to tiger calls.
What all of this research shows is that as elephants grow older, they learn what is a potential threat to not necessarily only them but in particular the younger members of their herds. The scent of a predator can send a herd of elephants into a frenzy. Most times this will result in streaming from the temporal glands and excessive raising of the trunk to sniff the air for scent to analyse. All times though, the elephants will move hastily along and keep their young safe.
A behaviour which I would like to try and observe is the response of elephants to the calls of lions. The scent and sight of lions is understandably a recognised threat that will cause a change in behaviour. However, is there a link to lions roaring that could cause herds to surround their calves and move away?
Studies in East Africa and in Addo National Park have shown how elephants react differently to the playback of calls of male vs. female lions and single vs. groups of lions.
There could be implications for the use of such sounds to deter elephants from raiding crops in Africa if there is a noticeable response…
Filed under Wildlife
Awesome video! Which pride was it? It will be fantastic if they can deter elephants elephants from raiding crops. Hunting permits has been given out now in Botswana that has got the biggest elephant population. One if the reasons is the human elephant conflict. If it can be solved in any other way then that will be the answer.
Seen elephants behaving very aggressively towards a leopard , so they do take predators seriously .
Pete, great blog today, I watched the video – amazing how the elephants can chase away lions🤗
What a powerful video!! From the male lion aggressively claiming the kill first to the charging elephants chasing the lions! It must have been breathtaking to be in the Land Rover and THAT close to a large herd of elephants. Guests will never forget those moments!
Fascinating concept as respects the potential of reducing elephant-human conflict. Hope some are working in this! Great video!!
WOW – that was fantastic!!! Thank you 🙂
That was a fantastic video. Those elephants really knew how to “clear the room”. I haven’t noticed the more aggressive behavior between ellies and predators in SabiSand as much as in Chobe. While there I saw the residue from a five lion attack on a 10 year old elephant-…… thanks for your blog.
Incredibly interesting video, Peter.
WOW! What an amazing presentation today! To see the elephant in motion amidst it’s furry! .. and it’s trumpet like roar! .. That left me stunned! .. And to think how close those pack of elephants got up to the Landrover! That’s some bravery! That’s just serreal!
Really interesting, Pete, and love the video.
Great article! Have watched this behavior many times on safariLive. Also how the ellies go after the wild dogs. They don’t want any part of them either!
Terrific video! I love the one lion that went back to retrieve the meal and then ran at full tilt to get outta Dodge!
Not only remarkable to witness the behaviour of the elephants chasing off the lions but also a great example of taking your time at a sighting. Staying and allowing this to develop also gave the quests great interaction between the lions, between the elephants as well as between them both.
Have witnessed this in Kruger – and this herd of elephants would not let the lions settle – chased the lions three times! Great video
Would love to watch an interaction between lions and elephants someday!!
I would imagine elephants would be more aggressive towards lions in areas where regular predation of calves occurs?