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?
There could be implications for the use of such sounds to deter elephants from raiding crops in Africa if there is a noticeable response…