Last week we were watching a herd of elephants feeding on one of the crests in the northern reaches of the reserve. Plains game were plentiful and the late afternoon light provided just the perfect atmosphere. There were many elephants all spread out over a few hundred metres.
After a short while, we were alerted to elephants trumpeting in the distance – usually a sign that they are distressed. Within no time we were on our way over to investigate what it could have been that was troubling them. A great spot by tracker Terrence revealed a beautiful, young and dainty female leopard.
She was stalking and slinking about through littered guarri thickets on the edge of the clearing. It was the Piccadilly Young Female. She was focused on trying to get herself in a position to ambush a herd of impala that were feeding in and amongst the herd of elephants.
The elephants had obviously caught her scent and some of them started trumpeting and crashing into the bushes they thought she was in. Casually and effortlessly, she evaded them. All their attempts at trying to flush her from the thickets and chase her away were to no avail. Logically, it made no sense that she could’ve been that much of a threat to them. Certainly not to warrant all the hype. Yet they were paranoid about her being there.
If you’ve ever been up close to a fully grown bull elephant, you will know with certainty that the African elephant is by far the biggest and most powerful animal in the bush. It has no other animal to fear.
Something that I have observed is that when elephants get the scent of a predator, their change in behaviour is immediate. When feeling threatened, they will display a fascinating herd relationship. Older females, who serve as the protectors of the family unit, will surround younger or weaker members to protect them. All standing their ground, ears flared and tusks held high, giving the impression to potential predators that in order to succeed, they will first need to deal with an impenetrable powerhouse of an armoury.
Technically, no land animal is safer from predators than an elephant. But what is it that makes elephants paranoid about predators? (or at least appear that way). There is no exact answer to this question but here is my take on it:
Although they don’t have any natural predators, lions and spotted hyenas are perfectly capable of taking down young elephant calves. For this reason, any large predators are treated as their enemies. The social dynamic in a herd of elephants and their group defense and protectiveness will rarely ever give predators an opportunity to bring down an elephant.
One thing for sure is that mother elephants are highly protective over their young. They will do anything to keep them from harm’s way. Herds of elephants with small calves can be particularly on edge. They will heed a lot more caution to any potential danger that could be lurking close by. Most of the time, the observed ‘paranoia’ about predators largely has to do with the level of vulnerability of certain individuals within the herd.
We also need to understand that elephants possess an absolutely incredible array of olfactory perceptions. For humans, the world we perceive around us is mainly through sight and sound. The world of an elephant is largely scent-based, thus often smelling something before seeing it.
Detecting a potential threat without having eyes on it will certainly require a different call to action (whether intentional or instinctual) than seeing it first. This accounts for much of their distress and sometimes misdirected charges (sometimes after the actual predator has slunk off from that position.)
Elephants have a great level of emotional intelligence. The bonds formed between mothers, daughters and grandmothers in the herd are lifelong. At their core, they are peaceful animals and very social.
Predators naturally cause disturbances within their near vicinity. Animals will flee from and alarm call at them, which has a ripple effect through the bush. Causing a large sphere of disturbance around the predators when they have been detected. Elephants are averted to being within an area disturbed by predators and this is why they seem to urgently see the predators off so that peace can be restored.
I like to think of elephants as gentle giants that keep the peace. Leaving only tranquility in their wake.
Filed under General Nature Ranger Wildlife
I know from behavioural studies that elephants are scared of bees, those insectes make them run away. In Kenya and Tanzania they also recognise men’s voices and flee, not the same with women s voices. They are the strongest animals, but the smallest (bees) can hurt them, not to mention some humans…
Great analysis Matt. Elephants are truly one of natures wonderful creatures.
Very well written. Might their behavior in regard to predators be not just for themselves, but perhaps is akin to the Humpback whales who will protect other species from predators such as the Orca, also have a play in this? Humpbacks will go to great lengths to protect seals and other whale and dolphins species from harm. As you stated their desire to keep the peace might envelope protecting the impala as well. It’s really nice for someone to recognize and acknowledge the “emotional intelligence” of these animals. Gives me hope! Thank you!
Matt that is the perception I have of elephants, being peaceful and minding their own business. But being threatened will certainly change their demeanor immediately from being the gentle giant to being a highly irritated and pursuing the threat with a charge. I have often seen mothers are terrible nervous when there are tiny babies that they must protect. Family ties are incredible and much desired.
I have often wondered about why elephants become so disturbed by a smallish predator, such as a leopard, considering the size difference. I understand the females wanting to protect their young, but the bulls are so massive, it seems they would have no worries. Interesting thoughts and comments Matt so thank you.
Great pictures! I do know of rhinos killing elephants and elephants killing rhinos. Does that happen only in man-created circumstances (animals who have experienced trauma, the wrong “mix” of animals in an enclosed area, etc) or does that happen “naturally”?
Nice post Matt! This is all very fascinating!
They certainly are gentle giants albeit somewhat intimidating when up close to them. The bond they have to their offspring and community is something to be admired and revered. Wonderful photography!
I love all Londolozi blogs on animal behavior! It’s so interesting to get to know more and more about our animal brothers and sisters.
Elephants are also such really special animals because of their strong family bounds and social behavior.
Matt, Thanks for a very informative blog! Your comment about the large bull elephant reminded us of a game drive at Londolozi when a huge bull came so close to our vehicle that he sniffed Terri! Nobody moved and never to be forgotten. Our ranger Byron kept everyone calm!
Great perspective Matt. We had an opportunity to see the rapid chnge in behavior as a lion approxhed a small, peaceful herd with 2 very young calves. Tranquility to ferocity,
What is interesting to me is to witness the difference in elephant temperament in different regions of Africa. They tend to be calm and peaceful in the Sabi Sands, but far less so in other areas and countries. There is clearly a difference in how they have been treated by the humans in those areas that can make them jumpier. I have to assume that Ellies also have differences in their level of alarm for other predators based on the level of danger or persecution there, as well. However, there must be an innate instinctual sense of alarm for any predator from many thousands of years of evolution.