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.
Young inquisitive beautiful female, bordering on independence as of November 2021
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.