New research shows that wild African elephants can tell humans apart by their languages and can detect a human’s age and gender based on voice. Elephants developed this ability over a period of time to discriminate between peaceful and aggressive types of people so they can defend themselves against potential threats.
The study was published last Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Over a two-year period, researchers visited elephants at the Amboseli National Park in Kenya, where elephants live around people, and played recordings of Maasai men and Kamba men speaking the same phrase in their language: “Look over there. A group of elephants is coming.”
Maasai men herd livestock in the park and once speared elephants regularly. They still do so on occasion to protect their territory or avenge a community member who was killed by an elephant. In 2007, an elephant killed a Maasai woman collecting firewood near the park, and a group of men fatally speared the first elephant they saw in retaliation. In contrast, Kamba men live near the park live peaceful farming lifestyles and rarely come into conflict with elephants.
Elephants sniffed the air, gathered and retreated when they heard the Maasai voices, associating them with past conflicts. They were more relaxed when Kamba men’s voices were played.
Elephants also reacted calmly to Maasai women’s and boy’s voices, because they don’t spear elephants nearly as often as men. In an interesting twist, researchers changed the pitch and frequency of men’s voices to make them sound female, but the elephants still reacted defensively. According to study co-author Karen McComb, “[That] suggests they’re using completely different cues [than humans] in order to attribute gender.”
They say that an elephant never forgets, and this study builds on similar research that proves their fine-tuned ability to discriminate threatening people. They have learned that Maasai men wear red robes, while Kamba men dress in blander colors, so they react aggressively when seeing a red cloth. They can also differentiate between the scents of Maasai and Kamba people, and run away when they smell a Maasai man.
Though Maasai men do occasionally tangle with and kill elephants, they shouldn’t be confused with commercial poachers, who use sophisticated weapons to hunt elephants on a larger scale. Elephants haven’t yet learned to retreat in defense against poachers. As McComb explains, “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.”
Though it’s sad to think that elephants have learned to fear entire groups of people, understanding their intelligence and adaptability can help us develop strategies to protect them in the future.