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How Do Elephants Respond To Predators That Are Such Small?

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.

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 behavior 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.

Fascinating research in Kenya shows how elephants respond nervously to Maasai men that have been known to spear elephants in defense of their crops, compared to little to no response when exposed to the voices of Maasai women who 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 the scent to analyze. All times though, the elephants will move hastily along and keep their young safe.

A behavior that 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 recognized threat that will cause a change in behavior. 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…

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