Elephants can detect how dangerous people are by the sounds of their voices

Photo: Daniel Hayduk/AFP/Getty Images

When we talk about smart animals, we tend to give credit to a few creatures: chatty dolphins, long-remembering elephants, tool-using apes, and puzzle-solving crows, to name a few.

But do we really understand just how smart, how able to communicate thoughts and even, dare we say it, feelings, some animals are?

Most of us don’t give them enough credit, according to a September 13 talk at Cooper Union by ecologist Carl Safina, author of “Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel.”

Take elephants, for example.

African elephants in Amboseli National Park in Kenya can distinguish the language and voice of Maasai warriors from the language and voices of farming tribes that live in the same region, Safina explained.

University of Sussex researchers Karen McComb and Graeme Shannon published a study in 2014 documenting this remarkable ability.

Maasai tribesmen will occasionally attack and kill elephants with their spears, Safina explained. Elephants know that they’re dangerous.

Even before McComb and Shannon published their work, researchers knew that elephants would turn defensive, ready to fight, if they saw the red clothes worn by the warriors. They’d prepare to flee if they smelled the Maasai attire. But the giant creatures are basically untroubled if they smell or see clothing worn by farmers of the Kamba tribe, another group in the region.

McComb and Shannon showed that elephants could also tell the difference between the Ma language of the Maasai and the language spoken by the Kamba.

“They have very clear behavioural responses in all of these situations,” McComb told Virginia Morell of National Geographic when the study was first published.

So McComb and Shannon decided to see how elephants respond to language. They recorded men, women, and children from the Maasai groups and Kamba groups saying a simple phrase in their own tongue: “Look, look over there, a group of elephants is coming.”

The elephants ignored the voices of Maasai women and children, even if the children were male. They ignored the voices of Kamba men. But when they heard the Maasai men speaking in their language, they prepared to flee.

“They understand that there are different kinds of people,” Safina explained in his talk. (That’s more than we can say about most people’s perception of elephants.)

“The elephants’ decision-making is very precise,” McComb told Morell, “and it illustrates how they have adapted where they can to coexist with us. They’d rather run away than tangle with a human predator.”

And as Safina points out, this group decision, this shared fear, is a sort of empathy.

Empathy, as he describes it, is “the ability of a mind to match the mood of companions.” And in the case of this recognition that someone dangerous is coming and it’s time to go, it fits the behaviour of the elephant.

“If everyone around you hurries up, you’ve gotta hurry up,” Safina said.

Unfortunately, these behavioural adaptations aren’t quite able to keep up with human firepower. They can’t keep away from poachers firing automatic weapons from helicopters.

“In Roman times, elephants were found from the shores of the Mediterranean to the Cape of Good Hope,” with the exception of the harshest parts of the Sahara, said Safina. Now, these intelligent, communicative creatures “are being driven extinct so we can carve their teeth.”

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