Can Elephants Differentiate Among People Based on Their Voices?

The largest creature that walks the earth is also one of the most intelligent and graceful animals. Known for their extraordinary memory, elephants are believed to remember everything. According to recent studies, they might actually be smarter than we give them credit for. Wild elephants of Africa have proved their extraordinary prowess by not only being able to distinguish humans by their voices but also can tell their gender, ethnicity, age and even level of threat by it, which is more than any human can do! Several animals have demonstrated their intelligence levels, such as dogs which can recognize over a thousand words and prairie dogs who have their own language by which they describe human to one another.

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Why is this skill important for them?

This skill has been honed by the vulnerable and widely poached African elephants as a survival skill in the wild. With so many clashes between humans and elephants due to habitat loss as well as illegal ivory hunting, humans have become a threat to elephants. This is why elephants have become so adept at differentiating humans, to be able to determine the threat level from their voices itself. Elephants regard lions with the greatest threat, but after that, come humans.

The study and its implications

The study which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, i.e. the PNAS recently, claimed that elephants are able to differentiate humans based on sex, language as well as age. The research was done by Karen McComb and Graeme Shannon of the University of Sussex and other colleagues. They started by recording the cattle herding tribe of people called the Maasai people who live in villages close to forests, and often encounter wild elephants. The researchers asked Maasai men, women as well as young boys to speak the same phrase in their first language. The same recording was done of men in another tribal group called the kamba tribe. They all were made to say, “Look, look over there, a group of elephants is coming.” McComb and Shannon along with their group conducted about 150 playback experiments with 48 elephants groups in the Amboseli National Park of Kenya. The recorded voices were played via the concealed loudspeakers and the reactions of the elephants was observed for signs of aggression, posturing or investigative sniffing.

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The elephants were observed to react defensively and aggressively to the voices of Maasai men. The retreated and began to bunch together forming a defensive fortress. According to the co-author of the published study Graeme Shannon from the Colorado state University, “From the get-go, the elephants responded differently to the Maasai and Kamba male voices.” The elephants were also observed to flee when they encountered Maasai men who wore their red robes. The reaction was not so extreme to the voice of the Kamba men, while they were much less fearful of the Maasai women and children’s voices. Their ability to differentiate the spear wielding Maasai men with whom they have had violent encounters is remarkable.

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Smart as they are powerful

Their response to the Maasai men was one of alertness and not a flight response, which also points to the fact that they are smart enough to realize that if Maasai men are talking they are not going to be hunting, else they would have been quiet. The reason they can effectively discriminate human voices from that of other animals was also observed from their reactions to recordings of lions. This research, which was done in a previous study saw that during that time, elephants bunched together to ensure the children were in the center of the group and out of harm’s way. According to another study which was published in PLoS ONE, elephants also have a different alarm call for humans.

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