“Run, it’s a human!” Elephant alarm cries and conservation

Charlotte Grace Leigh
8 April 2015

Above: African elephants in Kenya (Wikimedia Commons/Maryam Laura Moazedi)

Over the last century, the number of African and Asian elephants has decreased significantly, largely due to ivory poaching. However, habitat loss and and human-elephant conflict over resources have also been important factors. As human settlements and infrastructure—such as roads, canals, and pipelines—continue to expand, elephants have more and more trouble finding the migratory routes, water, and grazing land they need to survive.

Did you know? There are two species of elephant, the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) and the African elephant (Loxodonta Africana).A better understanding of elephant behaviour, including how they react to and interact with humans, can help find ways to support conservation efforts. In particular, researchers are discovering fascinating details about how elephants communicate with each other, as well as about what bothers these animals.

For example, a team of researchers at Oxford University has discovered that elephants may emit a distinct cry when humans are present. A two-part experiment identified this human-specific alarm cry as a mak“distinctive low rumble”. Click here to have a listen!

The researchers made recordings of African elephants as they reacted to the voices of adult Samburu tribesmen in northern Kenya. When they heard the tribesmen, resting elephants became more vigilant and ran away while emitting the alarm cry. Later, audio recordings were played to a separate group of elephants, when no humans were present. The second group of elephants reacted similarly to the first, becoming more vigilant and attempting to flee, suggesting that the rumble is a warning call specific to humans.

Did you know? Elephants are the only mammals, besides humans, that have chins.These findings build on similar research into a distinctive alarm cry that elephants make in the presence of bees. Researchers have found that when there is a potential threat from bees, elephants change the tempo-related features (such as rate and direction), frequency, and amplitude of their cries. And when other elephants hear these distinct cries, they shake their heads as if they are trying to scare away bees. This all suggests elephants use different sounds to distinguish between different kinds of threats, such as humans and bees.

In fact, a study by researchers at the University of Sussex suggests that elephants can even distinguish between different groups of humans. When exposed to Massai pastoralists, who are known to kill elephants, they appear fearful, defensive, and aggressive. Yet elephants remain relatively calm around Kamba agriculturalists, who generally pose less of a threat.

Did you know? Elephants can hear one another’s trumpeting calls from up to 8km away!This knowledge can help conservationists protect both elephants and people by preventing direct conflict. In fact, conservation organizations like Save the Elephants have already put this research to good use. For example, beehive fences, which are simply beehives arranged as a fence to deter elephants from entering a particular area, have been built around farms in order to protect crops from roaming elephants—and protect elephants from humans trying to protect their crops.

Ultimately, this is about more than just protecting one majestic species. Elephants are integral to many ecosystems and without them many other species would suffer. For example, elephant migrations affect the composition and density of forests, reducing bush cover to create an environment favourable to a variety of browsing and grazing animals. And many tree species rely on elephants to distribute their seeds over vast distances! In other words, finding ways to help humans and elephants to coexist will help a wide range of other plants and animals survive.

Learn more!

Researchers: Elephants Have Developed A Human-Specific Alarm Call (2014)

Ryan Grenoble, Huffington Post

African Elephant Alarm Calls Distinguish between Threats from Humans and Bees (2014)

J. Soltis, L. E. King, I. Douglas-Hamilton, F. Vollrath & A. Savage A, PLoS ONE, vol. 9

Elephants can determine ethnicity, gender, and age from acoustic cues in human voices (2013)

K. McComb, G. Shannon, K. N. Sayialel & C. Moss, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 111

Bee Threat Elicits Alarm Call in African Elephants (2010)

L. E. King, J. Soltis, I. Douglas-Hamilton, A. Savage & F. Vollrath, PLoS One, vol. 5

News report and scientific articles discussing the different alarm calls used by elephants and their ability to distinguish between different threats.

Megagardeners of the forest – the role of elephants in seed dispersal (2011)

A. Campos-Arceiz & S. Blake, Acta Oecologica, vol. 37

Link to abstract. A subscription is required to view the full text.

Scientific article discussing the role of African elephants as “forest gardeners” that disperse seeds over vast distances.

Charlotte Grace Leigh



I am currently a third year Biomedical Science undergraduate at McMaster University in Hamilton, ON. Originally from Manchester in the UK, I came to Canada primarily to explore and immerse myself in another culture. I enjoy figure skating and hiking in my spare time. I love CurioCity as it aims to make STEM accessible to everyone! 


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