Elephants know what you say

Tuesday March 11 2014

An elephant sprays water using its trunk after quenching its thirst at Ol Jogi conservancy in Laikipia County on June 23, 2013. African elephants can distinguish between the Maasai and Kamba languages. PHOTO/FILE


African elephants can distinguish between the Maasai and Kamba languages.

This enables these large mammals to move away from potential threats, a new research shows.

Researchers from UK’s Sussex University said elephants recognise predators, judge the level of threat and react accordingly.

The researchers played recordings of Maasai and Kamba male voices to elephant families and again those of Maasai women and boys to establish which posed a threat by having voices speak out a simple phrase.

In a telephone interview with the Nation from Amboseli, elephant conservationist Cynthia Moss said the repeated phrase: “Look, look over there, a group of elephants is coming!” elicited varied reactions based on who uttered it.



The recordings were played during the day and the researchers noted that there were distinct responses based on the variant of human language; whether Maa or Kamba and also based on age and sex of the recorded voice. “When elephants heard the adult male Maasai voices, they tended to gather together, start investigative smelling with their trunks and move cautiously away.

‘‘But when elephants heard females, boys, or adult male Kamba speakers, they did not show concern,” noted another researcher Graeme Shannon, a behavioural ecologist from Colorado State University, in Fort Collins.

Elephant enthusiast and a Kenya Wildlife Services official Patrick Omondi notes that elephants have well-developed communication that makes use of all of their senses of hearing, smell, vision and touch, but including exceptional ability to detect vibrations.

“At one end of the spectrum, elephants communicate by rubbing their bodies against one another, at the other end they may respond by moving toward the sounds of other elephants calling, perhaps 10 kilometres away,” said Mr Omondi.

He has worked with elephants for over 20 years, but was not part of the study. Others involved in the study were Amboseli Elephant Research Project, Amboseli Trust for Elephants Studies.

“The Maasai and Kamba live around the Amboseli National Park and it was interesting to note the reactions of the elephants when recordings in the two languages were played back to them,” said Ms Moss, director of the Amboseli Elephant Trust for Elephants.

The elephants, she said, recognised Maa and brought their calves to the middle of the herd and moved away from the perceived danger.


The research that took over two years studied hundreds of elephants from 47 family groups and used playbacks of human voice to show that elephants can make intelligent distinctions between language and voice characteristics to correctly identify the most threatening individuals on the basis of their ethnicity.

The report is titled, “Elephants can determine ethnicity, gender, and age from acoustic cues in human voices.” It is from Sussex University’s Mammal Vocal Communication and Cognition Research, School of Psychology.

Ms Moss said the research was useful in minimising human-wildlife conflict. It explored the cognitive capability of elephants in the wild and how they perceived danger.

The researchers played recordings of human voices for elephants at Amboseli National Park and assessed their responses, according to a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The reasearchers studied the African elephants, scientifically known as (Loxodonta africana) in Amboseli National Park in two years ending 2013.

The scientists also noted that the responses of these African elephants were specific to the sex and age of Maasai presented.

“Our results demonstrate that elephants can reliably discriminate between two different ethnic groups that differ in the level of threat they represent, significantly increasing their probability of defensive bunching and investigative smelling following playbacks of Maasai voices,” read excerpts of the study.

“Humankind need to respect these charismatic animals, their intelligence is close if not the same  to that of humans, with this kind of knowledge it wont make sense for any body to kill a 7-tonne for its teeth, which isn’t medicine, human kind can do without ivory. It belongs to elephants ,” Mr Omondi said.

According to Cynthia, the research shows how intelligent elephants are and useful in minimising human-wildlife conflict.

“The Maasai and elephants have co-existed for over 500 years thus even in modern day we should strive in understanding the two and preserving both human and elephant life than propel further conflict,” said Cynthia.


Five ways to save the African Jumbo

  • Slowing the loss of natural habitat
  • Strengthening activities against poachers and the illegal ivory trade
  • Reducing conflict between human and elephant population
  • Determining the status of elephant population through improved surveys
  • Enhancing the capacity of local wildlife authorities to conserve and manage elephants