The gentle giant

by Aditi Mishra – Elephants are some of the most wondrous creatures of Nature. So strong, so social and often wise.

A study of African elephants from the Amboseli ecosystem in Kenya shows that the elephants could even be telling apart which human is dangerous and which one is friendly based on their life own experiences.

The Amboseli national park houses 2 distinct tribes among many – the Kamba and the Maasai. While the Maasai young men demonstrate virility by attacking elephants, the Kamba tribe are relatively benign to the elephants.

In a clever set of experiments, researchers demonstrated that the elephants are actually able to tell apart the members of different tribes. This is special because an elephant would not only have to access their memories of encounters with human but also have the discretion that not all humans are the same. It is pretty sophisticated to tell apart members of a predator species apart based on regional experience.

The elephant herds were presented different red shirts – one worn by a Maasai adult, one worn by a Kamba and one unworn in random order and videotaped.

Then the researchers then measured how terrified the elephants were by measuring how much time the elephants spent standing after first smelling the cloth, the speed at which they bolted after smelling the shirts, how far did the elephants travel away from the shirt, and the time that the elephants took to relax again.

Agitation is very clearly demonstrated in elephants. Even after being out of danger, individuals might still show tension by their erect head posture, herding close to other elephants, sniffing, and fanning their heads. While relaxed elephants spread out, begin feeding, dust-bathing, or resting with heads lowered.

The scientists found that the elephants were significantly more agitated when they whiffed the smell of Maasai men over the smell of an unworn t-shirt or Kamba men. In fact, the elephants would not stop running until they found tall grass to hide or relax in when they smelled the shirt worn by Maasai men.

Even more interesting, this behaviour was not based on individual experience, Three of the many elephant herds did not have any members that had experienced spearing by Maasai men, however they exhibited similar behaviour. Hence it might be that this information is either shared between elephant herds or passed over generations.

While it does not tell us whether elephants stereotype humans according to the tribe they might belong to or whether they think not all humans are the same. One thing is clear they understand that not everyone is alike.


Bates, L. A., Sayialel, K. N., Njiraini, N. W., Moss, C. J., Poole, J. H., & Byrne, R. W. (2007). Elephants classify human ethnic groups by odor and garment color. Current Biology17(22), 1938-1942.

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