An African elephant is pictured on November 17, 2012 in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe
African elephants can differentiate between human languages and move away from those considered a threat, a skill they have honed to survive in the wild, researchers said Monday.
The study suggests elephants, already known to be intelligent creatures, are even more sophisticated than previously believed when it comes to understanding human dangers.
African elephants (Loxodonta africana) are the largest land animals on Earth and are considered a vulnerable species due to habitat loss and illegal hunting for their ivory tusks.
Researchers played recordings of human voices for elephants at Amboseli National Park in Kenya to see how they would respond, according to a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Some of the voices were from local Maasai men, a group that herds cattle and sometimes comes into conflict with elephants over access to water and grazing space. Occasionally, elephants are killed in clashes with Maasai men, and vice-versa.
Other recorded voices were from Kamba men, who tend to be farmers or employees of the national park, and who rarely represent a danger to elephants.
Still other voices tested on the elephants included female Maasai speakers and young boys.
All were saying the same phrase: “Look, look over there, a group of elephants is coming.”
The recorded voices were played for hundreds of elephants across 47 family groups during daylight hours.
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.