Some elephants in the Amboseli National Park in Kenya were studied and revealed to have the ability to understand voices and feelings. According to Carl Safina, author of Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, they could tell the difference between voices of the Maasai warriors and Kamba tribesmen in the same region.
Masai tribesmen usually hunt and kill elephants and according to Safina, they understand that these people are dangerous.
Historically, researchers knew that elephants would protect themselves whenever they saw the red coloured clothes of the Maasai warriors. They are even proven to be sensitive to the smell of the Maasai warriors’ attire. In addition to that, they also understand the Ma language of the warriors and immediately flee when they hear their voice.
In contrast, elephants’ behaviour in the presence of farmers from the Kamba tribe is one of calm. They recognise the look and smell of their clothing and do not flee. They also know the language spoken by Kamba tribesmen.
The University of Sussex researchers, Karen McComb and Graeme Shannon, were particularly inclined to see how the elephants react to language.
“They have very clear behavioural responses in all of these situations,” McComb told Virginia Morell of National Geographic when the study was first published.
The researchers recorded some men, women, children of both ethnic groups saying a similar phrase in their languages, watching to see their reaction.
When the Maasai women and children called out, “Look, look over there, a group of elephants is coming” in their Ma language, the elephants ignored them. It was the same reaction when Maasai boys and Kamba tribespeople said the same phrase. However, when the elephants heard Maasai men speaking, they fled.
Safina explained that elephants’ reaction to the different voices shows that the animals “understand that there are different kinds of people.”
However, poaching – which poses the most danger to elephant life – cannot be stopped with the help of this behavioural pattern. Poachers usually fire at the animals at a distance before proceeding to steal their husks, and as such, elephant speech and smell perception cannot quite help.