Elephants Can Distinguish Between Human Languages


Elephants hearing human voices can identify language, gender, and age.

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences of the United States of America shows evidence that elephants presented with recordings of humans speaking different local languages react differently based on the language spoken, as well as the gender and age of the speaker. Using hidden loudspeakers, researchers played recordings of a variety of people saying the phrase “Look, look over there, a group of elephants is coming” in the Maasai and Kamba languages, to over 40 groups of wild elephants. Elephants hearing adult male Maasai voices responded very defensively, while those hearing other voices did not exhibit such strong reactions.

Elephants and humans in Africa have a troubled and often violent coexistence. Human-on-elephant violence, often for poaching, has decimated many elephant populations, and shattered the long-lived animals’ social groups; with evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder and strongly anti-social behavior in some surviving animals. In some cases, this has led elephants to react violently towards humans and their property, which leads to further retaliatory killings of elephants.

Certain groups of people pose more of a threat to elephants than others. The Maasai people, a semi-nomadic herding tribe famed for their facility at killing lions with spears, also have a history of spearing elephants, whether for food, retaliation, or even as a form of political protest. It has already been demonstrated that elephants tend to flee from people dressed in the traditional red robes of Maasai warriors, and the new study wished to find if the same advanced discrimination between human ethnic groups could use voice recognition. For the study, Maasai voices were compared with those of the Kamba, a farming culture that has much less violent interaction with elephants.

The researchers found that adult male Maasai voices would cause elephants to bunch up defensively around their young and sniff the air; while female or young male voices, or adult male voices speaking Kamba, did not cause such behavior. Even altering the voices to make males sound more like females, or females more like males, did not fool the elephants. Elephant matriarchs, the leaders of the elephant herds, all appeared able to make the distinction between Maasai and Kamba voices, while older elephants were better at picking up on subtler cues such as gender and age.

Lest this article inadvertently demonize the Maasai, the author would like to note that the Maasai are a pastoral people who live around and interact with wild animals on a day-to-day basis in a way that most Western readers can probably not fully comprehend. Although they do spear and kill elephants on an individual basis, the Maasai should not be confused with larger scale commercial poachers, who indiscriminately slaughter entire herds of elephants using machine guns and grenades. The significance of this study is the evidence that it provides that elephants are a highly intelligent species that can learn to distinguish between sub-groups of a predator population and adjust their reactions accordingly.

Sources: PNAS, LA Times

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