Elephants Can Distinguish Between the Growl of a Hungry Tiger And a Hungry Leopard

Farmers may be able to use growl-broadcasting, motion-triggered speakers to deter elephants from raiding their crops

Yathin S Krishnappa

In India, tigers will occasionally pick off an unsuspecting elephant calf, whereas leopards can’t take down such large prey and therefore don’t technically pose a threat to an elephant herd. And while elephants generally do not like the growls of large felines, new research finds that that they respond differently to tiger noises and growls from a less deadly leopard.

The research began with a problem. At night, elephants undertake covert crop-raiding expeditions. More than just a larger equivalent of hungry rabbits, however, these crop raids cost some farmers up to a third of their income and often lead to loss of life for both humans and elephants, Ed Yong points out at National Geographic.

Rather than meet the animals with guns and hostility, researchers reasoned, perhaps they could deter the elephants another way. Authors of a new study published in Biology Letters decided to try and scare elephants out of crop raiding. They’d heard anecdotal reports of farmers setting up growl-broadcasting speakers, so they set up their own trip-wires that, when triggered, played the growls of either a tiger or a leopard.

Here, you can watch what happened. First, the tiger:

Elephant group responds to tiger growl

And now, the leopard:

Elephant group reacts to leopard growl

As you can see, when elephants think a tiger is about, they quietly slip back into the jungle. When the leopard growls, however, they seem more annoyed than terrified, trumpeting and reluctantly stomping away. The researchers also recorded instances when the elephants lingered in the area after hearing the leopard, as if they were skeptically daring the animal to come out. Yong summarizes:

It’s not the most surprising result, given other studies about elephant behaviour. African elephants, especially the older matriarchs, can distinguish the sound of male lions, which pose the greatest threat to their herds. They can also smell the difference between clothes worn by Massai hunters who kill elephants, and Kamba cattle-herders who do not. Clearly, these are intelligent animals that can react in sophisticated ways to different degrees of danger. Still, no one had shown that they can tell the difference between the sounds of two big cats.

Unfortunately, however, playback of tiger growls will probably lose its jarring effect eventually, Yong points out, since elephants would likely habituate to it. But if tiger populations can be built up, perhaps those big cats will turn up in the flesh more frequently, reminding the elephants that growls aren’t always a harmless human trick.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Fourteen Fun Facts About Elephants 
Saving Mali’s Migratory Elephants 

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