Science

When Elephants Stop Being Chill Creatures

They’re not as violent as several gruesome viral videos suggest, but there’s a reason they can become aggressive.

A herd of elephants in the wild
A herd of wild elephants grazes in the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in India. MANJUNATH KIRAN/Getty Images

Elephants have been in the news lately, and not just because one named Happy lost her court case (sad!). Over the past two weeks, a video of an elephant killing a woman in India and then returning to trample her corpse at the funeral went viral. In the wake of this, others have shared videos of their own “violent elephant encounters,” leaving the impression that, contrary to their gentle-giant reputation, elephants are quite violent.

But as elephant experts will tell you, these sorts of instances are not as common as Twitter users might lead you to believe. According to Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell, an instructor at Harvard Medical School who has been studying elephant communities and elephant societies for 30 years, the elephant behavior that’s making the news is quite bizarre.

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I spoke to O’Connell-Rodwell about what it means when an elephant displays aggressive behavior, what precautions people should take in their vicinity and the ways that elephants are quite similar to humans. Our interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Hannah Docter-Loeb: As someone who has studied elephants, what was your initial reaction to the video of the elephant crashing the woman’s funeral?

Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell: Oh my God. It was so horrific. It was just so awful. I feel terrible for those people, for the family. And I also feel terrible for this elephant that is holding so much anger. I’ve done some work with Indian elephants in Nagarhole National Park in Karnataka. Beautiful place and beautiful environment and elephants, but, oh my gosh, they are so aggressive. They’re much more so than I’ve experienced in Africa and I really think it’s due to the compression of there’s so little land left for elephants and there are farms coming up against parks and elephants feel threatened. I think in India, the conflict is heightened by the fact that elephants are being compressed into smaller spaces and that they tend to be more aggressive along these interfaces between parks and human-dominated landscapes.

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And this one particular incident, I mean, it’s just so bizarre. This is not normal behavior, by any stretch. It’s not normal behavior, but in order to try and understand this, I would say that I view myself almost like an anthropologist. I’m learning about a different culture of another social animal that has so many similarities to ourselves that you can have these psychologically maladaptive behaviors when you feel threatened, you feel like you have very few resources and somebody else has a lot more than you do. And you feel like they’re taking them from you.

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These are very complicated intellectual thoughts, but elephants have those thoughts. They are that smart. And they do have those feelings of being threatened by known individuals. I mean, even crows can tell whether a person’s good or bad.

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I’m not saying that elephant thought that person was bad. There’s some strange bizarre thing that happened there. And without knowing the specifics, I couldn’t say why this elephant did it, but I think that they feel they definitely are in a situation of extreme pressure up against this elephant-human landscape. And it’s like a war zone, unfortunately.

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Elephants are actually pretty peaceful creatures, except when they’re in danger, right?

Yes, absolutely. They are very gentle and very cognizant of their interactions with others. And there’s some writings of elephants being used in war and generals trying to get them to step on heads and crush heads and elephants didn’t want to do it. They’re very sensitive. There are many stories in Africa of an elephant coming across an injured person and trying to protect and like putting branches over them. I have been in villages where somebody was walking home at night and bumped into an elephant and the elephant was startled and killed the person. That’s just not normal behavior, but they do feel threatened by people and people in the wrong place, in the middle of the forest where the elephant views it as their safe zone. Elephants have families, they have close friends, they have a sense of justice, a sense of reconciliation.

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So for this kind of very bizarre thing to happen, yes, it’s not a one-off thing. Elephants, when they feel threatened, they’re going to get aggressive. And when we feel threatened, we get aggressive. We start looking for weapons and going on the attack.

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Unfortunately, elephants don’t stand back if they’re trying to protect their family. If the elephant is in the hormonal state of musth, male elephants can get erratic and if you don’t back down, they feel that you’re threatening them. They will go on the attack and for many people, they don’t understand how to read elephant body language and they can make mistakes that way.

Do you hear about people having injuries in your line of work a lot, or is it more of a rare occurrence?

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It’s definitely a rare thing, but for people who live in the same habitat and coexist with elephants, there are more encounters with elephants. So you’re likely to have more negative interactions. Just like if humans are in the compressed area, you’re going to get people having fights more than if you didn’t interact and were in a less populated situation. It’s more like that. But when elephants come up against humans in a threatening situation, there’s more likely to be aggressive behavior than if it was a passive [situation where] you see an elephant in the forest, in the distance and they see you and then pass by, then it’s just a curiosity for both of you.

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What precautions should people take when they’re around elephants?

If you are a tourist in the car, you want to give the elephant a wide berth and let them know that you’re there. And if they hold their ears out to you, they’re telling you you’re too close. You should back off. If they shake their head at you’re especially too close and you really need to give them some distance. The bulls are more likely to give you some warning, but females feel like they need to protect their young. Some of them will be more aggressive than others and not give you some kind of warning.

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I work with farmers in the Zambezi region of Namibia and every year, you have to think of new solutions to try and mitigate elephants going into crops and how to minimize this. It’s a challenge because as human populations grow and use more of the land that used to be occupied by elephants, they feel like their land is being taken away and corridors are shrinking. It’s a really hard situation for both elephants and people. And it’s hard for local people to think, oh, here’s international people coming and telling us, we have to keep all this land for elephants. Well, what about us? And it’s really a challenging situation to make sure that both humans and elephants are being heard and accounted for, and policies in place to make sure that everybody is having a fair shake of it.

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What else do people get wrong about elephants? 

They are definitely gentle giants, but people often think that they can just approach them, but they want you to respect their space and they don’t want you to get very close to them.
It’s sometimes similar to people when they come to Africa and they see lions. They think, “oh, I’ll go stand next to the lion and get a picture.” But they’re part of a landscape where social animals, whether they’re herbivores or carnivores, they’re going to defend themselves. And elephants, they don’t necessarily want to be aggressive, but if they feel threatened, they will be aggressive. And just appreciating them from some distance is a way of honoring them and getting to know them by watching them and not feeling like you should necessarily interact with them because they’re wild animals and interacting with them is not going to be good for either the elephant or the person.

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If you added up all the terrible videos of human violence or lion aggression or gorilla aggression, you’d think, “oh my gosh, all of these species are monsters.” So taking those videos out of context and adding them all up is like one in a thousand or some cases of this happening. But it’s justifiable that they would want to defend themselves against a situation where they feel threatened. And in this one horrible situation in India, elephants do recognize people and remember bad things and associate those bad things with certain people because they’ve had bad experiences. And it’s a reality of intelligent social animals that they have the same conflicts, emotions that we do.

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