Elephants Are Not Ethnic-Blind

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research

I have had this experience. I've traveled literally hundreds of kilometers by foot together with Efe (Pygmy) hunters in the Ituri Forest. We see very few animals. The few we do see are attacked, killed, and eaten. Well, a lot of them actually get away, but that is the idea.


But I've also traveled many kilometers (not as many) alone. I would see many animals, and yes, they would run (or climb or whatever) away, but not as desperately. They knew I was not really one of the hunters, although I tried my best to look tough and hungry.

Of course, when I use the word "animal" here I mean mammals and birds mainly. Insects, not so much.

I've had similar experiences elsewhere in Africa as well, where what we humans would call "ethnicity" was obviously being picked up by mammals.

Well, now there is some research to back this up:

Some species distinguish several species of predator, giving differentiated warning calls and escape reactions; here, we explore an animal's classification of subgroups within a species. We show that elephants distinguish at least two Kenyan ethnic groups and can identify them by olfactory and color cues independently. In the Amboseli ecosystem, Kenya, young Maasai men demonstrate virility by spearing elephants (Loxodonta africana), but Kamba agriculturalists pose little threat. Elephants showed greater fear when they detected the scent of garments previously worn by Maasai than by Kamba men, and they reacted aggressively to the color associated with Maasai. Elephants are therefore able to classify members of a single species into subgroups that pose different degrees of danger.

Here is a picture of elephants upset by exposure to Maasai clothing:


And here's the data to back it up:


This research demonstrates that elephants discriminate both using olfaction and vision, with these two sources of information processed separately and accurately, to assess risk from different sorts of people. Considering the amount of energy one must spend ... and time one must waste .. running away from threats, this does indeed make a lot of sense.

BATES, L. A., SAYIALEL, K. N., NJIRAINI, N. W., MOSS, C. J., POOLE, J. H. & BYRNE, R.W. (2007): Elephants Classify Human Ethnic Groups by Odor and Garment Color.. Curr Biol, , .


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This is interesting. I would have no trouble believing this is true, but have there been any critics offering different interpretations of the data?

Legitimate critics, not IDiots or the like;)

IR: I have worked with diverse African ethnic groups (and non-Africans) with wild animals (including elephants, but mostly other creatures) extensively. I was utterly unsurprised at this finding. We think of elephants as smart, but the nature of reaction to different 'kinds' of human beings is really blatant among mammals in general, and in fact, some of my own research in the Congo shows this. I think this is simply something that a lot of people who work with wild animals in Africa have intuited.

However, our impressions are not good scientific findings, and that is why this research is important. This is taking 'common knowledge' and testing it with a set of controlled experiments.

I don't know off hand of any significant critics.

Can we be sure that the elephants are distinguishing between types of humans, rather than not recognising that they're the same type of animal in the first place? The post speaks of the scents and distinctive colours of Masai garments: if that's what the elephants are basing their identification on then it seems at least plausible that they don't consider the similarities significant.

Definitely an interesting line of research. At least from an amateur pop-sci guy's perspective. It will be intriguing to see what continues to come out of the research.

Can we be sure that the elephants are distinguishing between types of humans, rather than not recognising that they're the same type of animal in the first place?

Good question, but a question that in turn continues to presume a sort of species concept for elephants (as the research does). Or even in "individual" concept.