(Photos: tiger, ADITYA SINGH/AFP/GettyImages; elephant, Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images)
It's not easy being an elephant. Every year, tens of thousands of them are killed by poachers seeking the ivory in their tusks, and activities like logging, agriculture and mining have steadily reduced their habitat, bringing them ever more into conflict with humans.
Here's one clever way some Indian farmers are keeping elephants and people separate without causing the animals any harm: playing a loud recording of a male tiger growl.
A new study published in Biology Letters examines the way that Asian elephants respond to growls from different types of great cats. As National Geographic reports, the investigators hid night-vision cameras in elephant dung strategically placed along village roads in Southern India, right near farms (apparently crop raids usually happen at night). When an elephant approached, they played either tiger or leopard growls, and filmed the results:
As it turns out, the elephants react very differently to the two great cats. Tigers are known to prey on elephant calves, and accordingly, each time they heard a tiger growl, they beat an immediate and silent retreat. When they heard the roar of the relatively harmless leopard, however, the elephants actually answered back with their own growls, and walked around to investigate. Some even tried to fight back by kicking up dirt (they ended up kicking the battery box that powered the speaker's trigger).
"It would pay for the elephants to recognize when a tiger is nearby so they can retreat, without wasting time by running away for every big-cat growl they hear," Lucy Bates, a research fellow at the University of St. Andrews in the U.K., told National Geographic.
Vivek Thuppil, one of the study's co-authors, told National Geographic that merely broadcasting tiger growls over loudspeakers might not be enough to keep elephants out of Indian villages. Instead, he suggests a more fine-tuned system, which mimics a moving threat by playing the sound in changing locations.
Finding a humane way to keep people and elephants apart is good news for both species: an estimated 500 people are killed by elephants each year, and in India, which sees the most deaths, many of these occur when one of the five-tonne animals wanders onto farmland to graze on crops.
There are also some powerful stories out there of humans and elephants co-existing peacefully. Last year, we told you about Lawrence Anthony, who was known as "The Elephant Whisperer." In 1998, he rescued and rehabilitated a group of wild South African elephants who were deemed dangerous.
When Anthony passed away in 2012, a group of the elephants he had helped during his life travelled over 12 hours to reach his house, where they spent two days seemingly "mourning" his loss.