For wild animals, it is extremely necessary to identify predators and recognise the level of threat they pose to their lives. Generally, most animals use their visual and olfactory senses to determine the danger that lingers. However humans present a rather challenging case as different sub-groups of humans signify different magnitudes of risk to the animals.
A research study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that the African elephants (Loxodonta africana) in Amboseli National Park in Kenya, can effectively distinguish between human sub-categories based on their ethnicity, sex and age. They conducted a controlled playback experiment to determine whether the elephants could use the acoustic information contained in human language to distinguish the threat posed by the local Maasai tribes — an ethnic group known for its hunting practices — from the lesser threat posed by the agricultural Kamba ethnic group. The scientists played the male voices of the two ethic groups and the elephants easily figured out which amongst the two were cause for alarm. Then the scientists played voices of Maasai women along with male voices. Once again, the elephants quickly recognised who posed greater danger as Maasai women rarely hunt. When they heard the male voices, the elephants would bunch together defensively or retreat, but they barely budged when they heard a woman speak. The elephants didn't show a change in behaviour on hearing the voices of Maasai boys either.
Moreover, even the digital manipulation of the voices did not confuse the elephants a bit. "Elephants have this amazing ability to discern predators on a fine scale," Graeme Shannon, lead co-author of the study and a wildlife ecologist at Colorado State University said to The Verge. "They can ascribe different levels of threats to certain groups."
This study, though portrays an out-standing cognitive ability of the elephants, it also highlights the sad existence of the man-animal conflict. "Perhaps this information can be used to develop more comprehensive conflict-mitigation techniques that take the elephants' perspective and decision-making process into account." Joshua Plotnik, an elephant researcher at the University of Cambridge says. "I find it very sad that humans have driven elephants to the point that they now need to learn to adapt to humans as a threat." (as told to The Verge)