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Elephant Body Language and What It Means

22 Jan 2020 | By Author Thornybush | Wildlife

Elephants are peaceful, gentle creatures most of the time, but they can be dangerous. Fortunately, it’s easy to tell when you are pushing your luck around elephants – their body language gives them away every time.

Here are some interesting facts about elephants that come from our experienced guides who know a whole lot more than we do about what’s happening in an elephant brain!

Look into Their Eyes

Just as your eyes begin to droop after a fulfilling Sunday dinner – or snap wide open when you are startled, the elephant’s eye can indicate its state of mind. Soft, almost hooded eyes indicate a relaxed animal, while wide eyes can be a sign of trouble on the horizon. This is because the eyes widen as adrenaline seeps into the bloodstream – all the better to deal with danger quicker.

Watch the Tail

When an elephant’s tail is softly swishing from side to side or occasionally swatting at flies, it usually means a relaxed state of mind. Add an element of tension to the picture and the elephant tail becomes more rigid, either held to the side or lifted away from the body. In most cases an elephant showing anxiety in this way will move off to avoid conflict.

Elephant Ears Alert

Many people believe that an elephant flaps its ears as a sign of aggression. This is simply not true. Flapping ears are used to cool the animal down.

If an elephant turns towards you with its ears extended to the sides and head and trunk raised – different story. This intimidating display is an attempt to frighten you off. In most cases the animal will continue on its way after giving you a scare, but this behaviour can lead to a charge should you choose to ignore it.

The Trunk Position

An elephant’s trunk has so many uses, that it almost never comes to a standstill. For communication purposes, it can be used as part of the domination display described above, or to trumpet a warning.

There are different theories about the way that an elephant holds its trunk during a charge. That’s not the kind of thing you should be worrying about. Mock charge or not, if an elephant gives any sign that it’s about to run towards you, your ranger will have you out of there before you have time to check for its trunk position.

Look, listen and learn

The warning signals versus communication given out by elephants are easy to tell apart, once you know what to look for.

A low rumble for example is merely the elephant communicating with the herd, while a trumpet is usually a signal of distress or a temper tantrum of a youngster whose mother will look to blame you for the outburst.

Don’t Miss This

The most important thing to remember while watching elephants on a game drive is to relax and immerse yourself in the experience.

Most of the elephants in Thornybush Private Game Reserve are used to people passing by and will simply continue with whatever they are doing. Take this opportunity to lap up the privilege of watching elephant behaviour in the wild and enjoy being in their presence.