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Understanding Elephants

Elephants in the wild.

There have been lots of studies on elephants. Body language is key to understanding elephants and this can be very useful in the bush. It also adds to the enjoyment of watching elephants in the wild.

So here are some pointers.

First thing is to ascertain if you are looking at a male herd or a breeding herd. The older females or matriarch are the ones that dictate how to respond, their sole objective is to ensure herd safety. The younger elephants can give misleading signals so it is a good idea to gauge the mood of the larger females first.

Young males are often quite nervous, they will either move away or attempt to intimidate. Older males are the undisputed kings so treat them as such and don’t antagonise them.

The tail is excellent to read elephant body language.

  • The tail of a relaxed elephant swings from side to side
  • The tail of an alert or uncomfortable elephant is points downwards
  • The tail of an upset, frightened or angry elephant is held out stiffly at right angles

An elephant that is flapping its ears isn’t angry, it’s hot and trying to cool down. But if an elephant is unsettled, they will raise their heads, spread their ears and shake their head in an attempt to show off how large they are (which is not necessary as they are pretty large). Older cows often do this to vehicles – telling you not to do anything stupid. Simply stay still and be quiet.


  • If the movement is focused – feeding, for example, then the elephant is relaxed.
  • If the elephant is standing still with the trunk raised and curled with the tip pointing, the elephant has picked up a particular scent and is working out what it is and where it is coming from.
  • If the elephant is standing still with the trunk down and the tip twisting from side to side, this can mean that something has caught the elephant’s attention and it is deciding what to do next. A twisting trunk can be a sign of anxiety.
  • If it is a bull elephant with their trunk is draped over their tusks then it is an attempt at intimidation, move out of its way.

Elephants are constantly moving so any is a sign that something is amiss or that they are listening intently. Rocking from side to side can also be a sign of indecision or anxiety.

All mature bulls experience musth cycles where their testosterone levels skyrocket to around 60 times the normal levels. They secrete liquid from their temporal glands. Musth bulls hold their heads high with the ears above the level of the shoulders and walk with a self-assured swagger. Give these guys space!

Temporal glands
All elephants have glands between their eyes and ears that secrete an oily substance. Often these secretions go into overdrive when the elephant is nervous, stressed or excited. Again, give them space and respect.

Remember to follow your guide’s instructions and enjoy the spectacle.

Originally posted on Sense Africa.

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Understanding Elephants

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