Endangered elephants ‘eavesdrop’ on poachers in Republic of the Congo

© Colin R. Swider

Critically endangered forest elephants use their acute senses of hearing and smell to detect poachers while they are still some distance away and well before they have fired a shot, a new study suggests.

To gather data, researchers used a grid of 50 passive acoustic sensors that spanned more than 121,000 hectares of Nouabale-Ndoki National Park and an adjacent forestry concession, in the Congo Republic.

They discovered that the elephants went silent shortly before automatic gunfire erupted in eight suspected poaching events.

After the gunshots, elephants immediately increased their vocalisations, suggesting they warned others using alarm signals, or marshalled their family members while heading to safety.

“I mostly expected that we would find a decrease in vocalisations following the gunfire events,” said Colin Swider, a doctoral candidate at Syracuse University, who led the study published in the African Journal of Ecology.

“I figured the elephants might immediately abandon the area and head away from the danger, leaving no elephants around for us to detect.”

In retrospect, the spike in vocalisations picked up by the sensors did make sense.

“Acoustic communication is a critical part of how elephants overcome stressful or challenging situations together,” Swider told RFI. “It is crucial for coordination. I imagine the need to communicate would be quite high following such a dramatic event as a poaching incident.”

Swider has a hunch that it is because the elephants move to other areas, away from danger.

Read more on RFI English

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