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When Herbivores Attack: Elephants & Rhinos

on July 13, 2013

The wilds of Africa are home to some of the most impressive animals on Earth and also the most dangerous. When we think of dangerous animals, the first thing that often comes to mind are images of snarling lions or leopards with the blood of their prey smeared across their faces; the big predators with their strong jaws and sharp claws are often the animals that scare us the most, but is this truly justified? What is the most dangerous animal in Africa?

The Big 5 is a term used to name a group of animals that, traditionally, were the most dangerous and sought after hunting prizes, but nowadays are the most eagerly sought after game viewing sightings; the group includes African Elephants (Loxodonta africana), Rhinoceros (Black (Diceros bicornis) and White (Ceratotherium simum)), African/Cape Buffalo (Syncerus caffer), African Lions (Panthera leo) and Leopards (Panthera pardus). It’s tempting to think the most dangerous animals from this group are the lion and the leopard and there’s no denying that the razor sharp claws and strong jaws of these big cats are potentially deadly, however, the truth is that more people are killed by each of the other animals in the group than by each of the cats.

Elephants, rhinos and buffalo are all herbivores; herbivorous animals, by definition, feed on plant matter such as leaves and grass, they are not adapted for hunting and killing prey and yet they are able to kill very effectively. Another gentle vegetarian, the Hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibious) is the mammal that kills more humans than any other! There are many reasons why all of these large herbivores can be so dangerous, and these reasons are mostly because they possess adaptations that benefit them such as weapons and behaviours with which to fight amongst themselves or to protect themselves in a hostile environment. In this 2 part series we will look at what makes these large animals successful in the wild and dangerous to humans.

Let’s start with the African elephant; the largest land animal currently alive yet it maintains its massive bulk of up to 7 tons with feeding only on plant materials and it is equipped with the right tools that help it with its feeding. A commonly asked questions is why do elephants have tusks? Well, their tusks are actually modified teeth, incisors to be precise and they are most commonly used as tools for a range of feeding related tasks, for example, breaking branches from trees or digging roots out from the ground. Both males and females have tusks but it is the males (mostly) that also use them for fighting and they are capable of delivering deadly blows to their opponents with their ivory armaments. Elephants, perhaps most famously, are also owners of a trunk which is an appendage formed by a fusion of the nose and the upper lip and it is prehensile, they use it in a similar way to how we use our hands; for investigating and interacting with objects and each other.

An African Elephant (Loxodonta africana) feeding on grasses.

African Elephants (Loxodonta africana) use their trunk and tusks mostly for feeding, but they can also be deadly weapons.
Photo Credits.

Most deadly conflicts between humans and elephants occur when humans encounter an elephant bull when it’s in musth; this is a physiological state where males are flushed full of reproductive hormones and become extremely aggressive. This hormonally charged state can be identified by fluid being secreted by temporal glands on the side of the animal’s head and by the animal constantly dripping urine. Unfortunately, many people fail to recognise these warning signs upon encountering a musth bull. Elephants raise their young in herds and if threatened, mothers and other relatives will also be quick to defend their young.

When elephants are aggressing someone/something they will often perform a mock charge which is when they will try to intimidate their foe without committing to a full attack (which could be potentially dangerous to the elephant itself). A mock charge is usually a very loud affair where the animal will trumpet and throw its weight around a lot, flapping its ears, scrapping its tusks on the ground and destroying nearby vegetation, it may even run forward several paces before backing off. When an elephant sets out to seriously aggress its opponent, it will fall deadly silent, tucking its ears and trunk back and running forward with its head low in a determined fashion. In an elephant attack, elephants are able to employ all of their natural assets and there isn’t much humans can do to defend themselves other than firing a well-placed rifle shot. Elephants may use their tusks to impale a person, or their trunk to grab and throw a person but most often, it is the elephant’s sheer bulk that finishes the deed by using its strength and weight to trample and crush.

An African Elephant (Loxodonta africana) with its ears flapping and trunk swining in a mock charge.

African Elephants (Loxodonta africana) intimidate any threats by making themselves bigger by opening their ears.
Photo Credits.

Rhinos can also be fearsome beasts despite their generally peaceful vegetarian lifestyle. Adult rhinos, like elephants, have almost no predators but they are at risk of becoming involved in fights with other rhinos and also have to protect their young from predators such as hyenas and lions. So how do rhinos protect themselves? The weapon at a rhino’s disposal are of course its horns which grow from the front of its face and are in fact composed of the same material as human hair, keratin, and it’s these horns that they use to fight with other rhinos or to defend themselves or their young against any other potential threat. There are two species of rhinoceros in Africa, the black rhino and the white rhino but it is the black rhino that has acquired more of a reputation for ‘extreme’ aggression perhaps as a result from living in densely vegetated areas where escaping threats isn’t always possible. Interestingly, black rhinos are so aggressive that nearly half of all males die as a result of fighting each other, and nearly a third of females.

A White Rhino (Ceratotherium simum) presents its impressive horns.

The keratin horns of this White Rhino (Ceratotherium simum) are strong, deadly weapons.

Similarly to elephants, rhinos practice mock charging, but in the absence of big ears to flap, they instead scrap their horn on the ground or against nearby objects whilst snorting. However, many humans have ended up on the wrong end of a rhino’s horn because the animal was caught by surprise and unable to intimidate the threat it perceived; rhinos in general have very poor vision, with the exception of youngsters, and although their other senses are very acute, it is possible to approach rhinos quietly from downwind and get very close without them becoming aware of your presence. The problem arises when the rhino suddenly realises that a potential threat is already well within its comfort zone and it becomes spooked; one defence mechanism that rhinos employ is to panic run, this is where they charge in whichever random direction is easiest in the hope of either escaping a threat or trampling it in the process, unfortunately, a person might find themselves in the path of this panic run without much opportunity to get out of the way. Also, rhino females will very often be escorting a calf as they are on a lifelong cycle where they still live with a previous calf when a new one is born. They have a birthing interval of three years and it is very possible that a healthy reproductive female will never be without a calf in her adult life; a rhino cow’s maternal instinct can also contribute to a rhino’s aggression/defensiveness when humans are around. Humans have found themselves impaled on rhino horns, thrown into the air or even trampled underfoot and we should all learn the lesson that rhinos can be unpredictable.

A Black Rhino (Diceros bicornis) chasis a field guide who had antagonised it.

This foolish guide unethically antagonised a Black Rhino (Diceros bicornis) just to appease guests.
Photo Credits.

Of course, these two might animals would rather not have to engage in any sort of combat and would much rather spend their days peacefully feeding, socialising and rearing their young, however, the African bush is a difficult environment full of conflict and these often peaceful herbivores will resort to deadly force if they have to. In the next post, we will look at the African buffalo and the hippopotamus and the different strategies they employ in self defence.

Much love,

-Nick

 

If you liked this entry, make sure you check out our Dangerous Animals category.
Other Dangerous Animals entries:
A bloody end to a bloody career: Poacher trampled by elephant
Predator or Prey: Who do we cheer for?
Adam Sandler attacked by cheetah in South Africa

2 responses to “When Herbivores Attack: Elephants & Rhinos

  1. iarxiv says:

    Another great, informative article :)

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