During the Halloween season, it's fun to discover what scares you, which is perhaps why haunted houses make so much money. This got me wondering, if elephants had a haunted house, what would it be filled with? I mean, there can't be much that makes the largest land mammal startle or run away, but what might those things be?
Through various research I've found a short list of things that do and don't scare elephants. Be careful, some of them may scare you too!
I've decided to start with mice because, contrary to popular belief (and Disney), elephants are not afraid of rodents. A few years ago Mythbusters set up an experiment to test the old myth, but if you watch the video closely, their method is a bit faulty. They set up their experiment by trapping a mouse under a little basket. By tying a string to the basket, they could control when the mouse was released by pulling the string. However, this string didn't just run from the basket to the experimenters; it went straight across the elephant's path. By having the string run in front of the elephant's path, they kept him from walking forward, even without a mouse there.
Moral of the story: I don't believe elephants are afraid of mice.
2. Loud sounds
Elephants are adversed to loud sounds, (large ears, you know), which is why farmers in both Africa and Asia clang pots together and shout to try to scare elephants away from their fields. Although the sounds first startle the elephant, getting it to walk away, they quickly become accustomed to it and ignore it. One researcher, Bruce Schulte, says they acclimate to these sounds within 48 hours, which means using sound to keep elephants away is a one- or two-time trick.
Watch an adorable example of an elephant chasing a motorcycle, because she disliked the loud sound it made.
3. Chili peppers
Apparently elephants do not like the spicy smell. I'm not sure how we figured this out, but the active ingredient of chili peppers, called capsaicin, is not popular at all with pachyderms. This is another tool Asian farmers use to steer elephants clear of their fields. By bagging a bunch of peppers and hanging them on sticks surrounding the field, the distasteful odor could help keep them away. Unfortunately, however, elephants seem to develop a tolerance, which allows them to come back for a snack.
This rumor has died down as recent research has proven elephants aren't scared by skeletons. In fact, they're almost attracted to them. Remember, elephants never forget, which means they remember which member of the herd died where and when they died. And the next time the herd visits that spot along their migration path, they will spend a few hours or even days visiting the bones of their relatives. Elephants smell, touch and sometimes even pick up the bones, remembering their dead relatives and grieving with low rumbles. To see this, watch this herd visit a grave site.
This taught me something new, because little did I know that there are bees in Africa. And according to my source (click 'bees') these little guys are quite ferocious, responding quickly to any threat, even up to 50 feet away from their nest. These bees have also been known to chase their predators for over a mile, so it's no wonder that elephants would be wary of them. Farmers also use these as a deterrent from their crops, but unfortunately for them. elephants seem to decide the yummy vegetation is worth getting stung.
To learn more about human-elephant conflict in Asia and the techniques that are being developed for preventing crop raiding, click here.
6. Big cats and crocodiles.
While elephants are the largest species on land, they do fall prey to animals like lions, cheetahs and crocodiles. Only injured, sick, solitary or baby elephants are in danger, but if elephants hear a lion call, a herd will likely respond with preventative measures, like leaving the area or circling their babies. However, there are many occasions when an adult elephant will take the lion on, especially if it's a mom protecting her baby.
The last and true fear of elephants is guns. Because their families, herds and lives have been torn apart for decades by these weapons, elephants know the sound, and even the appearance, of a gun. Their response is to alert the rest of the herd and either hurry away, or to huddle around the babies and try to protect themselves. Sometimes elephants will even become aggressive and charge the shooter.
So there you have it, six "fears" of elephants. They may be big, but they do have both natural and learned fears that haunt them, just like us. So, go out, get scared, and see if you're as brave as an elephant.
Oh, and by the way: BOO!
Kerry Skiff is a conservation advocate and recent journalism graduate of Northern Kentucky University. She follows the ivory trade around the world, and uses her voice to educate Americans about their role in animal conservation.