Learning the Nuances & Body Language of Elephants

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I used to be terrified of elephants — the terrible, debilitating kind. Before I started guiding I felt like every time we saw elephants we would get charged and at the mere mention of their name I would drop to the floor of the car and find a safe space under the seat while every one else enjoyed the looming elephant.

Seeing elephants was never an enjoyable experience and no matter what anyone said to me I just knew it was going to end badly because it pretty much did, every time.

Having guided and been in control of the vehicle and the distance at which I can view elephants has completely transformed how I feel about them and they are now one of my absolute favorite animals to watch. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that elephants are honest with their body language and if you read these easy steps for how to understand them, you will be able to enjoy elephants both safely and without fear too.

Watch out for the following body language when you next come across elephants:

Tails: Just like a dog, when an elephant’s tail is swishing from side to side swatting away flies, it is happy. As soon as the tail goes stiff, normally held out to one side, it means that the elephant is anxious. At this point it may even start to run from you, normally swivelling over its shoulder to keep an eye on you as it tries to get away.

Eyes: An elephant’s eyes can tell you an incredible amount. Just think of humans, when we are stressed, excited or scared our eyes open wider. This is part of the reaction to the release of adrenaline in our bodies and better enables us to handle the perceived threat. This is exactly the same for elephants. If an elephant approaches you with lazy, almost half closed eyes and its tailing swishing slowly from side to side, it is a good sign this animal is very relaxed.


An elephant bull demonstrates how ‘dozy’ their eyes can get when they are relaxed and feeding. It seems this bull was even struggling to keep them open at all.

Ears: I have also often experienced guests begin to stress as an elephant approaches us with its ears flapping. Please don’t stress. The elephant is merely cooling itself down. It has huge, fat veins that run beneath the thin skin of the ear and as they flap their ears against the wind, they cool the blood and therefore their overall body temperature. The time to be weary is when an elephant turns and faces you head on, with its ears extended and held out at its sides (normally with its head held high and trunk and tusks raised). The elephant is trying to make itself look bigger and intimidate you.

Trunk: I have also often heard the theory that if an elephant runs at you with its trunk out, it’s a ‘mock’ charge and if it tucks it in, then it means business. To be totally honest I have seen an elephant run at us trumpeting, with her trunk extended, for about a kilometre. That elephant meant business. I think the general rule should rather be that if an elephant is running at you, just back down and get away. They are bigger than you and its best to treat them with the respect they are asking for. Having said this, try not to race away from a juvenile elephant who is just showing off. This only teaches them bad manners and nasty habits for when they turn into big elephants.

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A young elephant attempts to make itself look bigger. Sadly for it, this will only be intimidating in another decade or two.

Rumbling: This has to be one of my favourite noises in the bush. Most of the noises elephants emit are at frequencies we can’t even hear. However, this comforting, low rumbling sound we are lucky enough to hear is the elephants communicating with each other, so sit quietly and enjoy it.

Trumpet: This is generally not a good sign and usually signals distress. Even if it is just a youngster trumpeting, who doesn’t pose a threat to you, the trumpet will usually summon its mother in a matter of seconds who will more than likely blame you for its child’s temper tantrum.

Head shake: This is when an elephant picks its head up high and throws it back down in an arc, creating a big noise as its ears slap against its body and a billow of dust pours off its head. It is intimidating and that’s exactly why the elephant does it. If the elephants does this and moves off, then you are safe to continue watching the herd, however if it does this in conjunction with wide eyes, turns to approach you with ears extended, back arched and tusks held high then it is in your best interest to heed that elephant’s warning.

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The ever intimidating head shake and resultant dust cloud. Photo courtesy of Google Images

Temporal dribble: This is the dribble that you sometimes see on the temples of the elephant and many of the fallacies state that an elephant showing this is in musth, a heightened state of testosterone the males go into, which makes them unreasonable and highly aggressive. It is true that a male in musth exhibits this but so do other elephants, including little calves. People are unsure as to exactly why this sweating occurs but most say it’s due to stress or excitement.


A secretion from the temporal gland, which can be seen on both males in musth as well as females and youngsters. Photo courtesy of: www.elephantsforafrica.org

Urine dribble: The really important sign to look out for with big males is a constant dribble of a foul smelling urine down the back of their legs. This is a sure sign that the elephant is in musth and should be treated with space and respect because during this time they can be highly aggressive and unreliable.


Have a look at the back right leg and you’ll spot the dark stain of the urine dribble that gives these males their distinctive foul smell. Photograph courtesy of Google Images.

Watch your guide: Lastly watch your guide. If they look totally relaxed and are enjoying the elephants, then this is a good sign that you should too.


An elephant bull approaches a vehicle, getting rather close, but based on its body language you can tell that it is totally unfazed by the presence of the vehicle.

With all of this, as with anything in the wild, I think the most important thing to remember is respect. Respect that elephants are bigger than you, respect that they can change their minds and respect that they are wild animals. Remembering this I’m sure you will have no more problems with one of Africa’s greatest giants.

Written by: Amy Attenborough


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