Perhaps the reason elephants are so regularly anthropomorphised is because they are sensitive and intelligent animals which makes it easy for humans to feel a connection with. So if, like me, your childhood was filled with friendly elephants like Babar and Nellie you can be forgiven for thinking that elephants can't wait for you to say hello and give them a few peanuts. Of course, in real life wild elephants bear very little resemblance to their cartoon counterparts, and I don't mean their lack of interest in bow ties or joining the circus.
Elephants have an uncanny knack of appearing, seemingly, from nowhere and while they can be the most placid of animals, they can also be one of the least tolerant. A protective mother, a grumpy bull, a mischievous juvenile or any elephant which has suffered trauma from poaching can be dangerous if not given space and respect.
Relative to other animals elephants are extremely communicative and have a sophisticated language of sounds (although humans can only hear a small proportion of these) and body language which can help us judge their mood and current disposition.
There are several signs to look out for:
Tail swishing. A relaxed elephant's tail will gently swish from one side to another as it keeps its rear end free of flies, but should the tail become rigid this is a good sign that the elephant is worried.
Eyes. People often say that elephants look quite dozy or half asleep. This is true of a relaxed and happy elephant but a stressed, annoyed or excited elephant's eyes will be wide open.
Rumbling. One of the sounds that are perceptible to the human ear which is a deep rumbling sound. This is a normal part of elephant communication and is not a growl of aggression.
Trumpeting. While it's the sound associated most with elephants it's also the sound which you want to hear the least when you have one close by as it usually signals distress.
Head shaking. If you're confronted by an elephant which is vigorously shaking its head and up and down so its ears slap against it, you should consider yourself warned. If the elephant does this and advances towards you with its eyes wide, ears out and tusks raised it's best to take the warning and slowly back off.
Urine dribble/Temporal dribble. Periodically bull (male) elephants go in to "musth"
which is a time of extreme hormonal change within their bodies and can see an individual's testosterone levels increase by as much as 40%-60%. Musth is characterised by a continuous dribble of urine from underneath the elephant and sometimes an oily secretion dribbles from the temples.
While in musth bulls become sensitive and volatile if disturbed or challenged and should be treated with caution at all
times. Musth is a Persian word and roughly translates to mean "condition of poisoning" and is used to describe an abnormal behaviour but can also be used to describe the behaviour of a drunk. Should you come across a bull in musth you should treat them in the same way you would treat a 6 ton aggressive drunk in a bar.
Generally speaking, give elephants plenty of space, don't attract attention to yourself and don't antagonising them by engine revving, using the horn. Treat each elephant as an individual and modify your behaviour appropriately.