African elephants engage in more than 200 different known postures, helping them convey an array of emotions, from aggression to ambivalence. Complex and unfamiliar, elephant behaviour can be difficult for human beings to distinguish—which is why recent footage of an African elephant approaching a rhino was initially deemed to be aggressive by many viewers.
The real motivation behind the elephant's actions?
"It was an invitation to play," says Joyce Poole, an expert on elephant behaviour, National Geographic explorer, and co-founder of Elephant Voices.
FACE-OFF: PLAYFUL ELEPHANT VS. TENSE RHINO
The footage was shot at Kruger National Park in South Africa by visiting tourists. While the approach began innocuously, the rhino's sudden charge startled the elephant, who then responded with a threat to charge.
Poole explains that the two elephants seen in the video are dominant males, likely around 18 years old. At this age, it is common for adult male elephants to form what are known as "bachelor" groups, or groups of males who have yet to form their family structures or to become solitary.
"It wasn't aggressive," explains Poole. "Elephants sometimes want to push their weight around."
The male in the video's foreground can be seen exhibiting three distinct behaviours.
First, he exhibits "distant frontal attitude." By curling his trunk into an "S" shape, he signals an interest in duelling or sparing with the rhino. Approaching with this posture indicates he is waiting for the rhino's next move.
The elephant then solicits play further by bending his head down and resting his trunk on his tusk and pressing his ears against his head. It's at this moment the rhino becomes threatened.
As it charges slightly toward the elephant, the elephant responds by picking up the stick, formerly a plaything, and throwing it at the rhino. Even at distances, elephants are capable of accurately throwing objects at a target. Uprooting objects and throwing them at predators are common shows of self-defence exhibited before attempting to charge.
Whether or not an elephant is aggressive, Poole explains, is entirely dependent on the elephant. Like people, their likeliness of showing signs of aggression depend on past experiences, populations, and individual characteristics.
Elephants are known for their impressive memories, but their intelligence is one of the most advanced in the animal kingdom. Similar to how the elephant in the video picks up a stick as a play object and source of defence, elephants commonly use tools to their benefit. Earlier this week, video footage captured an Indian elephant navigating through a railroad stop, delicately lifting the pathway's barrier, and expertly moving through the crossing.
In addition to being able to practically use and navigate around objects, elephants also use objects as an expression of emotion. They are one of nature's most empathetic animals. Scientists have observed them pulling tranquillizer darts from their peers' sides, spraying dust on wounds, and even mourning their dead by placing plants and soil over carcases.
Kruger National Park is one of the largest wildlife reserves in Africa, covering more than 7,000 square miles. As of 2009, it was estimated to be home to more than 11,000 elephants.
White rhinos like the one seen engaged in the standoff have been less fortunate in the wild. Poole says she had never seen elephants engage in playful behaviour with rhinoceroses, not because it's out of character for them, but simply because rhinos have been poached to dangerously low levels.
The commercial value of their horns, combined with their relatively unaggressive nature, has left them susceptible to poaching. Once in danger of extinction, white rhinoceroses are considered a conservation success story, but recent surges in the demand for their horn have resulted in a similarly increased loss of life. The conservation group Save the Rhino estimates that have been poached since 2008.