Are Elephants Dangerous?

The massive size and behavior of elephants make them a keen interest among researchers. There have been multiple movies made on elephants over the years. Some show elephants as cute, friendly creatures, almost like pets. In comparison, others show them to be dangerous, destructive animals. So the question arises, are elephants dangerous?

Elephants can be dangerous if they’ve lived in the wild or had no human interaction. Additionally, elephants on musth (during their mating season) are especially dangerous and can attack even if unprovoked. However, elephants raised in captivity around humans are usually friendlier.

This article will help deep dive into whether elephants are dangerous or not. You’ll also learn the various warning signs of elephants and how to avoid an elephant attack safely.

Two elephants charging at each other hear a watering hole

Are Elephants Dangerous? 

Elephants are dangerous animals. However, the actual answer is a lot more complicated. 

Elephants are the biggest, heaviest, and strongest land mammals on the planet. Their sheer size can make them a considerable threat to humans and other animals. 

Like most creatures, elephants don’t attack until they’re provoked.

Mainstream media shows elephants as extraordinarily kind and caring mammals who can easily mingle with humans. However, this is not true for all elephants, especially not for elephants in the wild. 

Only elephants raised in captivity or who had constant human interaction their entire lives are calm amongst humans.

Elephants in the wild are much more dangerous and can pose a significant threat. 

Baby Elephant Charging in Kruger National Park

When Is an Elephant Most Dangerous?

The threat that an elephant may pose dramatically depends on the species, gender, and circumstance of the elephant. 

African wild elephants are usually more dangerous than Asian species, primarily due to their size and limited human interaction.

An elephant is at its most volatile and dangerous behavior in musth. Musth is a period of heightened aggression and unpredictable behavior in a male elephant due to a surge in testosterone levels. 

During musth, male elephants actively look for female elephants for breeding and generally have more erratic behavior. 

Even elephants raised in captivity can be highly violent during this time and may even harm their caretakers. Elephants raised in the wild are especially dangerous and will most definitely attack any humans near them. 

On the contrary, these same elephants may be utterly unbothered by human presence when not in musth. 

Elephants on the charge

Are Elephants Friendly With Humans?

By nature, elephants are highly altruistic animals and don’t care much about those around them.

Therefore, they aren’t very friendly with humans and prefer not to have humans interfere in their environment. 

Nonetheless, elephants that grow up amongst humans are quite different. They are friendly with humans, and some may even make close bonds with their human caretakers. 

Threatening Behavior to Look Out For

Although it’s usually wild elephants that you should be wary of, sometimes even elephants held in captivity can display threatening behavior. 

To best save yourself from a possibly fatal elephant attack, you must educate yourself about an elephant’s ominous signs. 

Here are some ways that elephants try to warn their opponents:

1. Spreading Its Ears

Elephants often spread their ears fully when they are excited, scared, or shocked. They usually do this to appear more significant to their opponent. 

2. Standing Tall and Making Eye-Contact

Elephants usually walk with their eyes kept down and their head below their shoulders. Therefore, if you see an elephant looking directly at you and its head above its shoulders, it considers you a threat. 

Elephants again do this to appear taller and make eye contact to let the enemy know it’s got its eye on them. 

3. Digging Their Tusks in the Ground

You must carefully get out of the premises if you see an elephant aggressively dig its tusks in the ground and rip out plants or other vegetation. 

This elephant behavior might show you what it will do to you if it gets a hold of you. 

4. Aggressively Shaking Its Head

Elephants usually start shaking their heads aggressively when they are annoyed. While doing so, they move their head from side to side while their ears slap the sides of their face. 

5. Swinging Their Trunk and Trumpeting 

Elephants may swing their trunk toward their opponent and blow air through their trunk (i.e., trumpeting) to scare away their adversary. 

6. Mock Charging 

Elephants may start running toward their opponent but will stop a few meters away from them.

They do this with their head held high, their ears spread out, and they often kick up dust with their trunks. 

This action is a severe warning sign for the enemy, and if you see an elephant coming towards you like this, best to get out there as fast as possible. 

Elephant mock charging

How to Safely Approach Elephants in The Wild?

On an elephant sighting trip, you must know precisely how to behave around the elephants.

Any sudden movements or loud noise could spook the mammal and may not end well for you or others around you. 

Here are some tips to keep in mind when approaching elephants in the wild: 

  1. If you’re in a moving vehicle, slow it down as soon as you see elephants in the distance. Do not rush your car at high speed toward the elephant. 
  2. Before stopping to watch the elephants, ensure you’ve assessed the area around you and have a potential escape plan.
  3. If the elephant seems agitated by your presence, don’t test its patience and get out of there.
  4. Always stay at least 50 meters away from the elephants and ensure that your car engine is switched off. The sound of the machine may spook the elephants.
  5. If an elephant is getting closer than 20 meters to your vehicle, calmly turn on your engine and slowly try to take the car further away. If this bothers the elephant, turn off your engine and try again after a few minutes.
  6. If there are young children with you, be extra cautious since any sudden or loud movements by the child may also spook the elephant.
  7. As a general rule, avoid elephant sightings during their mating season. Male elephants are especially dangerous at this time.
Elephant charges towards cameraman - Nature's Epic Journeys: Episode 1 Preview - BBC One

What to Do During an Elephant Attack?

If an elephant is charging toward you, it’s crucial to determine whether it’s a mock charge or a real one. 

You’ll be safe if it is a mock charge since this is simply the elephant trying to warn you. In this case, slowly leave the premises once the mammal is done with its mock charge. 

However, if the elephant is charging toward you with its ears pinned to its back, it’s most likely an attack charge, and here is what you should do:

  • Run in a zig-zag pattern: Elephants are enormous animals and hence have a lot of inertia within them when they run. This makes them primarily run in straighter lines. Therefore running in a zig-zag pattern will likely confuse the elephant and give you time to escape.
  • Hide behind a broad tree or vehicle: Try finding an object that is heavy enough and broad enough to hide behind. If you do this, ensure that you remain exceptionally still and quiet. 
  • Climb a tree: Elephants can’t climb trees, so if you find a nearby tree that you can easily climb, stay up there till the animal leaves.
  • Hide in a ditch: This will put you out of the range of the elephant since it’s unlikely that an elephant will be able to reach you within the trench. It will likely lose interest over time and leave you alone. 
  • Throw a decoy object: Doing so could help distract the elephant as it may start chasing the thing instead of you. 
  • Scream as loud as you can: If you choose to be a daredevil, you can stand your ground while screaming. The noise may make the elephant consider you as a potential threat, and it may leave you alone.

Final Thoughts on Whether Elephants are Dangerous

Elephants are genuinely marvelous animals and, like most animals, are unlikely to attack if you give them their space. 

Although unlikely, it’s still possible for you to find yourself at odds with an elephant. 

Now you know what to do when stuck in such a situation.