Watch: This Charging Elephant Is Probably Just Having Fun
It turns out human beings aren't the only species to play with dogs.
A new video from Kruger National Park in South Africa shows one male elephant charging into a pack of wild dogs gathered on one of the park's roads.
While it may appear that the elephant is displaying aggression, that's not actually the case, says elephant expert Joyce Poole.
Poole is the co-founder of Elephant Voices, an organization that studies the cognitive, communicative, and social behaviors of elephants to promote their ethical care. She notes that elephants display a range of complex emotions and this video is no exception.
"Watching his charging of the wild dogs, he does not appear to be very serious—it's likely he is having a bit of fun chasing them about," says Poole.
As the elephant runs into the dog pack, dispersing the wary canines, it can also be heard loudly trumpeting. (See how this elephant invited a rhino to "play.")
Poole calls this behavior "pulsated-play-trumpets," or the vocalization elephants make when engaged in exuberant play and characterized by low, quick bursts of trumpeting. In contrast, when an elephant is threatened, it will vocalize what Poole describes as a "trumpet blast," in which a higher pitched, extended trumpeting noise signals discomfort.
Despite the male—or bull—elephant's seemingly playful behavior, the video also suggests the animal is in a period of musth. That heightened sexual state indicates the male is ready to mate with a female. Secretions from the elephant's temporal glands can be seen on its back legs, a strong indicator of musth and a sign intended to simultaneously attract females and warn other males to stay away. (Read about the complex reason a male elephant in musth attacked a baby elephant.)
For males in this state, playful play can easily turn aggressive. Poole says the driver of the police vehicle seen in the video made the right call by slowly backing away from the elephant. Honking or moving away at high speeds could have easily triggered an aggressive reaction from the bull.
The video was captured by a tourist riding in a caravan of wildlife watchers and park officials just behind the police car. The tourist noted the group heard the elephant rustling through the bushes before it suddenly burst out onto the road. The police vehicle initially made a light honk to let the elephant know they were there.
Notes Poole of the cars' close call: "The police were lucky that he was in a relatively good mood."