Recently, a SafariLIVE crew happened upon just such a scene while filming in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve. Their cameras zoomed in on young lions that had started sniffing around a couple of adult black rhinos guarding a calf.
It didn’t take long for the rhinos to detect the threat and the larger of the two, a bull, charged at the cats to run them off. Then from somewhere offscreen trumpeting can be heard as a wall of five adult elephants arrives on the scene.
Seemingly realizing they’re outmatched, the lions retreat while the male rhino postures in front of the entire herd of elephants. For a long, tense moment, it seems as if he’s going to charge straight into the elephants’ tusks. And all the while the lions eye the action from afar, perhaps hoping to use the distraction as an opportunity.
Eventually the elephants back off and the rhinos win the day.
“I don’t think the young lions were much of a threat, but the addition of the elephants is what changed the entire situation,” writes Susie Ellis, executive director of the International Rhino Foundation, in an email.
Elephants are highly social and form tight family groups. Here, a family enjoys time together at Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve.
The Elephant In The Room
It may seem odd that herbivores like elephants and rhinos would show aggression toward one another, especially while a cabal of card-carrying carnivores are nearby. (Related: “Watch: Impala Faces Crocodile, Hippo in Impossible Standoff”)
But there are several things that could explain the dustup. For starters, a closer look at the tape reveals that the elephants also have a calf with them, so both species were likely to be on high alert.
Adult elephants and rhinos are mostly too big for the lions to attack, says Luke Dollar, a wildlife biologist and program director for National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative. “But the little ones are certainly a source of curiosity.”
What’s more, many animals have been observed displaying what’s known as redirected aggression, where a bystander bears the brunt of an animal’s irritation rather than the trigger that caused it.
In fact, Poole remembers one time she watched as a lion pounced on a baby elephant and, rather than chase after the cat, the adult elephants glared at her instead. (Watch: “This Baby Elephant Lost Its Trunk. Can It Survive?”)
It Pays To Be Vigilant
If these large herbivores aren’t exactly pals, you might think the world’s largest land mammals would just leave the rhinos to deal with the lions.
But sometimes different species are more connected than we realize.
“Animals who are at risk of attack from any kind of predator have to pay attention to each other,” says Dollar.
“When a rhino huffs or stomps its foot, that says, ‘Okay, there’s a threat here.’ And I would guess the elephants probably approached because they knew the lions were there and they had an interest in getting them to go away,” he says.
By sharing the burden of being vigilant, animals are able to save energy. The alternative would be every animal looking over its shoulder all day and night, and that doesn’t leave much time for eating, sleeping, or reproducing.
Of course, predators aren’t the only animals that can be dangerous.
“Everybody’s got that friend that you wouldn’t mind going to the bar with but you also have to watch carefully to make sure they’re not going to get into a fracas or cause a fight because of a short temper,” says Dollar.
“Well, that’s the rhino.”