Before we begin this article, which is being written because, according to search trend statistics, it is one that people look for answers to, it is worth clarifying that elephant do not necessarily attack humans in the sense that there is a concerted effort on the part of elephant to cause this conflict or in the sense that there is a statistically noticeable instance rate of elephant on human attacks.
Largely by virtue of their size, elephant enjoy the privilege of being more comfortable in their surroundings than do other creatures who may more often feel themselves threatened. This more often than not translates to the quiet confidence we often call the ‘gentleness’ of these giants. They are not so easily driven to violence or the threat of it as buffalo are, for example.
However, also probably in part owing to their great size and the confidence it gives off, elephant are wont to wander wherever, unchecking their routes as they encounter obstacles other animals might warily steer clear of.
So, elephant do come into contact with human beings quite often. This brings the capacity for conflict, of course. With Africa’s peoples increasingly turning to arable farming instead of a more pastoralist mode of existence – which was far more prevalent in the past – this capacity for conflict only grows.
So, elephant do attack humans but that phraseology, chosen because it best reflects the question asked of the Internet’s search engines, is better considered as ‘In what situations will a human/elephant interaction turn violent?’
Below are a description of certain situations in which human elephant interactions can turn violent.
Provocation or perceived threat:
Elephant are highly protective of their young and their herd. If they feel that their calves or group members are in danger, they may become defensive and aggressive towards perceived threats, including humans. This can happen if humans come too close to their calves, surprise them, or enter their territory.
Habitat encroachment and human-elephant conflict:
As human populations expand and encroach upon elephant habitats, conflicts arise. Elephant require vast areas to roam and find food, but as their natural habitats shrink, they may encounter humans more frequently. Competition for resources like water and food can lead to aggression from elephant.
Mating behaviour (including a male elephant’s state of musth (which you can read more on if you follow this link)):
During the mating season, bull elephants can become highly territorial and aggressive. They may exhibit aggressive behaviour to assert dominance and secure mating rights with females. Humans who inadvertently come across a bull elephant in mating season can be at risk.
Disturbed or distressed elephant:
Elephant are intelligent and social creatures, and they can experience stress and emotional distress. Factors such as poaching, habitat destruction, noise pollution, or previous negative encounters with humans can impact their behaviour and make them more prone to aggression.
In some cases, elephants in captivity may exhibit aggressive behaviour due to confinement, mistreatment, or stressful conditions. These animals may lash out as a result of frustration, fear, or mistreatment by humans.
We’ve written about some of the issues alluded to in this article before. Understanding when a male elephant is in musth, for example, is a great way to avoid coming into conflict with it. Similarly, noting and being aware of the temperament of a distressed elephant or a mother with her calf can go along way toward avoiding conflict with elephant.
If you’re considering the question at the top of this article as a means of conducting research before you go into an elephant’s habitat then you may also find our article entitled ‘A field guide inspired handbook on elephant body language’ useful.