The VICE Channels

    Infrared Sensors That Play Tiger Sounds Could Stop Killer Elephants

    Written by

    Ben Richmond

    Contributing Editor

    Photo via Vikram Gupchup/Wikimedia Commons

    Most home-invading vermin, while obnoxious, can be dispensed with pretty easily—use traps for mice, poison for rats, and if you have roaches, move. But what if you’re being overrun with Asian elephants? If you don't want to poach the noble beasts, the answer is: leopard and tiger sounds.

    As someone who has always had to go to zoos to see elephants, having them ambling around the town sounds like a dream. In practice, though, it’s a nightmare. About 400 people are killed each year trying to defend their crops from elephants, and some hundred elephants are also casualties, according to an Indian government report.

    Rowan Jacobson wrote an amazing piece for Harper’s on Indian villages coping with the nightly invasion by a herd of elephants. When they first showed up in the late 1990s, the elephants ate the crops that the villagers had planted, but as they got more comfortable, they became much more bold and dangerous.

    At some point the elephants figured out that the best stores of food were not in the fields but in the kitchens and granaries of the farmers’ villages. They began sneaking in at night and knocking over houses, which are often made of bamboo slats reinforced with a paste of mud and cow dung. If something moved in the wreckage and, say, screamed, the elephants would spook and either kick it or whack it with their trunks. Usually the thing never moved again.

    In Jacobson’s article, the villagers line the banks of the river like sentries, listening for elephants and making noise to scare them away. The elephants’ advance could be deterred by gunshots, but only momentarily. Elephants, in addition to never forgetting, are quite patient, it seems.

    But one thing they won’t abide is the growl of a big cat. According to new research from the University of California, Davis, the sound of a tiger’s growl will cause a grown elephant to slink away into the night—and goddamn if an elephant trying to sneak around isn’t hilarious/adorable—while they trumpet and flee at the sound of a leopard.

    The researchers set up infrared sensors in the woods that, once triggered by the elephants, would play the big cat sounds. Normally full-grown elephants have no real reason to fear tigers, and there's no record, scientific or anecdotal of leopards even preying on calves. Normally it's the cats that would be doing the quiet fleeing. And even though the elephants behave differently depending on which felid's roar is played, the herd would just as soon not risk a rumble in the jungle, and they leave.

    The number of Indian elephants is on the rise, as is the amount of land that is being set aside as forest habitat for them. Still, elephants and farmers who both want the same thing—lots of potatoes and rice—are going to be at odds. The tiger's roar is a workable solution that will hopefully drive the recovering Indian elephant herds back into the forests, leaving the crops of India’s often poor rural farmers alone.