Tetrapod Zoology

Tetrapod Zoology

Amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals - living and extinct

Crocodiles attack elephants


Way back in November 2010 a remarkable photo appeared online, showing an adult Nile crocodile Crocodylus niloticus biting the trunk of an adult female African bush elephant Loxodonta africana (a plague upon those bloggers and others who identified the crocodylian as an... alligator. Duh). You've almost certainly seen the photo already: it was widely features in newspapers, magazines, blogs and such. My initial plan was to assume that everybody's seen it, but that would be frustrating to those of you that haven't so, whatever, here it is...

Photo: Martin Nyfeler/Barcroft Media.

Above we see the moment where the mother elephant is raising her trunk, the croc clamped around the end and still in the water. But the whole sequence of events was photographed too: the elephant actually pulled the croc right out of the water entirely, at which point the croc finally let go. The baby elephant tripped over the crocodile, but all three animals survived. In fact, both elephants were definitely ok since they were seen later in the day at the same river (the Luangwa River). This incident happened in Zambia's South Luangwa National Park; the photographer was Swiss tourist Martin Nyfeler. Here's the whole sequence (taken from here)...

Remarkably, this isn't the only time a crocodile has been photographed grabbing an elephant's trunk. During October 2010, Johan Opperman photographed an incident in Kruger National Park, this time featuring a baby Bush elephant. The baby was part of a group that waded across a small river, the surface totally covered in floating plants. As you can see, the crocodile grabbed the baby's trunk. The other elephants rallied to the baby's defence and the crocodile released its grip and disappeared. Here's one of the several images...

Photo: Johan Opperman.

But it gets even better. Did you know that croc-attacks-elephant-trunk incidents had been FILMED? Not once, but at least twice. Yup, here's number one...

If that isn't viewable (I find it very hard to get videos to embed here), use this link: Crocodile attacks drinking elephant

I can't pretend to have done any research on this specific incident at all and don't know anything about it. It's clearly genuine. The elephant that gets attacked appears to be another adult female. After recovering from the shock of "OMG there's a crocodile on my trunk", her reaction seems to involve aggression and retaliation - she seems to charge into the water in pursuit. And here's number two... (the main incident happens at 1:35)...

Again, if that doesn't work, go here to view the video on youtube.

Thanks much to RoryD for bringing the second bit of footage to my attention. Again, I don't know anything about it.

Here's the thing that immediately strikes me about these incidents. They're been photographed or filmed at least four times. As you'll know if you're an expert on elephant and/or crocodile anecdotes, there are allusions in the literature to at least a few other cases of the same sort of thing. I recall one incident in particular where a crocodile attacked a juvenile elephant; an adult elephant grabbed the crocodile, pulled it on to the bank, trampled it, and threw its corpse into a tree. Anyone recall this as well?

Photo (c) Marlon Du Toit.

Anyway, if crocodiles have been seen to attack elephant trunks on at least four separate occasions, it seems safe to assume that it has actually happened on more occasions than this, since there must be occasions where (1) people didn't film/photograph it, and (2) people weren't there to see it happening. In the grand scheme of things, crocodile attacks on elephant trunks are probably pretty rare - and probably always have been, even if we think of a time when there were far more crocodiles and far more elephants, but... it does make you wonder. None of the attacks mentioned here resulted in the death of an elephant. Indeed, it may be that the crocodiles involved in these incidents made mistakes, thinking that the object that they were grabbing was attached to something far more manageable. However, note that a damaged trunk can prove fatal for an elephant: they can literally be disabled by trunk blockages and amputations, since an inability to forage, drink or breathe can result in declining health and eventual death. This at least makes it plausible that a crocodile could result in an adult elephant's death. On the other hand, elephants can survive with mutilated trunks. The adjacent photo shows an individual photographed by Marlon Du Toit: it had a mutilated trunk and had learnt to squirt water into its mouth from its damaged trunk tip (more images and story here). Here's another image of an individual with a damaged trunk (though, admittedly, it's a baby).

One final thing. Having said that these incidents are probably very rare, I wonder if they might have happened on enough occasions that elephant behaviour has been modified accordingly. I mean: are there places with high crocodile densities that elephants deliberately avoid as drinking spots? Or are there places where elephants are especially careful, or where they do unusual things to 'test' for the initial presence of lurking crocs? And let us not forget the crocodylians and elephants of the geological past. Forgive me, I couldn't help but knock up the following quick illustration...

Platybelodon and Euthecodon. Image by Darren Naish.

And everything you read here was inspired by a conversation I had with Mike P. Taylor and Matt Wedel. PS - note the skillful avoidance of Rudyard Kipling. I dislike the predictable references.

For previous Tet Zoo articles on elephants, see...

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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