An increasing number of incidents involving African elephants attacking humans is leading some scientists to believe the animals may be seeking revenge.

Although elephant attacks have long been occurring, such attacks were believed the result of the animals being territorial of competing for food, Sky News reported Thursday. But that rationale is being questioned since the elephant population has never been lower in many areas and food has never been so abundant.

Amid frequent reports of herds of elephants destroying African villages without apparent cause, some scientists are speculating elephants might be attacking humans in revenge for years of abuse, giving new meaning to the saying elephants never forget.

Joyce Poole, from the Amboseli Elephant Research Project in Kenya: "They are certainly intelligent enough and have good enough memories to take revenge. Wildlife managers may feel that it is easier to just shoot so-called ‘problem’ elephants than face people’s wrath.

So an elephant is shot without (hunters) realizing the possible consequences on the remaining family members and the very real possibility of stimulating a cycle of violence.

The elephant population in Amboseli National Park is one of the few that has been able to live a relatively undisturbed existence in natural environmental conditions. This rare situation is primarily due to two factors – the presence of researchers and tourists in the park and the support of the local Maasai. In the absence of poaching and culling, the Amboseli elephants have been increasing slowly since the late 1970’s. Amboseli is, therefore, one of the few places in Africa where the elephant age structure has not been drastically skewed and the population spans the whole range from newborn calves to old matriarchs in their 60’s and, even more unusual, many large adult bulls in their 40’s and 50’s.

Since its inception in 1972, AERP has monitored the Amboseli elephants, collecting data on all births, deaths, sightings and behavior, and has assembled identity records for each of the elephants in the population. This represents a wealth of data made possible only by such a long-term study of a relatively undisturbed, free-ranging population of African elephants. As a result, AERP is a critical source of baseline data on elephants. Since the mid 1970’s, the organization that has consistently supported AERP has been African Wildlife Foundation.

AERP Research Team

The discovery of an orphaned elephant that sounds like a lorry is reported today, suggesting that the traditional trumpeting of elephants could change in response to encounters with human society.

Dr Poole: ‘It is a sign that elephants are intelligent’
Although some birds, bats, apes, whales and dolphins can mimic sounds, the discovery marks the first time that vocal imitation has been found in a non primate land mammal, giving insights into elephant intelligence and society.

The project began when Dr Joyce Poole of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants in Nairobi took recording equipment to investigate "the very strange sounds" made by Mlaika, an orphaned 10-year-old female living in Tsavo, Kenya.

Mlaika’s night time stockade was less than two miles from the Nairobi-Mombasa highway and Dr Poole discovered that the elephant could imitate the sound of the lorries rumbling in the distance.

Mlaika appears to have picked up on the rumbles and copied them, Dr Poole and her colleagues report today in the journal Nature. "I do think it is another sign that elephants are intelligent," she said.

  Joyce Poole ‘talking’ to an elephant in 1996
It is the only vocal imitation found in a non-primate land mammal
The elephant usually made the low-frequency lorry-like noises for several hours after sunset. "It was a most extraordinary sound, like a foghorn or a truck bearing down the highway," said Dr Poole.

"I think she does it to amuse herself because she is bored at night."

Keepers said another elephant, no longer in Tsavo, had imitated lorries. And since the discovery Dr Poole has heard of more examples, such as Gail, a croaking elephant.