In Africa, elephants share territory with many other animals, but they only have limited interaction with a handful of these species. They are herbivores, so they eat only plant material and do not prey on other animals. Also, the adults rarely are eaten by predators because their size and strength makes them difficult to hunt. Some of the species that elephants do interact with, either directly or indirectly, include birds, baboons, and antelope.
Oxpeckers are birds that land on elephants, where they eat lice, ticks, and other parasites living on elephants' skin and hair. This symbiotic relationship benefits the elephant by removing irritating pests that can spread disease, and the oxpecker also benefits by getting an easy meal. Oxpeckers also help elephants by emitting a loud scream when they spot predators. Elephants are alerted to possible danger and then can guard their vulnerable young more closely.
Like oxpeckers, cattle egrets ride on elephants' backs, eating parasites as well as insects that are stirred up from the dust and grass as elephants walk. Egrets also will sound an alarm call if predators approach, giving elephants a chance to guard their babies from possible attack.
In Eritrea, a country in the Horn of Africa, olive baboons and elephants have formed a symbiotic relationship. The baboons drink from water holes dug by the elephants, and the elephants rely on baboons sitting in the treetops to alert them to danger. This relationship was documented first by evolutionary biologist Professor Jeheskel "Hezy" Shoshani.
A particularly unusual interaction between elephants and antelope happened at Zululand's Thula Thula Exclusive Private Game Reserve in 2003. Eleven wild elephants visited a camp where a herd of antelope were being held as part of a conservation rescue mission. The elephants were on a rescue mission of their own. The team of conservationists thought that the elephants were attracted by the antelopes' food, but the herd's matriarch carefully opened the enclosure's gate and stood back with her herd, watching the antelope escape. Thula Thula ecologist Brendon Whittington-Jones said, "Elephant are naturally inquisitive, but this behavior certainly is most unusual and cannot be explained in scientific terms."
Jennifer Bové is an award-winning contributor to "Your Big Backyard" magazine. She also writes for the National Wildlife Federation website and other online publications. Bové has published three books of nature-related stories, and she holds a B.S. in biology from the University of Missouri.