Scientists: We need to take feral hogs and vampire elephants seriously

13 Aug 2019

Image: © pascal/

In conflicts between humans and wildlife, non-traditional culprits are often overlooked, including feral hogs.

Because of rapid urbanisation, wildlife and humans are coming into conflict more often than ever. As a result, researchers are now studying how different types of animals react to encroaching humans.

However, a pair of researchers from Clemson University in South Carolina have pointed out that some animals are being left out of the conversation.

In a paper published to PLOS Biology, Shari Rodriguez and Christie Sampson pointed to two non-traditional culprits: ‘vampire elephants’ and feral hogs. The reason these creatures have largely been left out of the conversation is because they are not carnivores and therefore not traditionally associated with a loss of livestock.

While not directly targeting farmers’ animals for food, they can often kill young and small livestock as well as damage farming infrastructure. This damage to livelihoods may also affect local communities’ perception of the species, which in the case of species with conservation concern, such as elephants, could reduce people’s willingness to support conservation initiatives.

Explaining the origin of the vampire elephant name, Sampson said it was coined after a research trip to Myanmar when she saw first-hand an incident where an elderly woman put her store of rice in a tree before sleeping beside it.

“She didn’t use a tree limb high enough so that, unfortunately, the elephant could reach it,” Sampson said. “So the elephant goes to get the rice, takes down the branch, takes her down with it and ends up killing her. When they found the body the next morning, there was no blood because she had been badly injured during the event and lost a great deal into the sandy ground.”

No, vampire elephants don’t drink your blood

With no evidence of blood, an urban legend spread claiming the elephant had drained it from her because it was a vampire.

“We tried to tell people, ‘They don’t eat meat, and they don’t drink your blood’,” Sampson said. “Part of our job is to understand those missing pieces of information for people. Fundamentally, that’s not our charge; our charge is the research.”

Rodriguez added: “If we can mitigate the conflict to begin with then we don’t have issues of ‘vampire elephants’ or (the belief in) elephants that eat people.”

Meanwhile, in the south-east US, feral hogs were also found to be a major issue, as one of the most prominent memes of recent weeks has shown.

Rodriguez has called feral hogs “ecological zombies” because “they will eat anything”, often preying on wildlife and livestock.

In their paper, the researchers wrote: “Though feral hogs may not be of conservation concern, these animals contribute significant losses to farmers’ livelihoods.

“We advocate for the inclusion of non-carnivore species in policies that promote livestock protection because it will allow for better communication regarding effective strategies and more application in the field.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic