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Providing evidence to improve practice

Action: Use target species distress calls or signals to deter crop damage by mammals to reduce human-wildlife conflict Terrestrial Mammal Conservation

Key messages

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  • Five studies evaluated the effects of using target species distress calls or signals to deter crop damage by these species to reduce human-wildlife conflict. Two studies were in the USA and one each was in Namibia, Australia and Sri Lanka.





  • Human-wildlife conflict (5 studies): Two of five replicated studies (including four controlled studies), in the USA, Namibia, Australia and Sri Lanka, found that white-tailed deer and Asian elephants were deterred or repelled from areas by playing their respective distress calls. Two studies found that, in most cases, elephants and white-tailed deer were not deterred from entering or remaining at sites when distress calls were played. The fifth study found mixed results but, overall, eastern grey kangaroo foot-thumping noises did not increase numbers leaving a site.

Supporting evidence from individual studies


A replicated study in 1994 at three waterholes in a grassland area in East Caprivi, Namibia (O'Connell-Rodwell et al. 2000) found that playing warning calls of elephants Loxodonta africana did not, in most cases, deter elephants from remaining at a site. In eight trials at three sites, groups of elephants (5–30 animals) were deterred from the site during three trials and undeterred during five. In six further trials involving 1–3 bull elephants, the animals were not deterred. Trail groups were not independent and some involved the same animals. Elephant warning calls, produced during times of apparent natural distress events, were recorded. They were played back on a portable cassette player at approximately 15-m distance from each herd as they visited water holes. Playback was activated when elephants pushed a tripwire.


A replicated, paired sites, controlled study in 2001 on arable fields alongside woodland at a site in Nebraska, USA (Gilsdorf et al. 2004) found that playing white-tailed deer Odocoileus virginianus distress calls did not affect deer intrusions into corn crops or subsequent corn yields. The rate of deer entries into fields was similar at fields protected by frightening devices (48–57 entried/km boundary/day) and unprotected fields (48–52 entries/km boundary/day). Similarly, there was no difference between fields before devices operated (device fields: 69 entries/km/day; unprotected: 56 entries/km/day) or after devices were turned off (device fields: 23–46 entries/km/day; unprotected: 20–47 entries/km/day). Average corn yields did not differ between fields with frightening devices (6,381 kg/ha) and unprotected fields (5,614 kg/ha). Six pairs of fields (6–20 ha, ≥0.5 km apart, matched for size, shape and location) were studied. Frightening devices played deer distress noises for 30 s when activated by deer breaking 50–200-m-long infrared beams. Two devices at each protected field covered 21–48% of the perimeter. Devices operated from 6–24 July 2001, when corn was most vulnerable to deer-damage. Deer activity was assessed by counting tracks twice during the device operating period, once five days before this and three times during 18 days after this time.


A replicated, randomized, controlled study in 1997–1998 at a shrubland site in Victoria, Australia (Bender 2005) found that playing recordings of foot-thumping kangaroos increased vigilance in eastern grey kangaroos Macropus giganteus and caused more kangaroos to flee in the first few second, but did not cause more overall to flee. Where the foot-thumping noise was played, kangaroos increased vigilance more than did those played a background recording (data presented as indices). A higher proportion of kangaroos fled within the first 3 s of hearing foot-thumping (26%) than of hearing background noise (0%). However, in total, 63% of kangaroos fled, and there was no significant difference in the overall average time to fleeing between noise types (combined average time to fleeing of 25 s). Kangaroos were observed from hides alongside three perimeter fence holes (≥850 m apart). Foot-thumping or a background noise were played for 8 s (noise type selected randomly). Responses were assessed from videos of 236 kangaroos, on 15 nights (20.00 to 21.15 hrs), from 11 December 1997 to 5 February 1998. Fleeing time was measured in 112 adult kangaroos, 64 exposed to foot-thumping and 48 with background noise. Individual kangaroos were tested once/session.


A replicated, randomized, controlled, before-and-after study in 2010 in a deciduous forest in Utah, USA (Hildreth et al. 2013) found that devices playing deer distress calls reduced white-tailed deer Odocoileus virginianus visits and food uptake. Sites with devices had 0 deer visits/day when devices were active (treatment period) compared to 273 visits/day with devices inactive (pre-treatment). Concurrently, sites without devices had 122 visits/day (treatment period) and 169 visits/day (pre-treatment). Food consumption by deer was lower at sites with devices during treatment (0 litres) than pre-treatment phases (2,175 l). At sites without devices, consumption during treatment (1,100 l) and pre-treatment phases (1,585 l) was similar. Six sites, >0.6 km apart, were each enclosed in a U-shaped fence, 18.3 m long. Three sites, selected randomly, had a deer-activated frightening device installed. This played deer distress calls when an infra-red beam was broken. Sites were baited with >38 l of alfalfa cubes in February 2010. Bait was topped up every second day. Deer visits were monitored using camera traps. Pre-treatment (device inactive) ran during 10–22 March 2010 while the treatment phase (device active) ran from 23 March to 4 April 2010.


A replicated, randomized, controlled study (year not stated) in a protected area containing forest, grassland, and wetland in Sri Lanka (Wijayagunawardane et al. 2016) found that playing recordings of elephant family groups to Asian elephants Elephas maximus led to more elephants fleeing the area compared to playing of other sounds. After playing the sound of elephant family groups, 11 of 17 elephants (65%) fled, compared to three of 31 (10%) when other sounds were played. Randomly selected elephants in the protected area were provided with a sugarcane, banana and palm frond mixture. Speakers were placed approximately 15 m from elephants. Sounds were played in a random order for one minute each, with a five-minute interval between sounds. Sounds played were: elephant group vocalizations (17 occasions), Sri Lankan hornets Vespa affinis affinis (12 occasions), lone female elephant vocalizations (8 occasions) and a chainsaw (11 occasions). Behaviour of animals was recorded during and after each playback.

Referenced papers

Please cite as:

Littlewood, N.A., Rocha, R., Smith, R.K., Martin, P.A., Lockhart, S.L., Schoonover, R.F., Wilman, E., Bladon, A.J., Sainsbury, K.A., Pimm S. and Sutherland, W.J. (2020) Terrestrial Mammal Conservation: Global Evidence for the Effects of Interventions for terrestrial mammals excluding bats and primates. Synopses of Conservation Evidence Series. University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK.