The Elephant Listening Project – Communication and Conservation

“One thing that surprised me was how much noise they made when they rubbed their bodies on tree-trunks (which they do a lot) and flapped their ears.”

Liz Rowland, data analyst for the Elephant Listening Project, recalled one of her few field trips in Gabon.  In this instance, she and Peter Wrege—director of the ELP (Elephant Listening Project)—were observing elephants at night with the help of infrared floodlights and night-vision binoculars.

“It was also obvious how great their sense of smell was. If the wind was going from us to them, they’d often all put up their trunks in the air (called periscoping) to smell us. Quite amusing.”

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[Image of elephants in Dzanga Bai (Central African Republic) drinking at the mineral pits taken by Andrea Turkelo, courtesy of the Elephant Listening Project]

Gabon is one of the African countries in which the ELP works and one of the limited places left in the world home to wild herds of elephants.

“The only staff employed in ELP are me and Peter,” Liz continued, “and we’re here in Ithaca nearly all the time, so our fieldwork is quite limited. Mostly, it involves just Peter Wrege going out to an area and trekking through the forest to put up recording units. He’s been going out to one area or another a few times per year.”

Andrea Turkalo, a scientist who has studied elephants for over 20 years, is another member of the team, even if she is not technically employed by the ELP.

What has become standard practice—regularly recording and analyzing elephant sounds–was an original idea in the 1980’s.  The ELP’s founder, Katy Payne, had spent fifteen years listening to whales with her then-husband, Roger Payne. Her curiosity as an acoustics biologist veered toward elephants in 1984. So she visited the Washington Park Zoo in Portland, Oregon, to listen to the Asian elephants residing there.

In her book Silent Thunder, Katy Payne describes her introduction to those zoo elephants, to the social hierarchy evident in that brief visit, and, eventually, of six trunks extending through the bars, “gently surrounding [her] with whiffing” [page 17], as they explored her scent.  It was that visit, in which she felt rather than heard a throbbing in the air, that prompted her to question whether elephants made sounds that humans might not be able to detect.

She acknowledges that she was not necessarily the first to make this observation.  She points to M. Krishan, who made such a suggestion in 1972, and to Judith Berg of the San Diego Zoo. (page 44)  Elephant scientists such as Cynthia Moss and Joyce Poole in Kenya as well as Iain Douglas-Hamilton in Tanzania had wondered how elephants could appear to communicate without any apparent sound over long distances. (page 43)

Katy Payne was, it seems, the first to act upon it and undertake ongoing studies to research it further.  Her tape recordings of elephants at the zoo revealed communication through infrasound.

Her research in the 80’s and 90’s took her to a number of African countries: Amboseli Park in Kenya, Etosha National Park in Namibia, and the Sengwa Wildlife Research Area in Zimbabwe.

Her teams’ recordings were brought back to Cornell University, situated in the rolling hills of Ithaca, NY.  And there, they were further analyzed. The Elephant Listening Project found its home in–of all places–the Ornithology program within that institution.

“[I]ndeed, people are usually surprised that we’re based at the Lab of Ornithology!” Liz Rowland explained. “The reason is to do with acoustics. I think there was already a sound library here for bird song when Katy established ELP. There was also another link I think. Chris Clark was already here at the Lab as head (and founder) of the Bioacoustics Research Program, working on whale sounds. Chris had previously worked as an assistant to Katy when she was working on whales. So I think that helped get Katy started here.”

Over the years, the areas in which the ELP works have changed slightly.

“Peter works with people based in Africa, often associated with the Wildlife Conservation Society, who suggest or request sites,” Liz wrote.

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[Image taken by Peter Wrege, courtesy of the Elephant Listening Project]

“There’s usually a specific need for information about the elephant and/or poaching activity. For example, Parks’ or Wildlife Conservation Society staff might be especially concerned about poaching in an area, or local people might be thinking of setting up an ecotourism project and would like to know when/where best to set up a platform [for wildlife viewing.]”

“[It’s] really only Peter that goes out to the field, although I did go with him once when we did a project that did need field observations. This was to confirm earlier studies by ELP where we found that the number of elephant calls recorded was a good indicator of the number of elephants observed at a forest clearing. So, we had to both make acoustic recordings and visual observations at a clearing.”

Communication between humans over such geographic distance offers its own obstacles.

“Unless he’s in one of the towns en route to the field, [Peter] doesn’t have any contact [with other ELP sites] except by expensive satellite phone.  Andrea Turkalo is usually based in Dzanga National Park, [Namibia], where she has limited email access and a satellite phone.”

When asked about the greatest challenge to the ELP, however, Liz responded, “Funding! We’re always on the edge of having no money at all! There are only 2 of us and although we both work full time, we don’t have funding to cover that in salary. We really need to be able to pay skilled computer programmers to help us progress, and although there are several people here in the Bioacoustics Research Program (of which we are a part), ELP has to be able to pay for their time if we want their help. Funding from grants has been increasingly difficult to obtain.”

The feeling that she’s “doing something to help conserve an extremely endangered species” is what Liz notes as the most rewarding aspect of her job at ELP.

“My interests have always been with animal behavior and conservation.”  She noted that living in South Africa for several years prompted her love of Africa in general. “Communication and social behavior of mammals, especially African mammals, has always held a special lure for me.”

“I used to work in a different department at Cornell (Natural Resources),” she continued, “which was quite interesting work, but was geared towards figuring out how to ‘manage’ wildlife (finding effective repellents, etc.), which was the wrong angle for me!”

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[Image of elephants in Dzanga Bai (Central African Republic) drinking at the mineral pits taken by Andrea Turkelo, courtesy of the Elephant Listening Project]

“Katy Payne used to give talks on campus every now and then about her work with the elephants so naturally I went along to them and was hooked! I kept asking if she had positions free but of course ELP had no spare funding. Eventually my contract with Natural Resources expired and Katy took me on as a volunteer. Then ELP got a little bit of money so they actually employed me, and so it’s been (on and off!) since then. Although I rarely get to actually see elephants, or even video of them, my motivation is that I’m helping to provide information that is needed to conserve them.”

Learning about elephants—let alone for a piece like this; one can only imagine what it is like in the field—is fraught with emotional highs and lows.

There are the beautiful anecdotes that demonstrate how highly intelligent and social these animals are.  One recognizes traits within elephant families that human families share: the adult tenderness with the youth in the group; baby elephants playing with one another; mischief created by the youth that is tolerated (or not!) by the adults; and the seemingly obvious grief for and memory of an elephant that has died, as the other elephants will touch and smell the bones of that elephant for years afterwards.

In one particularly amusing moment in Silent Thunder, Katy Payne describes how several juvenile male elephants—enormous creatures with an enormous combined weight—are stopped by the sight of a butterfly and then flee. (page 73)

One recognizes personalities within elephants.  One can see—from observers such as those at the ELP, who record interactions and describe them for those of us unable to witness them—how connected the elephants within each family or bond group truly are.

But then one cannot ignore the overwhelming information about elephant destruction: their numbers are dwindling at an alarming rate.

Most of their deaths are directly attributed to the ivory trade, an illegal market that kills thousands of these animals each year.  The reasons behind it and the people involved—from those with great economic need to those who are organized, well-funded and feeding an international demand—make this human/animal conflict messy, complicated and constant.

These numbers were painful almost two decades ago when Katy Payne wrote about them in Silent Thunder.  The numbers have only increased since then.

“[F]orest elephants are being killed at the rate of about 10,000 per year,” wrote Liz Rowland. “There may be only 100,000 forest elephants left.”

National Geographic included devastating statistics of elephant deaths throughout the world in  Bryan Christy’s 2012 article about the ivory trade. Within Central Africa, 90% percent of elephant deaths were attributed to ivory poaching; within Eastern Africa, those same figures were at 59%; in Western Africa, 84%; and in Southern Africa, 51%.  In that same article, it was estimated that African elephants alone numbered at 1.3 million in 1979.  In 2007, their numbers had fallen to a mere 472,000 – 690,000. (You can see that graphic and those figures here.) Given the annual death rate to the ivory market, today’s numbers can only be smaller.

Liz Rowland emphasizes this when she wrote, “The current threat to elephants is the ivory trade – mainly from the Chinese market. Everyone should do all they can to educate people about this whenever they have the opportunity (especially to those people who might consider buying ivory!)”

Also important, she noted, “Andrea and Peter are in the process of analyzing the data from [Andrea’s] 22-year long observational study at Dzanga National Park, and it shows that the reproductive rate is much slower than that of their savannah cousins, making them even more vulnerable to extinction.”

The length of time these researchers and their colleagues have spent in the field observing elephants is important. They have compiled a wealth of data that only continues to grow.

Even initially, Katy Payne mentions the creation of an elephant dictionary based upon their research.  Peter Wrege, in a relatively recent 60 Minute video, explains that the dictionary is still in its infancy.  It is one thing to learn another human language; the complexity of learning and accurately interpreting the language of another species altogether seems staggering.  It would be a remarkable achievement.

The members of ELP are not yet able to identify specific elephants by sound.

Wrote Liz, “At the moment, we’re too concerned with just getting the basic information about where elephants are, patterns of activity, etc., because this is essential for conservation planning, and we’re too short-staffed to do anything but the essentials.

“Andrea’s work is a separate project in a sense. There is one elephant there that has a unique call, but other than him, even Andrea isn’t able to ID the elephants by their calls.

“However, we think it’s very likely that the elephants recognize each other from their calls, and there has been some research on the Savannah elephant that shows that they are able to distinguish familiar from non-familiar individuals. The rumbles are very varied, so it makes sense that they can recognize calls. It would take a lot of work (time synchronized multi-channel audio recordings so that we could figure out where the elephant was when it called, with time synchronized video recordings) to figure this out.”

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[A forest elephant named Thomas, taken by Peter Wrege, courtesy of the Elephant Listening Project]

As Katy Payne mused in Silent Thunder, “The more closely you watch elephants, the more complexity you see in their communities.” (page 63)

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An absolutely enormous thank you to Liz Rowland of the Elephant Listening Project, who took precious time to respond to my questions and did so very generously!  An equally large thank you to everyone at the ELP, including Andrea Turkelo, and everyone within various African countries that work to preserve these animals.  And finally, a big thank you to my mom, who introduced me to Katy Payne and the Elephant Listening Project by giving me the book Silent Thunder.

Books (and magazine article) referenced:

  1. Silent Thunder: In the Presence of Elephants, Katy Payne, 1998, Simon & Schuster
  2. Ivory, Horn and Blood: Behind the Elephant and Rhinoceros Poaching Crisis, Ronald Orenstein, 2013, Firefly Books
  3. The Elephant’s Secret Sense: The Hidden Life of the Wild Herds of Africa, Caitlin O’Connell, 2007, Free Press
  4. Ivory Worship, Bryan Christy, National Geographic, October, 2012

You can help!  Adopt-an-elephant: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/brp/elephant/adoption/adoption.html

The Elephant Listening Project: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/brp/elephant/index.html

More info about Andrea Turkelo from NPR: http://www.npr.org/2014/05/08/309089369/civil-war-invades-an-elephant-sanctuary-one-researchers-escape

12.9.2014: Important updates on the ivory trade: two articles related to the massive number of elephant deaths for the ivory trade.  These two point to China as the major market behind this, adding that selling mammoth tusks is legal in that country.

(translate.google.com – if you need)

http://www.slateafrique.com/539707/ivoire-les-elephants-dafrique-menaces-dextinction-en-une-generation

http://www.tdg.ch/savoirs/environnement/chine-detient-cle-avenir-elephants/story/10373546:

“Le massacre des éléphants d’Afrique et le commerce de leur ivoire en Chine sont «hors de contrôle» et pourraient provoquer leur extinction d’ici une génération.”

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