NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
24 Feb 2002
Central African Republic
- Dzanga-Sangha Reserve; Andrea Turkalo camp; Near elephant bai and Mirador observation platform
- 2.954323 16.364085
- SONY TCD-D8
4-Channel Surround; 1=L, 2=R, 3=Ls, 4=Rs; Schoeps MK 2
Show: CAR Elephants
Log of DAT #: 9A
Engineer: Bill McQuay
Date: February 24, 2002
AT = Andrea Turkalo
AC = Alex Chadwick
CJ = Carolyn Jensen
Bill = Bill McQuay
Interview with Andrea Turkalo
We are in Andrea's camp. It's the 24th, it's quarter of 10 in the morning and we're going to talk to Andrea and record it.
4, 3, 2, 1, mark.
We begin almost every interview by asking people, how should we identify you? Just say who you are and how we should identify you. And spell your name please.
Okay. My name is Andrea Turkalo. I am an associate conservation scientist for the Wildlife Conservation Society, which is part of the New York Zoological Society in New York at the Bronx Zoo. Spell my name ANDREA TURKALO.
I want to be careful to get the affiliations and mention people who would want to be mentioned. You're a WCS scientist and you're working on a WWF project, is that right?
Am, no. What happens is WWF plus GTZ, which is the German foreign aid organization, it's a para-statal organization, they manage the reserve in the park. WWF originally created it and then Ge Te Zed came on a couple of years later. So they manage the project, they do the conservation, they do the development and they do the roads, whatever. I am here separate from them but we have a very good collaboration. Most of our collaboration involves some training and it also involves the actual protection on the ground, because I'm here permanently; this is a permanent site. The site however, my main sponsor is WCS. That's who my basically boss is and I report directly to them. And they contribute most of my funding and I have to seek funding from other sources. And that's on a yearly basis. There's no guarantee that it will go on beyond next year. But I've been very lucky and they've been very supportive and they realize that this is a very important sight for forest elephants.
This is a question that I want to remember to ask. This is not when I had planned to ask it but let me ask it now since we're here and then I won't forget. If people will hear this piece on the radio they will write us and say, "Well how could I help Andrea Turkalo? What could I do to be helpful to help preserve the bai or to help her in her work?" What's the right answer to that?
Well, there's a couple of things people can do. The first thing is I think the American public could support the African Elephant Conservation Act, which was I think mandated by Congress after the initial ban on the sale of ivory in 1989. The US government has been very very generous in supporting elephant conservation on the ground. And they've probably contributed more than any other organization on earth doing this. And I'm very proud of this. They've given me money for many years. They don't now because I feel they've given me enough; it's time for other people to receive these funds. Um, another thing is to, well support this by writing your congress people or whatever. Another thing is be adamant about contacting the American delegation about the next Cites conference which will take place in the latter part of this year in Santiago, Chile, which will be crucial in keeping this ban on the sale of ivory. I'm afraid there's going to be some ivory stock sold again. But it's a very complicated question I don't want to go into because I've just come from an elephant meeting where all of our situations are different on the African level. And the other thing is to contribute to these NGOs that support conservation in Africa such as WCS, WWF, NCI. I mean we're all doing the same job and there is a lot of competition between us but at the end of the day we've got to realize that we're all doing the same job and we have to think about elephants before our own personal reputations and agendas.
But if somebody says, well fine, but I want to support Andrea Turkalo.
Well, they'd have to contribute money to WCS and earmark it for my particular project.
Tell me, what are you doing here?
What am I doing here? I often ask myself that when I wake up in the morning. I think about this a lot. I think one part of that comes from growing up in America, coming of age in the 70's when we had causes. I mean, we came of age during the war in Vietnam, women's rights were an issue and the environment came up. And I got involved in all three of those, as a lot of us did. And the environment thing always stuck with me. And in 1978 I joined the Peace Corps and I went to Tunisia and I worked in several aspects of conservation and then came here after that in 1980 and spent the next four years basically doing more conservation. But here there was a lot more to save. And it's a remarkable place for wildlife. So that's what brought me here and that's what I've kept always in the front of my mind, conservation. And it's oftentimes a thankless job but I think when I'm about 70 if I get to that age I'll look back and say, yeah, it was all worth it, the frustrations and maybe some of the victories.
This project, the Dzanga bai, first of all, tell me what language does the word dzanga exist in and what does it mean?
I imagine dzanga originally comes from the BaAaka, the local pigmy, if I can use that word, and bai means clearing. And dzanga actually refers to the stream that flows through the clearing. And this has always been very well known for high densities of elephants. I mean if you ask any of the trackers or any of the pygmies in the area this was always associated with elephants.
So you came to Central African Republic in 1980 and where did you go?
I was actually teaching high school, bush high school in eastern CAR. I was teaching biology. And then I went up north with my husband to northern CAR where there was a series of national parks and atrocious elephant poaching. So we saw a lot of very disturbing things going on. But you have to realize that this is a very poor country and besides not having the money there really isn't the political will to protect these animals. So we spent a lot of time just experiencing that and feeling very helpless. But it opened our eyes to what was here and we walked away from that still inspired. (8:23)
I've got to back up. You said you were teaching biology. Where did you get your undergraduate degree and what was it in and all of that stuff?
Okay. I got my undergraduate degree at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio in environmental studies and geography. Then I taught for a while. Then I went back to school¿after being in Peace Corps I got into the Columbia University teaching fellows program and I worked in the South Bronx for two years in a technical high school, which was quite an experience. But it wasn't a lot different from here, because it was so culturally different from where I'd been. But I really enjoy that kind of environment. I find it extremely challenging. So after that I came back here.
So you went into the Peace Corps in '78.
And I was in Tunisia for two years.
You were in Tunisia for two years. And then you immediately came here?
Yeah. We came here in 1980 and did four years.
And did four years. And then you went back to Columbia?
Right. I went back to the States. I did a year, I was working and helping support my husband in graduate school. And then I did the Columbia program for two years in New York City.
So at what point then did you come back to the CAR. And not just when, but why?
I came back during the summers I had free from Columbia. And I came back to work with Mike first on some gorilla censuses and then the second year we came back it was to start his graduate work which was south of here on the river in a place called Datkan, where we worked on lowland gorilla feeding ecology. But then after I finished the program I came immediately back here.
Where you at a point in your life then where you had acquired enough of a reputation that people were willing to fly you back and forth to send you because at this point you must have been a fairly experienced field person and trained¿
Well we basically paid for a lot of this ourselves. I saved money during graduate school, I came back here with a lot of that. So I spent about 18 months with Mike here. So that was basically out of my own pocket. What's really interesting is when you're here you realize that this is for you it's a job. You don't really feel like you have any particular skills. You might speak a couple of languages and can fend for yourself here but you don't really feel like you have an expertise, when you actually do. Because a lot of people just can't handle this kind of intercultural sub-standard way of living, because a lot of it's really difficult. But I just felt like it was something I needed to come back to, because it was calling me in a way.
Okay, so you kind of, early 90s you¿
I came back here permanently in the early 90s
Yeah, but did you know it was permanent?
No because¿I've got to admit in my life there's never been a real plan and I've begun to realize there is no plan in life. I think if you make a plan you end up being disappointed. I just sort of flowed with what happened. What happened in 1990 is we came back here and we actually administered this WWF project for about 9 months. But it was much smaller. It was basically ourselves and 10 guards doing anti-poaching and clearing roads. But because we weren't crazy about administration we came out to this clearing every afternoon and that was our release. And we realized we could start identifying individual elephants, which we did. So by the end of 1990, Mike went on to Congo to work for WCS and set up Nuahalé Ndoki, which is adjacent to this place. And there was money available to study elephants. So I stayed here and I started building this camp. And that's how it all started. But I had no sort of inkling prior to that that I would be staying here and spending so much time absorbing this elephant population, which is now basically my life.
And was there an observation platform at that time?
There was a very small one like the one I built for myself. The big one that now is for tourists was built two years later.
And how did you evolve this study site? I have looked at the US Fish and Wildlife Service grants to this area back to 1990 and I see a pattern of grants first to the area and then about 93-94 there's a grant to the bai, for study at the bai.
Yeah, that's to support my work.
How did it evolve that this became an actual study site for you? When you began developing this camp was it with the idea that 'I'm going to make a project to study the elephant population in this bai' or is that something that sort of¿
No, I think that was the original idea. Because I started identifying elephants and I kept on identifying elephants¿it kept going¿until I reached this sort of plateau in probably about 1995-96. But just learning them is such a task that I kept at it and I got to know the individual elephants much better and now I just know them as individuals. But I think the idea was always there to keep going. Because there are similar studies that are, well at least there's one landmark study that's gone on in the savannah for at least 28 years, if I'm not mistaken, Cynthia Moss's study in Amboseli . And it's based on identification of individuals. So, this place being what it is, an opening in the forest, it's basically a big window into the forest elephants lives, the goal was basically to replicate the study in Amboseli.
That's a very ambitious goal.
Well, it is in a way but if you sit there for a couple of days you realize you can do it. The only limitation being that you sit in a fixed point, whereas in Amboseli they can drive around and find most of the elephants, at least in the dry season. They keep track of them. I mean like my problem here is I have to wait for X, Y, and Z to come in and often they don't come in again, so that's the big difference.
Why do the elephants come to the clearing?
Well, the big draw is minerals. I mean if you spend any amount of time there you see that they've got their trunks constantly in these dry holes or they're in puddles working their trunks through the layers to get to this mineral-rich layer which is constantly throughout the entire bai. There was a German geologist a couple of years ago who did a study, Grugger Klaus and he found out that the geology in this particular bai is very unique. It's volcanic in origin and I suspect when they're pushing down with their trunks they're bubbling this mineral layer into solution and that's what they're sucking up, this mineral-rich water. And they'll spend hours doing this. But it's essential to their diets. I mean we think it buffers a lot of the secondary compounds that are found in the plants in their diets that aren't particularly palatable. So it buffers that. And also more recently found they're probably instrumental and essential to their reproductive health¿both to the males and to the females.
How doe that work?
Well it's just part of the nutrition they need for the females to ovulate and the males to produce sperm. And there must be something nutritional because they spend an inordinate amount of time in the bai and you often wonder when are they eating? But they go out at night and eat. And there's this daily cycle of elephants in and out of the bai.
How many elephants are using this bai do you think?
Well, during the 11 years I've been here I've identified 2800. And out of 2800 I've re-identified at least 88% a second time. So that doesn't really take into account poaching. I don't know who was being knocked out of the population. I used to think originally that all these elephants in the area came into the bai. But that's not the case. I see elephants in other areas that I draw identity cards for that I never see in the bai. So I would estimate yeah, there's probably around 4000 elephants, and that's probably a conservative number, that come into this actual clearing. And in the area there's probably oh, anywhere between 6 and 10 thousand elephants in these forests.
And when you say in the area do you mean the great tri-partite area?
Yeah, the tri-national area. I mean this place is contiguous with Congo and Cameroon and there are just a lot of elephants traveling in and out of these areas. I mean it's getting worse now with the pressure of population of people moving into the area and also logging. But it still is a pretty amazing place for forest elephants. Probably the least disturbed in Africa.
This place is. Why is that?
Well until recently we didn't have this influx of people but now there's more and more logging in the area. If we look at what's really discouraging, if you look at the area around Dzanga and Nuahalé Ndoki there's just more and more logging going on, more and more areas being assigned logging. Governments are giving out concessions, mostly to French companies. And these people create roads and they give people access. And when logging's going on there's a lot of poaching going on. Guns come in, people set up wire snares, and there's a lot of meat moving out of this area.
Elephant meat, duikers, whatever people trap and they can make money from. Because it's a livelihood. You know, if your brother is working for the logging mill, the little brothers show up and they don't have much to do so they go out and trap and shoot, and there's a lot of pressure on the wildlife.
Why wasn't that¿people have known about the elephants gathering here for a long time. Why did the population survive? Why didn't the famous ivory hunters of you know, Heart of Darkness come in and kill them all?
I think the vegetation helped. It hides the elephants. And a lot of the hunting here was very selective. The big tuskers were taken out first, especially around the turn of the century, where a lot of the ivory left Central Africa to make piano keys or billiard balls or whatever, and there was a lot of demand for ivory, because we didn't have those synthetic materials. But I think the vegetation helped, the inaccessibility, the disease, I mean we had a lot of sleeping sickness in this area. Sleeping sickness once wiped out 60% of the people in this area until the French eradicated it. So there was that, the sort of biological controls that kept people out of here. But now we don't have those controls because we have roads, we have cars, we have automatic weapons. The technology is basically the problem.
I hadn't thought about that at all, that there were biological controls on the human population.
Oh yeah, there still are. There's Ebola. We could have Ebola here. There's just been a big outbreak in Gabon. And we're just about 300km as the crow flies from that area. That could happen here.
What is your goal with the project? What do you see happening here?
That's difficult. The basic goal is gathering as much baseline data as I can on this animal cause this is¿well there are other studies starting up now in Gabon. There's a study on forest elephants based on direct study in a bai, there was one going on in the Congo. But mine is the most, it's the longest on-going study. So it's basically gathering as much information as I can on these animals long term so we have a very good understanding of their biology. But probably even more importantly is the protection because in these areas we need people on the ground. That's the bottom line. If we don't have people on the ground listening, looking, then it's very hard to protect these animals. I work very well in collaboration with the project. We have guards basically now permanently here. So any information they have or I have we work together. I have a radio here; we can call in for more help. So I think that's a very important part of studying any animal, protecting it. I think if you're not willing to protect it than you have no right to study it. Because it's a privilege to study these animals. Not everybody gets this chance. And I've been very lucky.
Many people would not consider it a privilege to be here. Because it is difficult.
Yeah, it's difficult but at the end of the day you have to think about what you've experienced. Sure, there are insects; we've had civil unrest which is¿we're under duress. We're under a lot of duress here. And people come here and they think that it's paradise and there is a lot of duress. But like I say, at the end of the day it's all worth it. In a lot of ways these animals have sustained me through a lot of probably emotional stuff that has gone on in my life. And at least I've had that to cling to. No, it's not easy, but I think I've always chosen a different path, probably a more difficult one. Because I think it makes me feel more connected to people and I don't want to lose my humanity. And I think Africa does that to you, it connects you to people. I mean you see the real problems of humanity here. You don't see that in other places in the developed world. And I think that's sort of a fix for me. I don't know if that's clear. But it's, in Africa there's something here that grabs you. It either grabs you or you flee. But I've definitely been infected by this continent. (23:03)
You mentioned emotional difficulties and you had mentioned Mike earlier. I don't know if you want to¿people wonder about the personal lives of people who¿
Yes I know. Well we went maybe different ways. I have a different way of dealing with my work. I don't really look for publicity. I think it's important for people to know about our lives and I'm sure for most people sitting in America who have very organized, predictable situations they look at people such as us and they think this is all so romantic and it's sort of like a novel sometimes. But, ah, he's doing good things, he's just taken a different route and it's a little bit more technical than I would choose and, I just have problems with it because I think if you have a lot of¿I don't have a lot of support here. I mean I have WCS giving me money but when I get up in the morning I have to figure out, you know, if the truck doesn't work how I'm going to get that straightened out and you know, if I need something built or maintained I have to do it. I mean, I'm at a very basic level. And I thrive on that. I don't complain about it because at the end of the day I have a lot of independence, and I like that. But a lot of the publicity and stuff and a lot of the¿I think I'm probably a very private person. I'm beginning to be more so. Because I think it's very easy to flaunt your private life into the media and get attention but I don't think it's really, I hate to say this, and adult thing to do. I mean the one person I've had great admiration for my entire life is Jacquelyn Onassis because she never, never spoke about her private life, it was just the speculation. And I think that was actually more interesting at the end of the day. People could speculate rather than really know what went on.
But you two are both¿ah, I mean, from my perspective anyway, extraordinarily successful and accomplished field scientists. But Mike has, I mean he raised a million dollars for the Megatransect.
Yeah, well when you've got NGS behind you, I think that helps. That's my weakest point in life, the writing and raising money. I have a very difficult time promoting myself because I think this is just what I do. And I try not to exaggerate what I do; I try to give people a clear picture of what I do, and maybe I need to do something else. But I think that's an operating difference between men and women. I think men have more of a flamboyant style than women. Because for women to do it it's not a natural behavior and we can be very criticized. I know of several women who do this and it's aberrant to people when they see these people, I wouldn't say brag or boast, but just talk about their accomplishments, which are many. But it's just not a natural thing in women. WE tend to share. I like working with women; I'm doing a lot of that now. There might be a little bit of competitive edge to it but there's not a hierarchy like you see in men and I see that every day in the bai with elephants. The females tend to just get on with it with the young and provide whereas with the males there's always an issue. So I think it's just a different way of operating.
We were talking among ourselves as we were coming out here and saying, Cynthia Moss, Joyce Pool, Andrea, Katie Payne now out here. Why all these women?
Well, I have to add, I'm the real rookie in the group. I haven't written very much and that's basically my fault. I think men have to go in for the big discovery. They have to get it up in lights. I mean I see it over and over again. Women, we have a lot more patience, we're willing to spend more time, I think the subject matter really interests us and we're willing to spend the time and watch. And we're willing not to interfere. I mean one of my problems is, it's not a problem, it's the way I operate. I do not want to interfere with the lives of these animals. They have enough problems. I don't want to go out there and make friends with animals. I don't want to have a physical relationship with these animals, them touching me, I just want to watch them. They know we're there. I mean they're very aware of humans being at the clearing. There are certain individuals that will always come up to that mirror door. And you can be on the ground with them, very close to them but they don't interact with you. But for me that's much more interesting than having interaction. But women just have, we have more patience to do this. I mean all the long-term studies have been done by women. Primates also. All the big primate studies have been women. I think we become more engaged with our study material. Maybe it has something to do with maternal instinct. You know, women spend a lot of time with children when they have them. And I probably have substituted that in my study by sitting and just watching.
You speak about this as a permanent site now. Do you think about the future for yourself, how long you might be here?
Well I often say that I'd like to be here as long as I can't walk but um, you have to be realistic when you become older and also we have problems with the civil situation here, it's not particularly stable. And that's always the noise in the background, listening to the radio and wondering if Bangui or any of these neighboring countries are going to blow up. That's always a problem for all researchers in Africa. If you get together we all have the same stories so there's no point in even telling the stories about this or that. Yeah, this should be a permanent site because it's such a remarkable place. But I have to be realistic and think about what's going on presently with the logging and the poaching. Every year I'm seeing deterioration of the situation. So it may end up being a permanent site with a lot fewer animals in coming years and probably it becoming a much more dangerous place to work.
But your plans are to stay here, to work this site as long as you can. (sound in background towards the end of the sentence, sounds like a rubber tube being dropped.)
Yeah, I can realistically think about leaving. I'm not going to have a nervous breakdown about leaving or having incredible adjustment problems if I had to go back to the States; there are things I could do. I mean I could do a lot of writing. But since I have invested so much time and I know them so well, I don't see any other place I should be thinking about.
One thing I think people might not expect, again, in terms of just the personal aspects of your life is how comfortable you are here. You're here in well-dressed in clean clothes and you could have walked out of an American neighborhood. You have a very comfortable life here. You've made this, you made this camp, but it's a very nice place to be.
Yeah it is. It took a long time to get here too. It took 11 years to organize it, buying wood and organizing hardware and putting it all together. But someone gave me advice many years ago, in about 1993, Nick Georgiatis came here to sample elephants and the camp was pretty rudimentary and he said to me, you know, this is nice but if you want a place to do good work you need a nice place to come home to at night. And I basically followed his advice. And this is my home. In any place I've lived I'm fairly well organized, I like a comfortable place to live. I didn't grow up in particularly comfortable circumstances but I've always had that priority: make a comfortable place and you can do good work. Otherwise it's a constant battle.
Let me ask you about your conclusions, however that may be, about the population of elephants that you're studying here. You say you've come to know and to recognize individuals. How do you think about these elephants, how do you assess them in terms of¿I mean, you're not studying the group, you're studying a collection of individuals?
Mm hmm. Population of this area. How do I come to see them? Well I have to admit, when I first started, I never had like, well I'm not going to go into a little story about when I was four years old I had a stuffed elephant and it stuck with me. I've always liked natural things. I used to do a lot of bird-watching. But coming here I sort of let go of the birds because you can't really see them. You can hear them but they're very difficult to see. And getting involved with elephants was a real eye-opener because I never thought of them being anything more than sort of animals. But they're highly conscious and very emotional animals. And because of their behavior, I think a lot of people are drawn to them because, I shouldn't say this, their human-like attributes. The families are very tight. They communicate. Once you learn the individuals and you see the way they communicate with each other, it's a whole 'nother level.
You shouldn't say that. Why?
Because people, see I've had the privilege of watching the same group of animals for the last 11 years so like anyone that has this chance or this privilege, you get to know the individuals. It's like looking at a population of people. You look at them, they're people. Once you begin to get to know the individuals you begin to see certain characteristics for certain individuals and these animals all have distinct personalities. I mean you saw that yesterday with Anemone. I was pointing her out to you. She's a very aggressive individual and I don't want to meet her in the forest. But a lot of people get very very down on this idea of animals having a consciousness because it would open up a whole Pandora's box about how we treat animals for experimentation, for forming part of our diet. I mean I'm not way over on that side but I can appreciate these animals for what they do all day and they are highly conscious and they have good memories and they never cease to astound me on a daily basis.
Yeah, they're emotional. When they get together, groups that have not seen each other for a while that are related, there is an emotional thing that goes on between them. They start ear-flapping and vocalizing and the whole recognition thing. And this is in a clearing where there might be 60 to a hundred elephants and those two groups that are related recognize each other. I mean to me that's consciousness. And no one can argue with that. And anyone that wants to debate that, then they really don't know the animals. (35:10)
Do you know where you're going with this study, that is, do you¿
Well, hopefully a lot of publications. I mean that's what I have to do. That is the ultimate goal. It has to be in print and archived somewhere. And as I said, I haven't had time yet to do that. I think the problem being is I feel really committed to being here, because of the protection issue. But being here is not idyllic for writing because you don't have access to papers. I mean you can bring papers, but you don't have access to ideas and people. I mean we do have satellite e-mail but that isn't the solution. But that is the ultimate goal, to get this all down on paper, whether that be in popular publications or technical. In both it should be done.
Isn't it important that you do that? What if something were to happen to you? I mean all this is up here, it's in your head.
Well no, there's big databases too that are sent out periodically and they're in several places. I think all of us after spending years here we know, we mentally have our mind packed. After you go through one attempted coups de tats in violence you begin to realize what's really important to get out of here and it's your computer, or your data. Nothing else is important, so that's always in the back of my mind.
Have you been in danger here?
I was held up once, at gun point. But it was actually in retrospect very comical because these gentlemen didn't really know what they were doing and fortunately had someone else in camp who spoke English so we could sort of toss it between us in English what we could do and I ran at one point and fortunately one of my trackers, Cecily, who's been with me for about 11 years told these people that I had a gun and I wasn't alone, which was the best thing anyone could have said. And they ran off when I ran.
So they came into camp here.
Yeah, they came into camp one night. They only will come in at night. They don't want to be seen because I actually knew these people. But they were after money.
Do you have a gun?
Ah no. It's very difficult to have a gun. And the problem with a gun is you'd have to carry it all the time because that's basically the first thing that would be stolen. And you don't want another gun floating out there in the area.
You're living in this camp here, in the middle of the forest, without a gun?
Without a gun, yeah. It's like working with elephants. People come here and they say, you don't have a gun, for protection from elephants? And it's, Africa's a continent of wits, it's always wits. And I feel pretty empowered because I can usually use my wits to get out of things.
How many languages do you speak?
Well, I speak English, Dzanga, which is the lingua franca around of central Africa. It's a very simple language but it's the key to getting your way around here, and French. And some Arabic, but very little.
That's pretty good.
For an American yeah. But I think Americans, it's a great place to live but unfortunately we don't have that facility as many Europeans and most of these Africans, even the pigmies that work with me. Cecily's worked with me, as I said, the longest. He speaks 6 languages but he's illiterate.
The sun's starting to fall on you. Maybe we should take a break from this. Carolyn?
39:20 Carolyn asks for Andrea to talk more about her daily activities and what it is that she does to identify and study through all this time to come to know the elephants so well. Then the team moves¿Alex's leg is asleep.
So yeah, just take me through a day. What do you do in a day?
What do I do in a day? I get up not real early like a lot of researchers because my observations take place in the afternoons. In the morning I tend to a lot of paperwork, workers' problems, organizing the camp, maintaining equipment. Because you know it's very humid here and it's either humid or dusty and hot. So there's a lot of maintenance of equipment. Then I have a small lunch and then I go out to the bai in the afternoons and I stay 'til like 5pm because in the tropics we have 12 hours of light and 12 hours of dark. So at 6pm it gets dark so I have to get home before it gets dark because the elephants become very active, particularly around the camp and we often run into them on the trail. So when I go out to the bai at 1pm I basically do about 4 hours of observation. And it's very intense and ideally I do it alone because it takes a lot of concentration to keep track of all these individuals because I have to identify individuals and a lot of times I have to wait for them to turn around so I have to keep track of you know, this one over here, I've seen her left side but I have to see her right side. So there's a lot of what I'd call multi-tasking.
And what kinds of things are you noting down? The presence of individuals¿
Yeah, when I get there I identify all the individuals I can. The ones I can't identify immediately I draw ears for in a notebook and then later in the evening I'll come back and try to ID those or I'll create new cards for new individuals. And then I keep track of any kind of behavioral stuff. I do a lot of video taping. I note all the groups that come in, the individuals present, and where they're coming from and what time they come in. That way I have a good handle on groups, composition of groups. Because once the get into the bai a lot of the young ones just go off on their own and look for playmates or just do their own thing. So once they get to the bai it's very difficult to get a handle on the actual group composition
They all kind of disperse from the little family groups that they come wandering in in and they mingle.
Yeah, particularly the juveniles. The mothers with very very small calves, they tend to stick together. But it's the juveniles that are the real problem to identify because a lot of them have no earmarks and you have to just get to know a lot of them individually.
I saw a group come in yesterday, well I saw many groups come in yesterday afternoon. But this particular one, mother and I guess it would be a juvenile because he had very tiny tusks. And he came kind of ambling through in this happy-go-lucky way and he was moving through this crowd and he noticed this other elephant of just about his size and stature and he just kind of pivoted and went right over to meet this other young elephant and they kind of sussed each other out for a moment and it just looked like a playground encounter.
Yeah, I often make the analogy that elephant calves are a lot like human children. We have no prejudices. It's like being in the schoolyard, you play with everybody. It's as you get older that you learn. Either your parents teach you or someone teaches you who not to associate with and elephants are pretty much like that. The adults, they're interested in their families, and unrelated individuals they generally don't have much to do with. It's usually quite hostile. But the offspring, the younger elephants, they don't have this. They only develop it as they get older. So it's almost a natural behavior. Maybe it is in human beings, I'm not sure.
Let me ask you the other thing that I've totally forgotten to ask you. What about the project with Katy. What is it? Because it seems to me that Katy really couldn't do what she's doing without you or without someone like you. And for this kind of population there is no one like you. What is your role in the Elephant Listening Project?
Um, there's several roles. And I might add that it wouldn't be possible for me to do this as well, well, I wouldn't be able to do it because the technology and the contacts are extraordinary. Because I have a vast knowledge of these individuals and I know the relationships, I have a good handle on what is really going on. Because if you came here fresh and you had no idea what was going on in that bai it would be very hard to interpret a lot of what is going on. But because I know the individuals and I've seen one vocalize, I can predict situations where we can get good footage of actual social context of calls, and the real meat of elephant communication. Whereas if you're not familiar with individuals you're going to have a very difficult time interpreting what is actually going on.
Can you interpret calls?
You can. Because before she came here, I mean I knew a lot about elephant communication subconsciously. I just knew their language. I could hear their call and say, yeah, that's a juvenile being pushed out of a hole by it's mother; it's protesting. Or you hear a rumble and you know it's probably an adult female, rumbling for a family, either saying I'm here or let's go. So it was just sort of a subconscious thing. But with this study we're doing it's a vast, oh what word do I want to say¿it's a real challenge. Because the first time around we did a lot of predictions where I'd say, okay Ritsine is in the bai, her sister Phaedra just came in. Let's see what happens. And eventually they meet up and they might do a greeting or they might just spend a lot of time together. So that was a real challenge. And I was pretty good on the predictions.
So you can tell Katy the relationship between elephant A and elephant B and say if there's communication going on between the two of them you have some idea of what that is.
Yeah, or if it will happen. A lot of times it doesn't happen. Maybe because they've been in the forest together before they come in and they're aware of each other's whereabouts. But then there are the situations where individuals haven't seen each other in days or months or maybe a year and there is this greeting that goes on. So I have the predictive task and the predictive ability to tell what might go on. So we can film that, get it on tape. What's interesting right now is we're recording, and we've done this before, known individual calls. And there's a good chance we might be able to identify those individuals by those calls. Because they recognize each other's calls so there must be something in the call that we may be able to pinpoint to say yeah, that's so and so.
Are you speaking of a voice, in the way that we recognize each other's voices?
Exactly. They recognize each other's voices. I've seen this numerable times. And anybody that's worked in the savannah and knows elephants has seen this. A couple of weeks ago there was this young male in the clearing. He had very long tusks. And I watched him for a couple of days. And one day this female vocalized about maybe a hundred meters away. As soon as she vocalized he vocalized and then they ran towards each other and then I realized who this male was: what I believe was this female's nephew. And then a couple of days later his mother came in with a new calf, his brother and the mother. So they were all in the area. But this particular male recognized this related individual's voice. And this is with 50 other elephants in the bai. And you see this often. And it's extraordinary. Because they do, they recognize each other's voices. Just like women's recognize their babies cries. It's nothing extraordinary for humans. But seeing it in front of you, and knowing those individuals are related, that makes my day.
Do you have any idea how complicated or complex or sophisticated elephant communication is? You ly awake at night wondering about the¿
Well not only is it complicated but it travels. We find these low frequencies travel and right now there's transmission-loss experiments going on in this forest that Chris Clark from the Cornell bioacoustics lab is setting up. So not only do they recognize each other's calls but the calls go far. So how far are they communicating from? How far from the bai can a female communicate? I think we're just scratching the surface right now and whether we'll really get into the heart of it, who knows? The thing that limits us, that will always limit us, is technology. But we do have extraordinary technology to pick up these sounds. We're recording continuously for over a month. And then we can look at it. But they're just much more conscious than we believe, which we can even imagine.
They are more conscious.
Yeah. They're more conscious. And they're saying things to each other. And we suspect in other species this is true also. But you know, we're the ones who are limited. The animals are all doing it and we're just trying to get into it.
Do you think it would be possible for you ever to go out into the bai, to the edge of the bai, the clearing, and actually follow what they're saying to each other?
I don't think what they're saying to each other is that complex. It's very basic. You know, "I'm here, where are you, let's go." I mean you see females often do these contact calls and they wait for their offspring to follow them. And then maybe there'll be a straggler and the straggler will be getting its cues on where to go from vocal communication that we may not be able to hear or hear, or olfactory. A lot of times they track each other using olfactory. A lot of times I've seen mothers find their offspring by smelling the ground. One instance was a young calf went off with another group, found a playmate and then followed the group out of the bai and the mother vocalized and then started smelling the ground and followed the same path that this group had left by. Elephant communication isn't based only on vocalization, there's a lot of olfactory. They don't see well but their sense of smell is extraordinary also. So between those two senses they have a very good handle on their environment.
Isn't it eerie, or it seems eerie to me, how quietly they move?
Oh, they're extraordinarily quiet. When you're walking in the forest and you run into them and they walk off, you always feel they're right there, but they're not, they've gone. But the vegetation tends to filter all that out.
They're moving across the bai and if they're not walking through a puddle you can't hear them move.
Well they have those huge pillar-like feet that, you know, they're actually walking on their toes too, if you look at the bone structure of their feet, they're walking on their toes and they have a huge pad underneath their foot. They're very graceful animals. The elephants have been the butt of so many jokes about being clumsy but they're not, they're extraordinarily gentle, with their feet and also with their trunks.
Carolina? You happy? Okay. So we'll just stop here for a minute so Bill can record the sound of where we are.
Bill claims to not be recording. Ha ha.
ambi. Constant hum of insects. Bird chirping. Insect buzzing around nearby.
Conversation ends. The group will be heading out to the bai soon.
more ambi. Insect chirping regularly, like a cricket.