What Do We Know About Elephant Chitchat?

Stories from New Scientist.
Jan. 19 2014 7:15 AM

Then They Came for the Elephants

Violence and poaching in the Congo Basin.

Forest elephants in the Mbeli River, Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, Congo in 2007.
Forest elephants in the Mbeli River, Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, Congo in 2007.

Photo courtesy Thomas Breuer/Creative Commons

Andrea Turkalo is a biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society. She is based in the Central African Republic but recently had to flee to the United States. She says violence is the latest blow to efforts to save the region's forest elephants. The society's online campaign to conserve elephants is called 96 Elephants.

Richard Schiffman: How did you come to study elephants in the Central African Republic?
Andrea Turkalo: It was an accident. I never thought I would study elephants, but I happened to be in the right place about 30 years ago—the Dzanga Bai forest clearing. It is the most phenomenal location to see forest elephants in the world. So I stayed.

RS: You work on the Elephant Listening Project. What does it do?
AT: Elephants are very vocal. We use acoustical monitoring to track them in the forest where we cannot see them.

Advertisement

RS: What do we know about elephant chitchat?
AT: The females do most of the talking, so to speak. There's no syntax in their language, and we don't think they form sentences, but they can recognize one another's voices. Elephants sometimes use frequencies that humans can't hear—these are the sounds that travel the farthest in the forest.

RS: You recently had to flee violence in the area. How has it affected the elephants?
AT: Former members of Séléka, a disbanded coalition of rebel groups, are terrorizing local villagers. They are also involved in poaching to help finance military operations. In May they came into Dzanga clearing and gunned down 26 elephants.

RS: Was poaching a problem before that?
AT: Yes. We have lost 60 percent of forest elephants in the Congo Basin to poaching during the first decade of this century. At that rate, they could go extinct within 10 years.

RS: Who's to blame for poaching?
AT: Nowadays, poaching is often run by international syndicates or by outsiders—refugees who have emigrated into our area from the savannah to the north. It appears to be very well-organized. We need a lot more intelligence on who these groups are and where the ivory is going.

RS: Are other countries involved?
AT: We think so. The Chinese have come into Central Africa in a big way for mineral extraction and logging. Wherever they go, we see elephant numbers decline. Nowadays, traffickers around the globe can go online and find out where these elephants live. Our research group recently put up a photo of a beautiful old male with huge tusks on its website. Immediately, we saw an extraordinarily high number of page hits from China and the Far East.

RS: How do local people view poaching?
AT: Poaching isn't always perceived as a real crime. When poachers are caught, a lot of the time they get their wrists slapped, spend a couple of weeks in jail, and are then released to continue the killing. Attitudes need to change.

RS: What can be done to halt the decline?
AT: We need a return to political stability coupled with the political will to support the wildlife rangers on the ground, and to get serious about punishing the poachers and the people they sell to. It's also vital to put a lot more pressure on China and other ivory consumers to eliminate demand.

This article originally appeared in New Scientist.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Politics

Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

The Ludicrous Claims Women Are Pitched at “Egg Freezing Parties”

Piper Kerman on Why She Dressed Like a Hitchcock Heroine for Her Prison Sentencing

Behold
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 AM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 AM Syria’s “Moderate” Rebels Are Realizing That U.S. Airstrikes Help Bashar al-Assad, Not Them
  Business
Buy a Small Business
Oct. 1 2014 11:43 AM “I Didn’t Want to Build the Next Twitter for Cats” Search funds are the quiet, dependable, risk-averse sibling to the startup. 
  Life
Outward
Oct. 1 2014 11:59 AM Ask a Homo: A Lesbian PDA FAQ
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 10:54 AM “I Need a Pair of Pants That Won’t Bore Me to Death” Troy Patterson talks about looking sharp, flat-top fades, and being Slate’s Gentleman Scholar.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 10:44 AM Everyone’s Favorite Bob’s Burgers Character Gets a Remix You Can Dance to
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 AM Watch a Crowd Go Wild When Steve Jobs Moves a Laptop in This 1999 Demonstration of WiFi
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 1 2014 12:01 PM Rocky Snow
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.