A lifetime in sound

Elephant Listening Project

February 2013: Living with sound

From the ELP director: Katy Payne, founder of The Elephant Listening Project, continues to be an inspiration to all of us at ELP and has always managed to raise my hopes for the future when I have despaired over making a positive difference in Africa. The terrible recent upswing in the slaughter of elephants has affected us all and none more than Katy, who has spent so many years of her life being enchanted by, and thinking about, elephantstheir language, their society, and their empathy for each other. The following essay by Katy sketches how sound has threaded her life, from music to whales to elephants, and how important it is for us to think about it in our own lives.  Peter

There is no sight more stupendous to a person in a small boat than the explosion out of the sea of a whale, sheathed in water and spinning, revealing appalling evidence of its bulk and weight as it falls. But during its 5-second passage through the air, the whale—whose chin may loom above the boat to a height of a three or four story building—may or may not perceive the people below. The air is a foreign medium for the whale. As it re-enters the sea it returns to a world not of sight but of sound. For the whale, the breach may function not as a visual but as an acoustic display—what matters may be the audible crash when it strikes the water, overwhelming a great chorus of subsurface sound. A major component of the soundscape in many oceans is the voices of whales. Humpbacks in the tropics, bowheads in the Arctic—the singers and composers whose songs travel hundreds of miles. Fin and blue whales make calls that carry thousands of miles.

Starting in 1969, I had the opportunity to record and study whales in several oceans, noting details of their tendencies as composers, imitators, and modifiers of song.  In 1984 during a visit to a zoo, I fell into another acoustic discovery—that elephants make powerful calls below the range of human hearing. As in the case of the whales, the new discovery contained a surprise and a graduation in scale. The old observation that elephant herds are able to maintain their integrity over considerable distances found a potential explanation in the long-distance capacity of elephants’ low-frequency calls. At once we realized that listening might broaden our access to these land-bound animals. The possibility was particularly intriguing in the Central African forest—the second-largest rainforest on earth—where, hidden from view under the tall canopy, lives an elephant species that is impossible to survey and protect using visual information alone. Over the last twelve years the project called ELP (Elephant Listening Project) has found ways to discern key aspects of the forest elephants’ life experience (the sizes and composition of their herds, movements of populations from place to place, evidence of mating, maternal responses to infants, evidence of distress and flight, and of the gunshots and chainsaws that reveal poaching) by listening to the forest from fixed recorders in the trees. 

Much of the success and promise of ELP reflects the burgeoning of the field of bioacoustics, with its ingenious development of tools for eavesdropping on large areas of land and sea. Now the crucial value of such eavesdropping is daily growing as a means for addressing questions about the impact of human activities on the well-being and survival of wildlife. What the Bioacoustics Research Program is currently uncovering is highly alarming. Noise levels in the oceans associated with shipping, warfare, and exploration for petroleum stand to overwhelm the acoustic spaces needed by marine animals for feeding, finding one another and food, migrating and reproducing. In the case of elephants, acoustic eavesdropping is yielding evidence of ivory poaching at unprecedented levels. Ironically, just as our new technical prowess expands what we know about the lives of these wonderful animals, new brands of international exploitation have arisen to destroy them almost overnight. The speed of this movement and the lack of a guiding conscience is terrible. Elephants are disappearing before most people in the consuming nations even realize that bits of ivory in the hand represent beautiful, sensitive, compassionate animals slaughtered on the ground.

I trust that this is not the final chapter.  I trust that things will get better before it is too late for elephants, although the reconstruction of decimated herds takes generations, and elephants carry memories which affect their behaviors for a long time. But we too remember and are affected, and know that this threat is not a new one. The challenge is to keep listening and remembering that the story is ours as well as theirs.

I am endlessly grateful for the privilege of my life in sound. It started in 1954, when I was accepted into Cornell University’s small music department to study one of the loveliest aspects of human behavior. After that, one circumstance after another involved me with the behavior of other vocalizing and listening animals, and with increasing evidence that they too are, at least to my eyes and ears, lovely. Now I cycle back around to humans to ask, what are we, this species of mine that relishes sound and cares for other animals, what are we doing? 

— Katy Payne

Katy Payne in Argentina
© Lysa Leland

In the 1970s, Katy had the pleasure of watching and listening to whales while helping to raise four children on the wild bluffs of Patagonia, Argentina. In those happy years every member of the family developed an unshakable passion for wild nature, as did the fellow researchers who shared life in Whale Camp. Among them was Chris Clark, later to become Director of the Bioacoustics Research Program.


Katy Payne in Africa
© Lysa Leland
In the 1980s, Katy took her hypotheses about elephant infrasonic communication to southern Africa to test them in the wild. Huge speakers for playback, rugged landscapes, logistical nightmares—Katy was in her element!

Katy Payne at Dzanga Bai
© Melissa Groo

In 1999, Katy founded the Elephant Listening Project—tasked with applying the tools of acoustic monitoring to the conservation and understanding of African forest elephants. Perhaps the least understood elephant on earth today, forest elephants also give us the chance that some elephant will continue to pace this earth free and wild as nature intended.


Katy Payne in the C.A.R.
© Melissa Groo
Katy on a river ferry in the Central African Republic, 2000!

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