Progress and challenges to keeping forest elephants from disappearing.
Forest elephant family on a Dzanga afternoon © Elephant Listening Project

Elephant Listening Project

December 2014

I have mixed emotions as we come to the end of another year. A year of penetrating the 'Green Abyss' to estimate a remote elephant population. A year of transferring skills to run an acoustic monitoring program to nationals in Gabon and Cameroon. A year with advances in automatic detection algorithms to speed the analysis of sound files (130,000 hrs collected this year). But a year of unabated slaughter of forest elephants. Can this be stopped in time? I don't know, but believe there is some probability of a sea-change in attitudes, willingness to root out the corruption that encourages people in power to turn a blind eye, an understanding among consumers of what is destroyed for their trinkets and artworks.

Critical Return

© Todd McGrain
An event that has made all of us very happy this year was Andrea Turkalo's return to Dzanga. After more than 18 months of exile while violence surged through the Central African Republic she is at this moment rebuilding her home and again collecting data on the best-studied forest elephant population in the world.

As important as this return was for the elephants and for Andrea's emotional state, the impact on the local people who see her as a friend and an advocate was immense. A colleague visiting soon after her return describes the road lined with villagers calling out 'Andrea. Andrea.' as she made repeated trips to gather supplies for her camp. Her Bayaka (pygmy) team, late in the day when they would normally retire to their cabin, actually offered to rebuild another roof at camp - something they had never offered before.

Skills for Conservation

© Darwin Initiative
Just last week I returned from Cameroon where, together with a colleague from Oxford, I conducted a workshop for 11 researchers and park rangers - teaching everything from how to run the recorders to safe climbing techniques to data archiving and sound analysis.

For years I have been listening to sounds that might be gunshots (breaking branches can sound surprisingly similar and a large tree hitting the forest floor 100 meters away can sound like a distant gunshot). There is always that squishy point were confidence wavers and one is concerned about consistency. It was fantastic to work together with rangers who have spent many years in the forest, listening to the forest sounds, hearing human introgressions. There are the guys who can tighten up the scoring of gunshots - and they were proud of their expertise.

In the Footsteps of Elephants

Deep in the Congo forest, far from any creature comforts and under incredibly rugged field conditions, I really struggled to deploy acoustic sensors that would demonstrate the efficiency of counting elephant numbers acoustics rather than conducting transect counts of elephant dung in such a challenging habitat. Now, months later, we are nearly finished working through the sounds, marking all elephant calls for the analysis. Despite the time-consuming 'hand browsing' of these sounds (looking at spectrograms of every minute), we're relieved (and surprised) to have not found any gunshots.

After 20 days in the Congo forest, when we finally came out on a track cut by a palm oil plantation, my whole team was elated, singing and dancing on the road. Some hours later, at the main road where we waited for our car, we celebrated a successful final mission, group effort, camaraderie. More broadly, I feel good about progress on multiple fronts, about the interest and concern that all of you have for this remarkable species. Raising awareness and engendering empathy is an important part of building a conservation ethic that will help elephants survive - and all of you play a part in that.

Here's to a 2015 that is better for elephants and rewarding for all of us!

Peter H. Wrege,
Director, Elephant Listening Project.
The Elephant Listening Project is dedicated to the study and conservation of elephants, with a focus on the forest elephants of Central Africa. Visit the project's website at

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