Long-distance elephant talk in the rainforests of Central Africa
(l-r) footbridge into Korup N.P.; Miss L's family; Morna III and Morna II fussing, as sibs will do. © Elephant Listening Project

Elephant Listening Project

August 2013

It's been an exciting summer for ELP. With a new project in Cameroon, Peter adds another African country to his list. New young volunteers bring their enthusiasm to our lab in Ithaca. And Andrea Turkalo is with us for the third summer in a row. The fun and excitement is tempered, however, by continued horrific poaching pressure in Africa and political instability.

Can You Hear Me?

For the first time we have measurements of how far forest elephant rumbles travel through the dense rainforest vegetation of Central Africa—and a young volunteer intern, Maya Debellis, did it! This summer Maya joined the ELP team for the month of July to learn about forest elephants, their communication, and about analyzing acoustic data to answer specific questions. Sifting through thousands of elephant calls that were recorded during a study in 2010, Maya identified more than 200 calls suitable for analysis, then calculated and compared energy loss after the calls travelled varying distances through the forest from the elephant to the recorders. Low frequency sound is predicted to travel more easily past objects in the environment, and indeed it does! Maya estimates that an average forest elephant rumble could be heard by another elephant at distances of  5 to 7 kilometers from the sender. These distances are not that different from those first estimated by Katy Payne and colleagues in the open savannahs of  southern Africa. When elephants talk, it's as if the trees are an illusion! 

Jonathan Gomes, a sophomore at Ithaca High School, also got started with us this summer and is hard at work analyzing new acoustic data from Gabon. We hope he will stay with us over the next year and tackle another of our questions about forest elephant communication.

The Plight of Dzanga's Elephants

Andrea Turkalo had to evacuate her field camp near Dzanga Bai in advance of the rebel factions that, in April, toppled the government in the Central African Republic. Not long after, the rebels swarmed into the southern parts of the country and a small group gunned down at least 26 elephants, including babies, in the Dzanga clearing. No further killing has been reported since then, and both the park's conservator and the anti-poaching team should be commended for staying on-site and doing what they can to limit the damage. From the ELP lab, while continuing to work on analyses of her long term study, Andrea  keeps tabs on the situation in Africa, tracking the threats to both elephants and the local people whom she has come to know. The situation remains extremely tenuous and the local population seems traumatized by the arbitrary brutality of the rebel factions. Although her camp was looted, Andrea still plans to return when she can—to rebuild her study site and pick up her work again.

All of us at ELP hope you are having an interesting and peaceful summer season. Wish all of the elephants of Central Africa well—they need our thoughts and actions.

Peter H. Wrege,
Director, Elephant Listening Project.

Maya Debellis & Jonathan Gomes
Maya Debellis and Jonathan Gomes
© Elephant Listening Project
Locations of forest elephant calls in Gabon study
Locations of elephant calls around a forest clearing. Maya used these calls to estimate attenuation in the forest
The Dzanga Situation
The Dzanga Project, administered by the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), is keeping some presence at the bai in Andrea's absence, and the park guards have stayed on the job. The latter are continuing to do patrols in the area and this certainly is helping to deter further poaching incidents in the bai. An ever-present danger for the elephants is that many of the individuals that Andrea sees through the year are coming from considerable distances. They almost certainly have no way of knowing about the slaughter that occurred in the bai in April and so may be less cautious than elephants who were in or near the bai when the shooting started.
"7th Tuskless" with her drowsy infant 
© Andrea Turkalo/ELP
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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