Think of an elephant, and you likely think of Africa’s savannah elephant, lumbering across the continent’s vast open spaces. But Africa’s rainforests are home to another beast, the forest elephant, which so far has remained nearly impossible to study because of its dense habitat.
That’s why scientists with the Elephant Listening Project, based at Cornell University, have for years been installing microphones in trees to listen in on the creatures that are often difficult to see.
So far, the project has recorded more than 300,000 hours of audio, picking up both the familiar trumpeting sounds and the less well-known deep rumblings that elephants use to communicate over long distances, helping researchers understand the animals’ complex social structures.
Video footage, mostly captured by field biologist Andrea Turkalo, complement the hours of audio recording. Turkalo has cataloged more than 4,000 individual elephants in the Central African Republic, and Peter Wrege, project director, recently joined her in the field to install thermal imaging cameras, which recorded the elephants’ behaviors at night — including frequent mating.
“We need to know more about what’s going on at night,” Wrege told weather.com. “Especially if there’s sexual behavior going on.”
But despite all there is to learn about the elephants’ behavior, and Wrege’s interest in doing so, there’s a more pressing reason to study them: they might not be around much longer if we don’t. The same dense habitat that makes the forest elephants difficult to study also shields poachers, seeking the elephants’ prized ivory, from detection by conservationists and law enforcement.
The audio recordings have picked up on not only elephant vocalizations, but also gunshot blasts and elephants in their death throes. The sounds could help identify where poaching is happening to help keep the dwindling population alive. “In a way, the more interesting biological questions are taking a backseat to the conservation,” Wrege said. “We have to do something about the poaching or there won’t be any reason to know anything about their vocalizations.”
Outside of Asia, Wrege said, the biggest market for illegal elephant ivory is the United States. In February, the Obama administration announced new laws designed to restrict the ivory trade and aid states that are considering total ivory bans. “We’re really coming back into a terrible crisis situation with all of the elephants,” Wrege said. “What we really need to do is reduce the demand.”
In the meantime, listening in on the elephants could help us keep them alive long enough to do so.