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Katy Payne: Elephant whisperer


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Bioacoustician Katy Payne studies the vocalization and meaning in elephant communication.
  • Bioacoustician Katy Payne studies the vocalization and meaning in elephant communication.

Like the elephants she’s studied, Katy Payne has great ears. As a bioacoustician, founder of the Elephant Listening Project, and Visiting Fellow in Bioacoustics at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, she’s made breakthrough discoveries about how African elephants communicate, socialize and respond emotionally to one another—detailed in her book, Silent Thunder: In the Presence of Elephants (1998). Her connection with these creatures naturally led to a profound concern about their habitats. Prior to her talk at Butler University, we picked Payne’s brain on animal communication, habitat conservation and the power of paying attention.

NUVO: For elephants, what is the relationship between listening, vocalizing and social cohesion?

Payne: Our studies of elephant vocalizations have shed light on an old mystery — how herds that are spread out over many square miles manage to coordinate their behavior. I discovered that they use infrasound — very low-frequency sound — which travels several miles. Separated elephants spend a lot of time standing perfectly still, listening, and move in such a way as to keep within infrasonic distance of their closest relatives. The ability to recognize each other’s voices makes them available to each other and aware of distant happenings.

Interestingly, elephants are concerned with the fate of other elephants, even those to whom they are not related. We once saw a small calf die next to a trail. Over the next two days we filmed 127 individual elephants passing the corpse. Every one of them reacted with some level of concern, and about 25% were visibly distressed at the sight of the dead calf. This example of communal emotional involvement is especially interesting as the disturbed individuals were not closely related to the dying calf’s family.

NUVO: What’s affecting the African elephant population most: climate change, poaching or land management?

Payne: The core problems are poaching and the rapid expansion of human settlement. People are overwhelming areas that were previously wildlife habitat. When elephants lose the places where they have traditionally found food and water, and have nowhere else to go, all hell breaks lose. They seek food and water where they can get it, including on the farms of indigenous people who themselves are often poor and struggling. Then, in many cases, the farmer, or the government on behalf of the farmer, kills the offending elephants and smuggles the ivory into the international market. Two human problems — crop-raiding and money — are addressed by poaching elephants. You see the writing on the wall.

NUVO: What did your time in Africa teach you about the American relationship to nature?

Payne: In rural Africa I learned that the closer the relationship between people and nature, the more intense is the respect – physical, spiritual, emotional. But in our times, a change is occurring in all places — whether in Africa or America or elsewhere — as a desire for “the easy life” is leading to dissociation from, and indifference toward, nature. This change reflects the fact that more than half of the world’s human population now live in urban areas, and that people, especially children, are increasingly relying on screens [computer, TV] for their impressions of nature, when in earlier decades they would have been outdoors.

I see this as a crisis, but there is also hope. Our forefathers’ recognition of the need to know and protect wilderness is preserved in the form of huge parks that welcome all kinds of visitors. The proliferation of land trusts across the nation is refreshing people’s sensitivity to their own land. Land trusts are collaborative and forward-thinking, a beautiful example of how to think globally and act locally.

NUVO: What kind of courage do people need to face the state of our environment?

Payne: Three kinds of courage are emerging. One is the courage that arises through anger. Many people are driven to conservation work by anger at seeing the wanton exploitation and fragmentation of what they love and what they know is essential. Another kind is almost the opposite: it’s love. A sense of kinship to nature leads people to work for what they love. Land trusts are a kind of work that can be done peacefully on a tangible scale with implications fort the greater good of the earth. The third kind of courage is that which transforms private fear into public cohesiveness. When people realize they are not alone, but are in good company, they get the energy to face the truth and do something about it. The recent uprising and revolution in Egypt is an example of fear turning into courage. A milder example is the trust that arises among neighbors when they decide collectively to protect their land for posterity.

NUVO: Your observational insight at a zoo one day led to your discovery of elephant communication. How can we sharpen the observational skills of our children?

Payne: Give them lots of free time in outdoor places. If wilderness is inaccessible, encourage them to crouch on the sidewalk and watch the ants in the cracks until they figure out what’s going on — and be an example of an adult who does the same. All that’s needed is a sunny day and a hand lens. Honor your own and your child’s natural observations, allowing your contacts with nature to be primary. It’s one thing to watch TV to access what other people have seen; it’s a completely different experience to make your own discoveries.

NUVO: What are you going to be talking about March 7 at Butler?

Payne: I’ll be talking about two approaches to conservation: global and local. I’ll let people see and hear living elephants as an example of what we stand to lose globally, and I’ll present the Elephant Listening Project, a new approach to preserving elephants and the forests they live in. For an example of local-scale conservation, I’ll talk about land trusts with the Central Indiana Land Trust as a case in point.


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