The Secret Language of Elephants
We know they never forget—but can they talk? 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon goes deep into the rainforest, where scientists have discovered elephants who speak in voices humans can’t even hear.
A long time ago, my beat was Vietnam. Then it became the Middle East. My latest beat seems to be elephants. I’ve done five elephant stories in recent years and they keep coming my way. Hugely. And the underlying theme in all of them is just how much elephants are like us.
My first foray was about juvenile delinquents. Gangs of teenage elephants in a South African game park called Pilanesberg started attacking rhinos. This is not something elephants do. But here’s what had happened: Years earlier, there was such a surfeit of elephants in the country’s Kruger National Park that rangers started culling adult males and shipping off the young boys to game parks like Pilanesberg, which needed them to attract tourist eyes and dollars. Trouble is, these adolescents had no role models and acted accordingly—wild, unruly, and sexually precocious. That’s what got the rhinos into trouble. Once the problem had been properly and anthropomorphically analyzed, the solution was obvious. Ship some of those big daddies from Kruger down to Pilanesberg. Within days, the fathers asserted their authority, the erstwhile delinquents fell into line, and the rhinos resumed basking in the sun.
Now how about artists? The largest artists in the world. A few years back, Christie’s held an auction for the works of some relatively unknown artists from northern Thailand. They were elephants, of course, and had been tutored by two biped Russian artists, Alex Melamid and Vitaly Komar. The elephants had been taught to hold brushes in their trunks, dip them into pails of paint, and apply them to rather large canvases. I’ve got a couple of them hanging in my office and they have been mistaken, by somewhat embarrassed visitors, for anything from de Koonings to Kandinskys. The idea behind the project was to use art to help elephants survive. For centuries, elephants had done the heavy lifting in Thailand’s logging industry. But in 1989, the government closed down the timber business to save the forests. The elephants were out of work and out of luck. They could be seen grazing in empty lots and roaming Bangkok’s red-light districts. The proceeds from the Christie’s and other auctions go back to the elephants in Thailand. Incidentally, the two in my office are not for sale.
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There is a protocol to meeting an elephant. He will offer up his trunk and he expects you to blow into it. That way, he will remember you forever. You will never be strangers again. I learned this etiquette at Dame Daphne Sheldrick’s orphanage for abandoned elephants near Nairobi. Dame Daphne, who was recently named a dame by Queen Elizabeth, could have walked off the set of The Young Victoria. But she is a true African. She founded the orphanage, and has been working with elephants for 50 years. She gets distress calls from all over Kenya, telling her that a baby elephant is on its own, often because its mother has been killed by a poacher. It is then a matter of great urgency. An orphaned baby can only survive a few days without its mother. The kid is loaded onto a plane and flown back to Dame Daphne’s refuge to begin a new life—a good one.
There were 14 elephants there the first time we dropped by. Each one has its own private room and its own private keeper. These extraordinary men spend 24 hours a day with their charges, feed them every three hours, watch over them as they play during the day, and bed down with them at night. After a few days, the elephants began to befriend us. They ran up to greet us when we arrived, draped their trunks around us, and licked our hands. That’s when we decided that this story required a sequel, which we did, two years later. But then it was a different cast of characters. The orphans we had come to know had returned to the bush, to live elephant lives. But even when they are adults, they drop by now and again to visit their first home and call on their surrogate mother, Dame Daphne, who told us that the most amazing thing about elephants is their enormous capacity for caring. She said they have all the best attributes of us humans and not very many of the bad.
In our own way, we had come to know that about elephants. What we did not know is that they talk to each other. They communicate in their own secret language, most of which is inaudible to humans because it is infrasonic, but which scientists are beginning to decipher. In fact, the world’s first elephant dictionary is being compiled right now. To track down this story, we had to make our way to the Central African Republic, not an easy place to get to. The last leg of our trip was a two-hour charter flight over the Congo Basin Rainforest, the world’s second largest after the Amazon, so lush and green it’s like flying over broccoli. We landed in a dirt strip and were greeted by the woman we had come to meet: Andrea Turkalo, a field biologist from Taunton, Massachusetts. It was only eight miles to the camp she has lived in for 20 years, but the drive took close to two hours, through dense rainforest, past giant teak trees, along tracks that had been carved out by elephants over eons. The last stretch was on foot, through tall grass and muddy swamps and then... suddenly... we came upon a large clearing. And inside were some 50 forest elephants. This was not an orphanage or a game park or an artists’ colony. This was the wilds.
They communicate in their own secret language, which scientists are beginning to decipher. In fact, the world’s first elephant dictionary is being compiled right now.
Forest elephants are a separate species, smaller than savannah or Asian elephants. They live in the forest and only come into the clearing when they feel like a little company or want some of the minerals that are plentiful here. Andrea studies them every day from an observation platform on the edge of the clearing. She figures she has seen nearly a thousand elephants from her perch over the years and has named—and recognized–every one of them, from their faces and their voices. She matches the sounds they make with behavior she can see. She then ships her pictures and her tapes to the Elephant Listening Project at Cornell University where the sounds are classified into distinct categories. There are sounds ranging from greetings, to protests, to reassurance, to annoyance, to “get out of my way.” But it turns out these vocalizations are just a tiny fraction of the sounds elephants make. What keeps Andrea and the scientists at Cornell hard at work is their sense that very complex vocal communication is being practiced—and that the dictionary is going to become quite a formidable volume.
Bob Simon is a correspondent for 60 Minutes , where he has been contributing regularly since 1996. His work has appeared on nearly every CBS News broadcast and has won 23 Emmys. He is also the recipient of a Peabody Award and four Overseas Press Club Awards.