The Secret Language of Elephants

60 Minutes' Bob Simon Reports On Research To Create An Elephant "Dictionary"

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For two decades, a group of wild African elephants has been watched over, studied and protected by their own guardian angel: an extraordinary American scientist named Andrea Turkalo.

Turkalo's own story is pretty amazing, but not nearly as compelling as the insights into elephant behavior her research has revealed, especially when it comes to "the secret language of elephants."

Elephants communicate in a complicated, sophisticated language that scientists are trying to decipher and compile into the world's first elephant dictionary. When we heard that this is all happening in one of the most magical places on Earth - a remote clearing in Central Africa where forest elephants, the rarest, most mysterious, and most threatened member of the species congregate - we simply had to go.

Photos: Forest Elephants
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The Sangha River flows through the Congo Basin along the border between Cameroon and the Central African Republic in the second largest rain forest on Earth. This remote corner of the world is the place Andrea Turkalo, a field

Turkalo lives in a compound that she and a group of Pygmies built from scratch. The Pygmies help her run the place.

Commuting to her job is a hike. The last couple of miles took us through some interesting terrain.

"Okay, now we're gonna enter the forest. And the advice I like to give everyone at this point is to stick together," Turkalo told 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon. "Because if we happen to run into elephant, we should all stay together and move in the same direction so we don't confuse them."

A confused elephant could be dangerous. Fortunately, running into one on the trail is rare.

Asked who made the trail, Turkalo said, "This was made by hundreds of years of elephant traffic in this forest."

"If you look at their feet it's obvious. They do a lot of road work," she explained.

The elephants have stomped out the equivalent of a vast interstate highway system. It took us past giant teak trees, through a thick primordial forest.

Turkalo has hiked this trail twice a day for nearly 20 years. Where does it go?

We could hear them long before we could see anything. Suddenly, the trail ended, and right before us, was an opening called the Dzanga Clearing and more than 50 forest elephants.

The setting was extraordinary - straight out of Jurassic Park, tranquil, except for an occasional roar.

"Andrea, do you remember the very first time you saw this place?" Simon asked.

"Yeah. It was in the late 80s. And I actually slept here," she recalled. "And I slept on the ground in a tent. And all night there was this symphony of elephants. And when I woke in the morning it was like I had landed in Paradise."

Asked what she means by paradise, Turkalo said, "You know, there are so few places in the world today where animals are not being harassed by people. And this is one of them. And it's an exceptional sight."

The clearing is a watering hole, a spa and a sanctuary - a place where elephants take their time, the measured graceful pace of the largest land animal on Earth.

They come to the clearing for the minerals which they can't seem to get enough of. It's a place where elephants play, but nobody gets hurt.

Kids fall and get up the way kids do. One elephant was giving himself a massage - a tree massage. Another one was trying to hide, unsuccessfully.