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The Secret Language of Elephants

Secret Language of Elephants 14:04

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
The Elephant Listening Project
The Elephant Listening Project: Meet the Team

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.

It's a place of peace: the clearing where elephants and buffalo coexist. All this, and so much more, is observed by Turkalo and others day after day.

"It's been now 19 years that I've been observing this particular population of elephants," Turkalo told Simon.

She acknowledged that's a long time. "But it takes a long time to know elephants," she pointed out.

When Turkalo first came to the area, she knew almost nothing about forest elephants. Today, she's the world's leading expert on them.

From an observation deck on the edge of the clearing, she collects scientific data for Cornell University and the Wildlife Conservation Society. She watches elephants almost every day, for hours, counting their numbers and monitoring their health and observing their social behavior.

"What are the basic differences between the boys and the girls?" Simon asked.

"Females and their young stay together for longer periods of time. As you can see, these groups are made up of adult females and their young," she explained. "And bulls tend to leave their groups early and be solitary. But they occasionally meet up with their families and speak to each other."

"But the boys go off on their own and just sort of drop by now and then?" Simon asked.

"Yeah. They like adventure," she replied, laughing. "They don't like the group life."

Asked if there are other ways in which elephants are like humans, Turkalo said, "The females tend to like to be courted by older, experienced males."

"The young ones wanna get to the point too quickly," she explained, laughing.

When she heard the roar of nearby elephants, Turkalo knew it was the Penelope family. "It's their way of saying hello," she explained.

Turkalo knows it's the Penelope family because she named them and nearly a thousand other elephants. She also recognizes them by their voices, voices researchers are trying to translate into what could someday become an elephant dictionary.

"I find this elephant dictionary you're compiling exceedingly fascinating," Simon remarked. "I mean how large a dictionary will it be?"

"We don't know," Turkalo said. "We have to really know a lot more about the behavior of these animals to sort of sort out these different vocalizations and what they mean."

Turkalo's expertise brought her to the attention of Cornell University. Peter Wrege, a behavioral biologist from Cornell, says the dictionary is still in its early stages.

"We're in kindergarten. We're just learning the very first few words. And Andrea, in a sense, is the person who, I feel, is going to help us put those words together," Wrege explained.

"And you say we're in kindergarten now?" Simon asked. "Are we in the process of compiling the child's dictionary?"

"Even an infant's dictionary, it's a very, very complex process because we can't ask the elephant, 'What did you just say?'" Wrege said.

But they can match elephant sounds with behavior they can see, and classify those sounds into distinct categories.

Asked what some of them are, Turkalo said, "Well there's low frequency rumbles. It sounds like a big cat purring. And those are the vocalizations that help keep groups in contact with each other."

"In newborns you have a particularly very high cry. And when you hear it you know it's a very, very young calf," she explained.

"And some of these big bulls, when they go into musth, which is this sexual state they make a special rumble which is very low and very pulsing," she added.

Most days, Turkalo works into the evenings, compiling data and exchanging information with researchers back in the U.S. via the Internet, which she also uses to stay in touch with home.

The archive of elephant behavior and sound she has created is amazing and surprising.

Some noises that sound fearsome to human ears are actually elephants greeting one another.

Back in 2000, Turkalo filmed the death of a baby, and the traumatized cries of the other elephants. The elephants kept poking the body, over and over, frantically trying to coax the baby back to life. The elephants formed a procession that filed past the body.

"They'd feel it or they'd smell it. And then they'd vocalize," she explained. "It was like a funeral procession that went on three or four days."

"They seem to recognize death, and it upsets them. It sort of brought home how emotional these animals are," she added.

But it turns out that these vocalizations are just a small fraction of the sounds elephants make. Until a few years ago, scientists had no idea that most of what elephants are saying can't be heard by the human ear.

"The base of their vocalization is infrasonic. In other words, the frequency on which their call is built is below what we can hear," Peter Wrege explained.

The elephants use those low sounds to find one another in the dense forests where they spend most of their time. "Elephants are using very low frequencies in their vocalizations which travel far," Wrege said.

Wrege told Simon these low frequencies have a reach of about two or three kilometers - more than a mile.

Six thousand miles away, in upstate New York, at a lab at Cornell University, researchers are listening to everything from the sound of hummingbirds to the sound of whales.

The Elephant Listening Project grew out of an accidental discovery made by its founder, Katy Payne, one of the world's leading experts on elephant communication.

"I love animals. Right? So I went to the zoo," Payne remembered. "The elephant cage, and I began to realize that I was feeling a throbbing in my ears and in the air that I couldn't really explain. And I said 'You know, do you suppose that elephants are making sounds that are below the pitches that I can hear?' And we recorded for a month and, lo and behold, we found that elephants had a great many sounds that people didn't know about."

"But then how do you discover the meaning of these sounds?" Simon asked.

"You just watch and watch and watch, and record and record and record and keep the two together," Payne explained.

Which brings us back to Andrea Turkalo. Once or twice a year, she visits Cornell with her latest recordings.

"This is a scene we filmed on the first of May, and it's actually the first birth we've witnessed in nineteen years," she explained.

After oohing and aahing over the new baby, as anyone would, the scientists get down to the business of figuring out what the elephant sounds mean.

Figuring out which elephant is talking, where it's located and what its saying has been a big challenge.

Researchers initially strung nine acoustic recording devices around the clearing. As the sound reached each recorder at a different time, they could pinpoint the location of the speaking elephant.

Picking up sounds too low to hear was another challenge, but recording the sounds normally and playing them back faster was a revelation.

For example, the clearing at night sounds like just like crickets, but play back the recording three times faster, and you can pick up the rumbles of elephants.

But to figure out what the calls mean, the Cornell team spends more time looking than listening. Using computer-generated spectrograms, they can see the low-frequency sounds.

"And what does this visualization tell us?" Simon asked Peter Wrege.

"It tells us that there's incredible complexity. Many of their calls are actually similar in some ways to human speech," he explained.

Asked if this research into elephant sounds has any practical purpose, Wrege told Simon, "We're using sound recordings to monitor forest elephants because they are so difficult to see. And this becomes more and more critical because their population is threatened. So, knowing where the animals are gives us a way to begin attacking what has to be preserved or where do we need to put more protection."

"Protection," because poaching has become almost epidemic: it is estimated that annually ten percent of Dzanga's elephants are killed for their ivory.

Turkalo works closely with Dzanga's armed guards, but so far their efforts have not stopped the slaughter.

Asked if she sees it as her personal responsibility to protect the elephants, Turkalo said, "I've made it my personal responsibility for me if I've been given this great privilege to study this particular population of elephants I think my priority is to protect them. Otherwise I have no right to study them."

Turkalo believes if she weren't here, the clearing would become a killing field.

"It's clear that, in a very pragmatic sense, you are saving the elephants," Simon remarked.

"But in another sense, they've saved me," Turkalo said. "I have something very important in my life to do. And I think a lot of people don't get to do that."

Turkalo plans to stay there at least another 15 years. And as night falls over her clearing and fishermen float gently down the Sangha, you can hear the crickets.

What you can't hear, are the elephants. But that doesn't mean they aren't talking.

Produced by Harry Radliffe

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