The secret language of elephants

Bob Simon discovers the inhabitants of the Dzanga clearing in the Central African Republic

Four years ago, Bob Simon traveled to the Central African Republic to explore scientists' latest discovery: a possible secret language shared among forest elephants. His description of the place was something straight out of "Jurassic Park."

"We could hear something before we could see anything," Simon says about the sounds he heard while walking along a trail in a dense forest. That trail led him to a clearing that revealed more than 50 elephants. "The setting was extraordinary..."

Simon was there with American researcher, Andrea Turkalo, who has spent over 20 years in Dzanga living among thousands of forest elephants. She has not only studied them, but knows them so well, she's even named them.

"That's the Penelope family. And it's their way of saying hello," she told Simon.

But in 2012, political turmoil in the Central African Republic forced Andrea to flee her camp, leaving behind the elephants she's protected in the hands of potential poachers. She left with only a few bags and 20 years' worth of research.

Now, Andrea is back at her camp trying to rebuild and preserve what was left of the site.

"My camp was totally looted and I have been spending the past few weeks transporting building materials, directing reconstruction in hopes of making a place to live and work," Andrea told 60 Minutes Overtime in mid-December. "Not easy."

The following is a script of "The Secret Language of Elephants," which aired on January 3, 2010. Bob Simon is the correspondent.

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. As you're about to see, Andrea'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, well, we simply had to go.

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 biologist from Taunton, Massachusetts, has called home for nearly two decades. Andrea 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.

Andrea Turkalo: Okay, now we're going to enter the forest. And the advice I like to give everyone at this point is to stick together.

Bob Simon: Stick together.

Andrea Turkalo: Yeah, 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.

Bob Simon: We don't want to confuse elephant.

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

Bob Simon: So who made this trail, Andrea?

Andrea Turkalo: This was made by hundreds of years of elephant traffic in this forest.

Bob Simon: Elephants made the trail?

Andrea Turkalo: Yeah. I mean if you look at their feet it's obvious. They do a lot of road work.

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. Andrea has hiked this trail twice a day for nearly twenty years. Where does it go? We could hear something before we could see anything. Suddenly, the trail ended, and right before us, was an opening called the "Dzanga Clearing" and more than fifty forest elephants. The setting was extraordinary, straight out of Jurassic Park, tranquil, aside from an occasional roar.

Bob Simon: Andrea, do you remember the very first time you saw this place?

Andrea Turkalo: Yeah. It was in the late 80s. And I actually slept here.

Bob Simon: Slept here?

Andrea Turkalo: Yeah. 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.

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. These elephants are playing sort of amateur wrestling for pachyderms. Nobody gets hurt. Kids fall and get up the way kids do. This elephant is giving himself a massage, a tree massage. Here's one trying to hide, unsuccessfully, all this and so much more observed by Andrea and others day after day.

Andrea Turkalo: It's been now nineteen years that I've been observing this particular population of elephants.

Bob Simon: Very long time.

Andrea Turkalo: Yeah, it is a long time. But it takes a long time to know elephants.

When Andrea first came here 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, monitoring their health, and observing their social behavior.

Bob Simon: What are the basic differences between the boys and the girls?

Andrea Turkalo: 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. And bulls tend to leave their groups early and be solitary. But they occasionally meet up with their families and speak to each other.

Bob Simon: But the boys go off on their own and just sort of drop by now and then?

Andrea Turkalo: Yeah. They like adventure. They don't like the group life.

Bob Simon: Are there other ways in which elephants are like us?

Andrea Turkalo: The females tend to be like to be courted by older, experienced males.

Bob Simon: Huh, huh, they don't like the young ones?

Andrea Turkalo: No. The young ones want to get to the point too quickly.

Bob Simon: Now what're they making noise about right now?

Andrea Turkalo: That's the Penelope family. And it's their way of saying hello.

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

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

Andrea Turkalo: We don't know. 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.

Andrea'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.

Peter Wrege: We're in kindergarten. We're just learning the very first few words. And Andrea is going to help us put those words together.

Bob Simon: And you say we we're in kindergarten now?

Peter Wrege: Yes.

Bob Simon: Are we in the process of compiling a child's dictionary?

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

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

Can you tell me what some of them are?

Andrea Turkalo: Well, there's these low-frequency rumbles. It sounds like a big cat purring. And those are the vocalizations that help keep groups in contact with each other. There are protest calls. In newborns you have a particularly high cry. And when you hear it you know it's a very, very young calf. 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 pulsating.

Most days Andrea 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.

These fearsome noises are actually elephants greeting one another, "glad to see you, come a little closer." These are sounds of annoyance. The big bulls are telling the youngsters to hit the road.

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

Andrea Turkalo: They'd feel it or they'd smell it. And then they'd vocalize. It was like a funeral procession that went on three or four days.

Bob Simon: Must have been an amazing sight.

Andrea Turkalo: They seem to recognize death, and it upsets them. It sort of brought home how emotional these animals are.

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.

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

The elephants use those low sounds to find one another in the dense forests where they spend most of their time.

Peter Wrege: Elephants are using very low frequencies in their vocalizations which travel far.

Bob Simon: How far?

Peter Wrege: At least two or three kilometers.

Bob Simon: No kidding, more than a mile?

Peter Wrege: Yes.

Bob Simon: Elephants standing here can communicate with sound with an elephant more than a mile away?

Peter Wrege: Yes.

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.

Katy Payne: I love animals. Right? So I went to the zoo.

Bob Simon: The elephant cage?

Katy Payne: 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 elephants are making sounds 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.

She gave us examples of sounds that we can hear.

Katy Payne: Sounds which I interpreted generally as everything is in order.

Bob Simon: Everything's okay with the world.

Katy Payne: Everything's okay.

Bob Simon: But then how do you discover the meaning of these sounds?

Katy Payne: You just watch and watch and watch, and record and record and record and keep the two together.

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

Bob Simon: And you're giving them the material with which they work?

Katy Payne: Yes. This is a scene we filmed on the first of May, the first birth we witnessed in nineteen years.

Woman: Oh, look at that.

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.

Woman: I'm betting that these two calls are the same individual.

Figuring out which elephant is talking, where it's located and what it's 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 this.

[Clearing sound]

Play it back three times faster, this is what the clearings sounds like. You can hear the elephant's rumbling calls. But to figure out what the calls mean the Cornell team spends more time looking than listening. Using these computer-generated spectrograms, they can see the low-frequency sounds.

Peter Wrege: And then we can actually visually look at the calls.

Bob Simon: And what does this visualization tell us?

Peter Wrege: It tells us that there's incredible complexity. Many of their calls are actually similar in some ways to human speech.

Bob Simon: Peter, does all these research into elephant sounds have any practical purpose?

Peter Wrege: 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's estimated that annually ten percent of Dzanga's elephants are killed for their ivory.

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

Bob Simon: Do you see it as your personal responsibility to protect the elephants here?

Andrea Turkalo: 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.

Bob Simon: Excuse me, we have a vocalization.

Andrea Turkalo: That's a protest.

Bob Simon: A protest?

Andrea Turkalo: That somebody who's probably being refused something by it's mother.

Bob Simon: Baby elephants protest in a rather loud fashion, don't they?

Andrea Turkalo: Yeah, yeah, they're just like little bratty children.

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

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

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

Andrea plans to stay there at least another fifteen 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.