Katy Payne in Africa







ELP is not just about elephants, but is also about people: researchers, supporters, colleagues, and friends, who together make ELP happen. Here we give a brief history of how ELP began, and short descriptions of the more central players, past and present.

In some ways, the Elephant Listening Project began at the Portland Zoo in 1984, when Katy Payne felt (more than heard) the low-frequency rumbling communication of two Asian elephants, a male and female, who were standing on opposite sides of a concrete wall. Initially a student of music at Cornell University, she had spent, beginning in the 1960s, fifteen years researching whale sounds in Patagonia, Argentina. Her research was consummated in the discovery of humpback whale songs, which brought her wide recognition.

Four months after the Portland experience, with the help of Cornell University’s acoustic biologists, Carl Hopkins and Bob Capranica, Katy obtained the necessary equipment to record and measure infrasound and returned to the zoo. Together with several dedicated colleagues, including Elizabeth Marshall Thomas and William Langbauer, Katy made the pioneering recordings that led to the discovery of infrasonic communication in elephants. Soon after, she set up shop in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where we have been ever since.

“I trust that this is not the final chapter. I trust that things will get better before it is too late for elephants, although the reconstruction of decimated herds takes generations, and elephants carry memories which affect their behaviors for a long time. But we too remember and are affected, and know that this threat is not a new one. The challenge is to keep listening and remembering that the story is ours as well as theirs.”

- Katy Payne
Living With Sound, February 2013.

By 1986 “Infrasonic Calls of the Asian Elephant” was published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology. The New York Times had covered the story with an article headlined “Secret Language Found in Elephants”. In 1998 Katy Payne published “Silent Thunder” where she recounted the story of her discovery and in 1999, with the help of Charles Walcott and  Christopher Clark, the Elephant Listening Project was officially founded within the Laboratory of Ornithology to sustain long-term research in the field of elephant communication, with a focus on forest elephants.

The initial work was in collaboration with Andrea Turkalo, the world's expert on forest elephant biology. The first step in building tools to use acoustic methods to study elephants was to 'calibrate' calling rates - linking number of calls recorded by Autonomous Recording Units (ARUs) to the number of elephants giving those calls. In addition, the slow but fascinating process of matching behaviors and interactions to specific calls got underway, with Andrea continuing that process through the last 16 years.

Katy retired in 2005 and Peter Wrege took over her role soon after. Since then,  ELP has been listening in on the sounds of the forests of Central Africa, applying Katy's insights to further the conservation of elephants. Projects have been located at numerous different sites from Gabon and Cameroon in the west, to the Central African Republic and the Republic of Congo to the east.

"Over the last twelve years the project called ELP has found ways to discern key aspects of the forest elephants' life experience (the sizes and composition of their herds, movements of populations from place to place, evidence of mating, maternal responses to infants, evidence of distress and flight, and of the gunshots and chainsaws that reveal poaching) by listening to the forest from fixed recorders in the trees."

- Katy Payne
Living With Sound, February 2013.

Dzanga Bai in Central African Republic has been an invaluable field site. There, in the midst of a politically and climatically challenging environment, Andrea Turkalo, who co-founded ELP with Katy Payne, has been studying the population of forest elephants using this key forest clearing. She has catalogued approximately 4,000 forest elephants (!) along with their family trees and social connections to other families. Her work has been critical in the development of acoustic monitoring as well as in the behavioral research of forest elephants. Models initially derived from Dzanga Bai have then been tested and applied elsewhere.

A major focus has been to monitor elephant activity at numerous forest clearings throughout Central Africa, but ELP has also used acoustic methods to estimate elephant density in Northern Congo as well as in Kakum, Ghana. The effects of increasing human activity on a population of forest elephants in a remote Gabon rainforest was studied using multiple ARUs. In Loango National Park (one of the “strongholds” of forest elephants), oil exploration emerged in 2007 as a possible threat to elephants as well as to gorillas, chimpanzees, and other forest animals. The study explored the response of forest elephants to the development of an extracting activity in their habitat and gathered the first detailed data on daily patterns of elephant activity and the (previously unknown) activity of hunters. Detecting gunshots is a direct way to measure hunting pressure on animal populations in both protected and unprotected areas. In a project that involves multiple academic institutions, ARUs are being used for this purpose in Korup National Park, Cameroon.

Data from all of these efforts are being analyzed in Ithaca by Liz Rowland and Peter Wrege with the help of a team of enthusiastic volunteers. Collectively, these undertakings apply Katy Payne’s initial insight widely, eavesdropping on elephants to investigate the way they communicate, the way they socialize and the way they cope with increasing threats. As elephant populations in Africa enter a decade that will be critical for their survival, availability of data might prove to be the most important factor in the attempt to focus conservation efforts.

“Friends, please take a moment to consider your place in a world that we are influencing and changing. Each of us has a vote for what happens to the wildlands we still have on earth. We vote with the way we live, and with the issues that we discuss with our families and with our friends.”

-Peter Wrege, Voting for Elephants June, 2012.

"My church is outdoors, mostly. What's sacred to me is this planet we live on. It’s been here for more than 4 billion years. Life has been on it only for 3 billion years. Life as we know it, for a very short time. It’s the only planet where life has been found. And that, I think, is ultimately why I consider it sacred.

-Katy Payne
On Being, NPR. Interview with Krista Tippet on February 1, 2007.