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Want to ‘Speak’ Elephant? Now You Can

A new website helps you translate human words and emotions into a form of elephant communication.

Elephant Gestures Elephant biologist and conservationist Joyce Poole describes the various elephant gestures recorded in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya.

If you’ve ever wanted to say “hello” like an elephant, now you can.

For the first time, human words and emotions are being translated into elephant calls that signal similar emotions or intentions, also dubbed “elephant language,” thanks to a new website translator.

Developed by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and ElephantVoices, the Hello in Elephant website allows people to send messages to friends, translating human phrases into elephant calls. By inputting a phrase by voice, text, or emoji, users can see a video of an elephant communicating the same greeting or emotion back to them, which can then be shared with others.

By typing “hello,” for example, the translation includes an elephant call used to greet one another. Saying “I love you” or “xoxo” will play an elephant call used to express love or affection. Other human words and phrases like “beautiful,” “funny,” “stressed out,” and “let’s go” can also be translated. (Read "What Elephant Calls Mean: A User's Guide")

The new website—which launches just in time for World Elephant Day on Aug. 12—was created to help raise awareness of the elephants’ plight.

Elephants continue to be in danger of extinction due to poaching and habitat loss. There were over 10 million African elephants in the early 20th century, but it’s estimated that there are now less than 400,000, according to the Great Elephant Census. By 2025, scientists predict there could be only 190,000 African elephants left.

“As human population increases, this leads to more conflict and elephant deaths,” says Joyce Poole, elephant conservationist and co-founder of ElephantVoices. “The elephant population has improved a bit, but I think people should know that it’s still a problem,” adds Poole, who is also a National Geographic explorer.

Face-off: Playful Elephant vs. Tense Rhino

Poole, who’s spent the last 40 years researching elephant communication and behavior, said elephant conservation is crucial for helping preserve the species’ complex communications. She doesn’t refer to elephant communication as language yet, but hopes that future research will change that: “I don’t think we know enough to really call it a language, but I think one day we will.” (Read "Elephants Communicate in Sophisticated Sign Language, Researchers Say")

Currently, Poole and other members of ElephantVoices are observing elephants in Mozambique and documenting their behavior. People always seem surprised that elephants communicate with one another, Poole says, but she hopes the new website translator will draw more attention to the ways they speak and connect with one another. (Watch "Elephants Communicate While at Play")

“Elephants are just so fascinating,” Poole says. “In so many ways they’re like us—they empathize, they care about one another, they learn to read body language—but there is so much we still have to learn about them.”