In Africa, Decoding the "Language" of Elephants

D. L. Parsell
for National Geographic News
February 21, 2003

It's a safari postcard moment: A family of elephants rush together, rumbling, trumpeting, and screaming, their chorused voices deafening in the wilderness.

To casual observers, the sight is pure animal theatrics, and thrilling testimony to the magnificence of Africa's wildlife. But biologist Joyce Poole knows there's a lot more happening than meets the ear.

For 27 years she has lived among savanna elephants in Kenya's Amboseli National Park studying their behavior and methods of communication. Poole has found that the elephants use more than 70 kinds of vocal sounds and 160 different visual and tactile signals, expressions, and gestures in their day-to-day interactions.

Like humans and many other mammals, she explained, the elephants have a wide range of calls and signals for different purposes—to secure their defense, warn others of danger, coordinate group movements, reconcile differences, attract mates, reinforce family bonds, and announce their needs and desires.

Distinctive expressions of joy, anger, sympathy, sexual desire, playfulness, and many other emotions are among their vocal repertoire.

Poole and others have found that the elephants not only trumpet their calls but squeal, cry, scream, roar, snort, rumble, and groan.

Calls range from as soft as a whisper to more powerful than a jackhammer; from as abrasive as a rooster's crow to fluid as water gurgling and pulsating through an underground tunnel. Some of the sounds are so low-pitched they aren't audible to human ears.

"Elephants are extremely exuberant and expressive animals," said Poole, an American who grew up in Kenya and returned as a student researcher in 1975. "The emotion and energy in groups when they come together after they've been separated is incredibly powerful. That kind of behavior occurs in many situations."

Under a three-year program known as the Savanna Elephant Vocalization Project, Poole and her team are compiling a lexicon of the different kinds of calls used by the Amboseli elephants.

Toward Conservation

Poole's research is part of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project, launched in 1972 by renowned elephant researchers Cynthia Moss and Harry Croze. Amboseli is a 150-square-kilometer (57-square-mile) park in southern Kenya near the border with Tanzania and near Mount Kilimanjaro,

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