SPEAKER 1: Well the elephant listening project is trying to understand the family structure and the ecology of forest elephants, which are a species that lives in the Central African rain forest. They're very difficult to see, and so the twist that we use is actually to listen in on the conversations that they're having with each other as a means of collecting data about where they are, how many there are, and what kinds of behaviors they're involved in. Well, the way that we do those kinds of studies is to put sound recorders up in the forest, or around resources that the elephants are coming into and record over a 24-hour time periods for many, many months.
And then we bring all of those data back here to the lab, and analyze them, finding elephant sounds, as well as other sounds. One of the most important things is that we also record gunshots and the sounds of vehicles, the sounds of logging operations. So we can use all of these to look at the environment that forest elephants are living in, what the threats are, and how many are where. All of this work is important because forest elephants are first of all, the last remaining elephant species on Earth that is roaming more or less freely through the habitats they evolved in.
But they're under incredible threat. A lot of poaching is going on, and we feel that the threats are actually increasing because as the Savannah elephants of Eastern and Southern Africa, the ones that most people are familiar with, they're more and more restricted to fenced in national parks. The protection against poachers is not by any means perfect, but it's much, much better than in the more trackless rain forests of Central Africa. So we feel that actually the ivory poaching going on is the poachers are being pushed into or taking advantage of the rain forest situation where there's almost no protection at the moment.
Our data collection has in fact helped in this process of catching poachers, in that we did a study in a national park along the coast of Gabon, right on the Atlantic, on the Atlantic Ocean, where the local managers thought there was almost no hunting going on in that national park. Most of the local people there are fishermen. We were studying the effects of an oil exploration project in the national park, and as a result of our recordings, we found that there was actually a great deal of hunting going on.
And this has now translated into regular foot patrols by anti-poaching teams in that park to try and reduce the incidence of poaching. What we've learned about the elephants is so far, primarily where they are, when they're there, and how many there are. The process of piecing together their family structure is a very long and meticulous one that's going to take us some time. And it needs to involve both personal observation, as well as the acoustic recording because we need to figure out what the sounds mean. One of the areas that we're most interested in in the elephant listening project, is to tease apart the communication system of forest elephants, and how these elephants walking around in very dark, thick, rain forest manage to keep their society together. How do they keep their families together?
And primarily we feel that this is, at least at long distances, is through their vocal communication. They communicate with very low frequency sound which travels effectively through thick forest habitats. And so the potential is there that they are communicating with each other over long distances through the forest. One of the things that we're trying to do is taking advantage of these forest clearings, where families come in to get mineral resources. We can put an array of sound recorders around those clearings, which allows us to localize where is each call coming from.
We can do that by triangulation, through the time of arrival of a given sound that each recorder. We can then figure out, OK, this call's coming from this particular place, and then we can look at the progression of calls that appear to be coming from the same individual to see what sort of communication is going on between individuals that are visible to us inside the clearing, and those that are invisible out in the forest. Those are sort of the baby steps. There are really two major important outcomes of the sort of work that we're doing with forest elephants.
One of them is the basic scientific study of their social system, their family structure, how the low frequency communication, acoustic communication, is used in threading that community together. This is very interesting in the sense that Savannah elephants have been very well studied, and we know that they maintain quite large families, which break apart and come back together depending on the ecological situation. Forest elephants when they're observed actually in the rain forest tend to be in much smaller groups.
And yet, in the big clearings, for instance, the one in central Africa, Central African Republic that Andrea Turkalo works on, it's very clear that there are much, much larger family groups that socialize. So the family structure may be very similar, and yet it may be held together or maintained in a very different way in the forest elephant. So that's of a lot of interest just scientifically. However, a major focus of the elephant listening project's work is actually the conservation of these forest elephants. Again, because they are the last elephant that actually roams freely through its habitat, we think that they're particularly important to try and maintain that, that freedom for this largest land mammal.
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In the dense forests of Africa, there is a species of forest elephant that has proved very difficult to study. Indeed, even simple questions like how many elephants there are and where they are located have been impossible to answer.
Katy Payne's discovery of low frequency communication systems in elephants has provided a new way to study elephant behavior. Automatic recording units make it possible to monitor the elephants' communication signals and researchers use this information to begin to understand something of the forest elephant's biology.
Peter Wrege, director of the Elephant Listening Project, describes the techniques and what has been learned about the biology of these wild, elusive animals.