Katy Payne: Elephant whisperer

Bioacoustician Katy Payne studies the vocalization and meaning in elephant communication.

Like the elephants she’s studied,

Katy Payne has great ears. As a bioacoustician, founder of the

Elephant Listening Project, and Visiting Fellow in Bioacoustics at

Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, she’s made breakthrough

discoveries about how African elephants communicate, socialize and

respond emotionally to one another—detailed in her book, Silent

Thunder: In the Presence of Elephants (1998). Her connection with

these creatures naturally led to a profound concern about their

habitats. Prior to her talk at Butler University, we picked Payne’s

brain on animal communication, habitat conservation and the power of

paying attention.

NUVO: For elephants, what is the

relationship between listening, vocalizing and social cohesion?

Payne: Our studies of elephant

vocalizations have shed light on an old mystery — how herds

that are spread out over many square miles manage to coordinate their

behavior. I discovered that they use infrasound — very low-frequency sound — which travels several miles. Separated

elephants spend a lot of time standing perfectly still, listening,

and move in such a way as to keep within infrasonic distance of their

closest relatives. The ability to recognize each other’s voices

makes them available to each other and aware of distant happenings.

Interestingly, elephants are concerned

with the fate of other elephants, even those to whom they are not

related. We once saw a small calf die next to a trail. Over the next

two days we filmed 127 individual elephants passing the corpse. Every

one of them reacted with some level of concern, and about 25% were

visibly distressed at the sight of the dead calf. This example of

communal emotional involvement is especially interesting as the

disturbed individuals were not closely related to the dying calf’s


NUVO: What’s affecting the

African elephant population most: climate change, poaching or land


Payne: The core problems are poaching

and the rapid expansion of human settlement. People are overwhelming

areas that were previously wildlife habitat. When elephants lose the

places where they have traditionally found food and water, and have

nowhere else to go, all hell breaks lose. They seek food and water

where they can get it, including on the farms of indigenous people

who themselves are often poor and struggling. Then, in many cases,

the farmer, or the government on behalf of the farmer, kills the

offending elephants and smuggles the ivory into the international

market. Two human problems — crop-raiding and money — are

addressed by poaching elephants. You see the writing on the wall.

NUVO: What did your time in Africa

teach you about the American relationship to nature?

Payne: In rural Africa I learned that

the closer the relationship between people and nature, the more

intense is the respect – physical, spiritual, emotional. But in

our times, a change is occurring in all places — whether in

Africa or America or elsewhere — as a desire for “the

easy life” is leading to dissociation from, and indifference

toward, nature. This change reflects the fact that more than half of

the world’s human population now live in urban areas, and that

people, especially children, are increasingly relying on screens

[computer, TV] for their impressions of nature, when in earlier

decades they would have been outdoors.

I see this as a crisis, but there is

also hope. Our forefathers’ recognition of the need to know and

protect wilderness is preserved in the form of huge parks that

welcome all kinds of visitors. The proliferation of land trusts

across the nation is refreshing people’s sensitivity to their

own land. Land trusts are collaborative and forward-thinking, a

beautiful example of how to think globally and act locally.

NUVO: What kind of courage do people

need to face the state of our environment?

Payne: Three kinds of courage are

emerging. One is the courage that arises through anger. Many people

are driven to conservation work by anger at seeing the wanton

exploitation and fragmentation of what they love and what they know

is essential. Another kind is almost the opposite: it’s love. A

sense of kinship to nature leads people to work for what they love.

Land trusts are a kind of work that can be done peacefully on a

tangible scale with implications fort the greater good of the earth.

The third kind of courage is that which transforms private fear into

public cohesiveness. When people realize they are not alone, but are

in good company, they get the energy to face the truth and do

something about it. The recent uprising and revolution in Egypt is an

example of fear turning into courage. A milder example is the trust

that arises among neighbors when they decide collectively to protect

their land for posterity.

NUVO: Your observational insight at a

zoo one day led to your discovery of elephant communication. How can

we sharpen the observational skills of our children?

Payne: Give them lots of free time in

outdoor places. If wilderness is inaccessible, encourage them to

crouch on the sidewalk and watch the ants in the cracks until they

figure out what’s going on — and be an example of an

adult who does the same. All that’s needed is a sunny day and a

hand lens. Honor your own and your child’s natural

observations, allowing your contacts with nature to be primary. It’s

one thing to watch TV to access what other people have seen; it’s

a completely different experience to make your own discoveries.

NUVO: What are you going to be talking

about March 7 at Butler?

Payne: I’ll be talking about two

approaches to conservation: global and local. I’ll let people

see and hear living elephants as an example of what we stand to lose

globally, and I’ll present the Elephant Listening Project, a

new approach to preserving elephants and the forests they live in.

For an example of local-scale conservation, I’ll talk about

land trusts with the Central Indiana Land Trust as a case in point.