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
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.