Elephants Visit Round Robin

By Peter Wrege and Liz Rowland
September 23, 2010
Members of the Cornell Lab Members of the Cornell Lab's Elephant Listening Project head to Gabon to study forest elephants. Photo courtesy Peter Wrege and Liz Rowland.
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Not everything we study at the Cornell Lab has feathers. Some have thick wrinkly skin, enormous ears, and an oversized nose they can grab things with. That’s what the scientists in our Elephant Listening Project study. Two of them—Peter Wrege and Liz Rowland—have just headed into the rainforest of Gabon for a stint of recording and watching the region’s forest elephants.

The Elephant Listening Project is a part of our Bioacoustics Research Program. Created in 1987, the program recognizes that sound is a vital means of communication—but one that humans, in comparison to other animals, are relatively poor at using. Our scientists and engineers develop technology that narrows that gap and provides a window into the ways animals use sound to survive. Along the way, we learned that sound, because it travels so well, could also help us monitor rare, remote animals such as whales and elephants.

Forest elephants are a separate species from both African and Asian elephants. They live in Central Africa, but scientists know very little about them—even their population size, which is somewhere between 24,000 and 200,000. But we do know they’re threatened by poaching, habitat loss, logging, and oil development. (Find out more about forest elephants.) Peter and Liz will use recording devices to help count forest elephants and will also compare their diurnal and nocturnal behavior patterns—a job that will have them pulling all-nighters from a treehouse overlooking a forest clearing (called a bai).

Peter and Liz are still on their way in to camp, but they’ve already sent a couple of updates by way of introduction. Here they are:

Owendo, N’dzonde, N’djole, Ivindo, Moanda–the tiny towns along the single railroad that arrows southeast into the Congo Basin of Gabon–they don’t pass nearly fast enough. Liz Rowland and I are on our way to begin a new field season in our study of forest-elephant language and nocturnal behavior. We’ll spend the next six weeks perched for 24 hours at a time on a platform above rumbling, trumpeting pachyderms.

Scientists in the Elephant Listening Project at the Cornell Lab have been listening to elephants in Central Africa since 2000. We record the calls they make to each other and study them to help with their conservation.

This is my tenth trip to Gabon in four years, but this time I’m accompanied by my collaborator Liz Rowland. Liz has spent the last five years analyzing elephant sounds back home at the Cornell Lab, and she’s just beginning her first excursion into the field to work with these amazing animals.

What will it be like to live in and work from a rude camp of tents in the forest for six weeks with no car, no amenities? Fantastic and full of surprises no doubt. And what do we hope to discover? Whether elephants get lost in the dark, and whether the real giants of the forest come out only at night! Stick with us!

After five years with the Elephant Listening Project, I’ve seen and counted thousands of elephant calls, using graphs called spectrograms to analyze them in detail. But until now I’d never set foot in Gabon and have never seen a forest elephant.

All that is changing! I met up with Peter in Libreville, the capital of Gabon, and we were soon on the train to somewhere deep in the rainforest.

This is longer than I’ve been away from home for many years, so it was with a mix of emotions that I said goodbye to my husband. Sadness at leaving him behind (he would’ve loved to come), excitement about traveling to a new part of the world and seeing the elephants, and, I have to admit, a hint of trepidation. What’s it going to be like camping in the middle of the rainforest, in the hot, humid weather for six weeks with all the bugs and snakes, or trying to sleep during the day after a nocturnal shift?

I started my transition to Africa with a long layover in Casablanca. Arabs wearing colorful, flowing gowns, turbans, and slippers with curled-up toes; burkas; also skimpy Western-style jeans and t-shirts. The sounds were a similar mixture Arabic and French being spoken with African accents. Combined with jet lag, it was quite an otherworldly experience!

During our 11-hour train ride into the Gabon interior, we got acquainted with some fellow passengers. A guy in our compartment had worked with CEB (the logging company that leases the land where we’ll be working). We struck up a conversation with a French guy who turned out to know all about sound analysis. After leaving our analysis lab behind, I wasn’t expecting to have a chat about Fast Fourier Transforms quite so soon. Small world!

Read more about the trip: