May, 2007 Vol. 32 No. 2
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Published May 2007

Understanding Elephants

UH scholars study wild and working animals on two continents

by Cheryl Ernst

As a master’s candidate in the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s Ecology, Evolution and Conservation Biology Program, Caitlin O’Connell spent hours in a sound-proof chamber watching a planthopper call, freeze, press down on the plant stem, sometimes lift a leg, and then call again. She was on an African adventure with future husband Tim Rodwell (BS Mānoa) after both earned their degrees in 1991 when she witnessed similar behavior—in elephants. Fifteen years later, the Stanford University research associate explores the behavior in a recently released book, The Elephant’s Secret Sense, describing how elephants "hear" through their feet, toenails and trunks at potential distances of up to 20 miles.

An archaeologist and ethnographer with expertise in the Philippines and Southeast Asia, Professor P. Bion Griffin conducted traditional excavations and launched a UH exchange program that provides a research base for anthropology and archaeology in Cambodia. Long interested in people’s relationships with animals, he says it was love at first sight when he happened on a group of domesticated elephants in Cambodia. He has carried study of the Asian elephants and their handlers into his active retirement from Mānoa’s Department of Anthropology.

Observing in Africa, Caitlin O’Connell–Rodwell documented the elephants’ ability to "hear" low frequency sounds and seismic waves through their feet
Listening with their limbs

After volunteering at Etosha National Park in Namibia during her initial African adventure, O’Connell received a three-year government contract to mitigate the conflict between the farmers, whose land abuts the park, and elephants, who can consume a year’s worth of farm crops in one night. "When I wasn’t chasing elephants, I was observing their behavior, determined to find a tool to keep them out of farms," she recalls. She recorded the alarm call elephants give at the presence of lions, and she watched their responses. She observed elephants at a waterhole looking intently in a common direction, lifting a foot and freezing as if listening intently, just like the insects in the Mānoa lab.

Back in graduate school, O’Connell-Rodwell conducted five years of experiments with captive elephants in the United States, Zimbabwe and India. Working with a large-mammal behavior expert and a geophysicist, she demonstrated that low-frequency sound waves travel through and just above the ground and that elephants respond to the signals. The work earned her a PhD in ecology from the University of California, Davis, but O’Connell-Rodwell wasn’t done.

On staff at Stanford, she continues her elephant studies, returning annually to Etosha with a research team. In 2002 they confirmed that elephants responded to seismic signals even in the absence of low-frequency sounds above ground. In 2004 they buried a device that converts sound into seismic vibrations and observed elephant behavior—huddle and leave in the case of the seismic warning call recorded previously in Etosha (as they had in response to the audible warning) or clump nervously and make rumbling noises in response to an unfamiliar warning call recorded in Kenya. They didn’t respond at all to an artificial warble. The evidence indicates elephants can discriminate subtle differences in the calls detected with their feet.

Detecting barely audible sounds at great distance is a useful trait for a herd that ranges over an area larger than the state of New Jersey, O’Connell-Rodwell says. Female elephants can signal their brief ovulation period to potential mates and warn of predators who might pick off youngsters, she explains. Anecdotal reports from Africa suggest that elephants respond to the stress of distant herds and move toward water-bringing storms when thunder sounds a hundred miles away. Thai and Sri Lankan elephants reportedly fled inland before the devastating 2004 tsunami struck.

Seismic sensing could be an important tool for humans as well. From a conservation standpoint, geophone arrays that capture the unique footfall signature of various species could provide a non-invasive means for monitoring population counts and movements in the wild and perhaps even track the movement of poachers’ vehicles. Understanding of elephants’ sensitivity to seismic noise could suggest humane mitigations for urban zoos.

O’Connell-Rodwell’s commitment to conservation runs deep. She developed a screenplay for an animated feature about termites and rain forest conservation and hopes to write a novel about the ivory trade. Triple Helix, a production company she started with her husband, has a tentative commission for an elephant documentary. In development are a live action feature to interest girls in physics and an animated feature based on elephant bull society. In addition, the couple launched a non-profit organization, Utopia Scientific, to support research relating to conservation and public health issues. (Rodwell is a physician/researcher specializing in international health.)

Not all her work is in the field. O’Connell-Rodwell is collaborating with veterinary, otolaryngology and pediatrics experts on laboratory studies of elephant physiology that could generate direct benefits for humans. "I spend part of my time studying deafness and vibration sensitivity, hoping to learn something from the elephants that I might be able to apply to infants with hearing impairments," she explains.

There are other elephant-human connections, as well. "I am writing a second book based on my findings about elephant bull society and how these findings have parallels with male societies in general, such as the need to mentor adolescent delinquents," she says. "I have also been drawn in by how elephants care for each other and by their deep bonds but am also surprised by their competitive nature, almost bordering on cruelty. But, alas, should I have been surprised that another intelligent being also competes for resources?"

Bion Griffin is learning to drive elephants as part of his documentation of the dying art of elephant handling in Cambodia
Working with the handlers

Like O’Connell-Rodwell, Griffin finds elephants to be complex creatures with human parallels. "Elephants are super intelligent and do have great memories," he says. "They tend to bond with their drivers in a fashion even greater than horses. More like dogs, yet not as co-dependent, so to speak. Some take a great liking, or a dislike, to certain people and may either refuse to work with anyone except their driver or to not work with an assigned driver. They are temperamental, real rascals with senses of humor, sometimes vengeful and with individual personalities."

In 2004, Griffin started a survey of elephant use in Cambodia that he expects to finish by the end of 2007. He works with the Phnong, a tribal people of the mountainous Mondul Kiri and Rattanakiri provinces, who still have working elephants, and Siem Reap, where elephant rides are a tourist attraction along with the temple ruins of Angkor.

"Phnong elephants are essentially just great big draft horses," hauling rice baskets from the fields and resins collected in the forest and dragging logs and other construction materials to building sites, Griffin says. They may carry film crews or other people on expeditions. Those within reach of hotels may carry tourists on short rides or overnight treks.

Like so many native skills, elephant handling could become a dying art as working elephants are replaced by trucks and machines. Traditionally, young men trained with their fathers and uncles to become mahouts. They learned about elephants’ illnesses, diet and daily needs. They learned the voice and hand commands, knee and foot signals, and how to touch the elephants’ nerve spots with a special stick, called an angkus, to signal commands. And they learned the forest spirit language that had to be used in the forest, especially when capturing wild elephants.

"In most of Southeast Asia, the mahouts come from tribal communities and are outside a country᾿s mainstream," Griffin observes. Few young men are drawn to an occupation considered low-class, unprofitable and downright dangerous. Tamed, but not really domesticated, the elephants could survive in the wild, and the males, known as tuskers, can easily try to kill the driver.

As part of his research, Griffin is learning to drive elephants. Despite a lifetime spent on horseback, he admits to limited competence as a driver. In response to a teenage tour ride driver he interviewed, who claimed to learn his trade in two weeks, Griffin says: "Well, yes, I could drive a docile adult female easily in two weeks training, but I (and the young man) certainly would not be competent to really take care of an elephant without supervision."


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