The Elephant's Secret Sense: The Hidden Life of the Wild Herds of Africa
By Dr. Caitlin O' Connell
Wait, my editor is going to be taking part in this review? That’s not in my contract!?! It is!?! Oh I am having a talk with my agent about this… I mean… On with the review!
This is a first for this review: a non-fiction book that isn't about history or politics. Instead The Elephant's Secret Sense is about research that was carried out in the 1990s and 2000s to investigate a newly discovered means of communication between elephant individuals and herds. In short, this is a zoology book. Why did I bring a zoology book into this review series? Well, because I found it interesting in the main and wanted to talk about it. Second, because why not? After all variety is not only the spice of life but in moderation keeps us young. Besides I loved elephants since I was child (one of my first coherent memories is seeing an elephant up close in a zoo and thinking that nothing could be so grand or powerful as a living elephant. While I wasn't entirely correct, I can think of few things grander to see then a live elephant on the move.). Also it's not like I can be fired from reviewing books so...
This book was published in 2007 by Dr. O'Connell, it was her first book to hit publication. Dr. O'Connell is currently a Consulting Assistant Professor (Note from the editor: It is a form of visiting faculty. They come in to do research and maybe teach the odd course in their area of specialty, but cannot supervise graduate students. It might be surprising to see a zoologist in a medical school, but they often employ anatomists because the best way to understand an anatomical structure is to understand how it varies between organisms.) in the department of Otolaryngology (this is the study and treatment of diseases in the ear, nose and throat, fun note, this is the oldest medical specialization in America) for Stanford University school of Medicine. She's also considered one of the leading experts in elephants in the world, having spent a decade or two studying them in the wild. This book talks a lot about her studies which, when they weren't taking place at the Oakland Zoo, were done in the northeastern portion of Namibia’s Caprivi strip, which is a thin strip of land that separates Angola and Zambia from Botswana. African Elephant herds move across this narrow strip of land roaming across all the nations mentioned with a fine disregard for boundaries and politics. In fact they host some of the very last migratory populations of African Elephants. Unfortunately this often puts them in conflict with their human neighbors.
While human/elephant conflict isn't the focus of the book, it does get discussed and examined quite a bit. In the case of Caprivi (and elsewhere) one of the main issues are elephants raiding farms. Elephants as you can imagine require a lot of food to keep going (these are animals that measure their weight in tons and routinely stand over 8 feet tall) and farms right before harvesting tend to have a lot of said food. While this doesn't come up in the book, some parts of Africa have had problems with elephants raiding villages to ransack breweries. That's right folks, elephants, just like us will go to amazing lengths to get a good bit of booze, but back to the book. The problem comes in when you realize that the farmers need food to keep going and Namibia doesn't have a food stamp program, so it's grow food or starve for a number of these people. So a good amount of Dr. O'Connell's time was taken up by finding ways to keep hungry elephants away from the crops of hungry farmers (and thus reducing the temptation of said hungry farmers to resort to more direct measures of preventing the elephants from dining on their food).
In this role she was a government employee and like all government employees found herself dragged into politics; no matter if she felt those politics had anything to do with her. An interesting note was a bit of gender politics as Dr. O'Connell found that she made more progress by connecting with the women of each community and working with them. That said, she found herself in political struggles between men more often then she would have liked, be it struggles between opposing tribes or turf battles between bureaucrats, the good doctor takes us through them. Which is a good thing because it's these struggles that actually give Dr. O'Connell a motivation to really dig into the central issue that fuels this book, because she was wondering if she could use the information she found to create a system to keep elephants away from people's crops. She did tend to treat larger events that intruded on her research as minor obstacles to evade or get over on the course of her research. I understand that the book is about researching elephants but when discussing the end of a notorious rebel and poacher it would help if you gave a bit more context.
So what is the central story of the book, you may ask? Well it all starts as a young not-yet-a-Doctor O'Connell was sitting at her watering hole watching herds of elephants drink. Now these were family herds; adult females and children live separately from adult males in elephant society. Each family is led by a female elephant referred to as the matriarch. Every now and again the matriarchs of certain herds would break off from the others and start well... listening. Not just listening though, at times the matriarch would lift one foot from the ground a bit and start touching the ground with specific parts of that foot, as if it would aide in her hearing. At first our good Doctor wondered if she was just seeing some personal quirks but she soon found the behavior was present in each and every elephant herd that visited the water hole. Even the bulls did it, although a good deal less than the females. So she began to ask “why?”. Was there something they could hear through their feet? If so, what were they hearing? Was there a seismic component to elephant vocalizations? How were they sensing it? What was it that they were communicating and could we replicate that communication?
This began a research project that would last a decade. From gathering data observing animals in the wild and proving that this was something that a large population (if not all elephants) were doing; to hunting down physical characteristics that might explain what's going on; to finding ways of recording these newly discovered sounds and vibrations and seeing if they could use them to provoke a response. Dr. O'Connell was likely slowed down by the fact that she had to do a lot of other necessary tasks, like performing an elephant census and trying to get certain elephants collared so they they could be tracked by satellite. This turned into an interesting discussion in and of itself. I had honestly forgotten before reading this book just how far satellite tracking and communication has come. Today we're all rather used to pinpoint GPS tracking and nearly flawless communication (at least by the standards of our parents) across vast distances. The idea of ever really being out of touch is something of a luxury now. During the days of Dr. O'Connell's research project, it was being in touch that was the luxury. One amusing story is how she would have to go down to the local post office once a week, plug in her laptop to the only phone with the proper connection to download her emails and upload her replies. Needless to say, getting her data out to be analysed and get proper help from other specialists could take weeks if not months.
Additionally there were the issues of getting ahold of an elephant corpse and start cutting it up so they could figure out what physical characteristics would come into play. Still the obstacles were overcome and as a result we learned a lot about the magnificent mammals. For example: elephants have a pad of fat on each foot, along with fat in their foreheads that is actually very like the fat in a dolphin's head (the part is called a melon amusingly enough) which actually helps in sorting out sound waves. This doesn't mean that elephants can echolocate like dolphins, they use it to pick up sound transmitted through the ground. In fact, to help them concentrate, it was found they have a set of “lips” in their ears that let them pinch shut their ear canals so they can focus on seismic communication. To be honest I found this rather wondrous.
Of course there needed to be experimental proof, so she headed over to the Oakland zoo, where experiments were run using a female elephant named Donna. Interestingly enough Donna was born in the wild and brought over to the US, when African Rangers found that her mother had been killed in a cull. The culls are something no one is happy about, but there are times when the population of elephants gets too high for the local park to sustain them and steps have to be taken. These days a lot of work is taken to find alternatives, like relocation or even transporting elephants into captivity, which is preferable to shooting them or allowing an ecological collapse to lead to mass starvation.
Note from the editor: It really is a problem. African countries can only really protect their wildlife populations inside national parks. They don’t have the budget or manpower to police the whole of their territories, and poaching is a massive problem because elephant ivory is highly prized as a decorative item, and by the chinese for use in Traditional Chinese Quakery Medicine. Protected areas also minimize elephant-human conflict in agricultural lands; which is also a problem because elephants like to get drunk and go carousing. Imagine an eight ton bull elephant behaving like a belligerently drunk university student. However, elephants are nomadic. They move constantly to find food and water, and a herd of elephants rips up and consumes a lot of vegetation, so if they are confined to one place they tend to denude the plant life unless their local population is kept in check. It is a poor solution, but the best one we have. Ok, that is not actually true. In the past few years, we have developed birth control for elephants. We basically vaccinate males against their own sperm, decreasing the rate at which elephants reproduce. You can imagine data collection for those experiments: having to go out and get *ahem* samples from bull elephants. I will leave you wondering how they do that.
Donna's experiment was actually fairly simple: using equipment suggested by geologists, they would create a seismic “noise” similar to the ones that elephants used in the wild. Donna would then hit a yes if she “heard” it and a no if she didn't. It did not take long for Donna to understand the experiment and through they were not only able to determine that Donna was picking up this “sound” through her feet but they could figure out the extent of an elephant's hearing range. Using that they returned to Caprivi and did experiments on the local herds to see if they would react to alarm calls transmitted in this fashion. The herds did, sometimes alarmingly (one matriarch would attack the equipment in frustration when she couldn't find the elephant that was calling wolf).
This book not only provides us with a good look into how you prove a theory in the wild, so to speak, but gives us a peek into the challenges of working in Africa. It also gives us a window into the never-ending struggle to balance the needs of animals and the humans who live alongside them. In Caprivi a working compromise was established by creating locally run and managed parks. This turned the elephants from a danger to a farmer's survival into the means of survival by making them an economic asset for the local people. If you're interested in learning more about this kind of work, or you're interested in zoology or just in elephants, this book is a good one for you. I will note that Dr. O'Connell does tend to ramble a bit in places and on several chapters goes into side trips. Many of those are fairly personal windows into working in Africa and others are just kinda leaving me wondering if a stronger editor was needed here. All in all, I'm giving The Elephant's Secret Sense, the Hidden Life of the Wild Herds of Africa by Dr. Caitlin O'Connell a -A.
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen
Announcement! In these next 4 weeks we will be running an experiment of our own. We're doing a theme month in honor of Halloween guys. That theme being dark stories, not necessarily horror mind you but dark all the same. We here at the review series have chosen 3 already but I am throwing the 4th spot open to my readers.
October 7th we start out with Charles Stross' Laundry Series with the Atrocity Archives and a bonus of the Concrete Jungle.
October 14th we return to Matthew Stover's work with Caine Black Knife.
October 21st we go even darker with R. Scott's Bakker's The Great Ordeal
October 28th Is up to you! Leave your choice in the comments/threads and I will choose from among them. Happy Halloween!