Recording elephants

Guest post by Michael Pardo, Cornell University

Monday, December 31, 2012


Batik and her calf

Last Monday, Sameera and I underwent a grueling six-hour bus ride (each way) to the capital city of Colombo.  Dr. Padmalal, UWERP’s collaborator for this project from the Open University of Sri Lanka, had managed to secure the approval of my research permit, and we went to pick up the document.  The long hours of sweltering heat devoid of any bathroom breaks and punctuated by the blaring of obnoxiously loud horns were worth it.  The permit allows me to record elephant vocalizations, which is, after all, why I came here.  There is only one problem:  the elephants have barely been vocalizing at all.  In fact, they seem to be doing precious little besides eating and walking.  I know that patience is key of course, but it is hard not to become a little discouraged as I wonder whether I will eventually be able to get enough sound recordings to complete my Ph.D.

This afternoon, the park is unusually devoid of tourists as we trundle along the dirt road, scanning around for elephants.  We encounter a group known as the B’s, and kill the engine to watch them in silence.  This is the third time I have seen this group, and I am now starting to recognize some individuals.  Batik stands grazing with her calf about twenty meters in front of our jeep, recognizable by the way her ears flop backwards and by the unequal amounts of hair on either side of her tail.  On the far side of some bushes, the aptly named Bare Tail grazes in the shade of a tree.  Blanche, easily identified by her pale-colored tail hairs, stands a ways off with her calf.

Despite the elephants’ apparent reluctance to call, I set up the audio recording equipment on the slim chance that they are vocalizing entirely below the range of human hearing.  I switch on the recording device and train the microphone on Batik for several minutes, feeling rather foolish as the silence drags on.  Suddenly, Bare Tail notices a spotted deer standing behind her tree.  Startled, she spins around, rumbling loudly.  Batik hears the rumble and runs toward Bare Tail, trumpeting her reply.  No doubt terrified out of his wits, the deer bolts in the opposite direction.

I am elated.  This is the first time I have managed to record any vocal behavior.  Not only that, but I know which elephant produced each call, and what the likely stimulus for the calls was.  Having such a detailed context for the vocalizations I record is critical for attempting to decode the calls’ meanings.  I know that this is only one recording, but I can’t help feeling as though a weight on my chest has been lifted.  Maybe I will be able to record Asian elephant calls after all.  With a great deal of luck and even more patience, I may yet discover something new about the way elephants communicate with one another.


The elephants recover from their brief excitement and go back to munching grass.  They amble off to the right and we follow, waiting to see if anything else will occur.  I notice a male approaching from down the road, which Kumara identifies as male [433].  He walks up to the B’s, and rubs his head on the body of a juvenile.  He touches Blanche’s genital area with his trunk, and then sniffs the air.  Then he moves to graze alongside Batik, before apparently losing interest and heading off on his way.  Well, that was certainly more intriguing than mere eating and walking.

We stay with the B’s until it is nearly time for the park to close.  As we bounce over potholes on our way back to the front gate, I certainly have a lot to think about.  I watch a flock of Rosy Starlings pass overhead, and reflect on all I that have seen today, and all that the elephants may have yet to teach me about themselves.

To read more about the Bs, click on the ‘B family’ tag.


One thought on “Recording elephants

  1. Pingback: The “Elephant Grammar” Project at Uda Walawe National Park | Maximus

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s