Conservationist listens to elephants

Katy Payne came to Butler University Monday night to share her work with her organization, the Elephant Listening Project. Her speech was the second installment of the semester in the J. James Woods Lectures in the Sciences and Mathematics series.

Payne opened her lecture by explaining that the idea of conservation has changed drastically with scientific and naturalist development in recent years.

“Conservation was not a household word,” she said. “We didn’t know the value of nature goes beyond the value of resources that people should consume.

“I don’t remember hearing that we should think and act globally until I was in the my thirties.”

Payne got her start in the scientific field studying evolving songs of the humpback whale. She shifted her focus to elephants in 1984, when she and two colleagues discovered infrasonic, sounds below human audibility level, calling in elephants.

Payne traveled to Africa where she spent 15 years studying the relationship between elephant vocalization and population or behavior.

She mainly worked with the African Forest elephants—one of the three species of elephants that very little is known about due to their habitation in the dense forests of Africa.

“Things have changed a great deal when you listen to conservationists talk about their field today—they’re afraid,” she said. “This is a heavy burden because it takes work on everybody’s part to think and act globally.

“I felt my work with elephant vocalizations could be my contribution to the cause of maintaining our species.”

Payne said one of their main goals was to discover if there could be a relationship between the rates of elephant calling and population numbers. If so, this would allow the researchers to better determine the population of African Forest elephants, which is currently believed to be anywhere from 22,000 to more than 200,000.

“This [infrasonic calling] had the potential to be a long distance communication system,” she said. “We realized sound and the understanding of their communicative abilities is so remarkably important to help us to better determine the population sizes.”

Prior to their research, the most utilized way to determine the population size was by counting the piles of elephant dung and estimating from those numbers, Payne said.

With the eight autonomous recording units she and her team set up in trees throughout the forests, they were able to obtain data of vocalizations for a three month period of time. Payne said a large part of their research was devoted to determining if particular meanings are reflected in call structures.

Payne founded the Elephant Listening Project in 1996 and served as the leader of the project until her retirement in 2006, though she still remains active within the group.

Her organization works in different sites in Africa to continue the studies and interpretations of elephant vocalizations.

Payne said the impact of her work was brought to light about a decade ago, when she was involved in digging up the bones of one mastodon and one mammoth about 50 miles from where she grew up in upstate New York.

She said the bones had yet to be fossilized and she realized it was only 1,400 years ago that these animals went extinct.

“It brought to light how unique and how fortunate my experience has been to actually live with the lineage of these magnificent animals,” Payne said. “It wasn’t long ago that we had mammoths here—this knowledge exemplifies what the object of conservation is in our world today. Elephants are a symbol of the wildness of all of nature undisturbed by humans.”

“The information presented at the lecture was very informative and interesting because she was talking from first hand experience,” junior Bryn Masson said. “She obviously had great interest in the subject matter, which also translated when she gave the lecture to show that it wasn’t just about the conservation of a faraway species—it was a personal message.”