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Scientist Joyce Poole On What Elephants Have To Say

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Here are some African elephants having a good time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELEPHANTS TRUMPETING)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: For almost half a century, Joyce Poole has been listening to what elephants have to say and studying the way they behave and communicate in national parks in Kenya and Mozambique. Now she and her husband Petter Granli have created the African Elephant Ethogram, a comprehensive audio-visual library of the animals. And that database was open to the public this past week. Joyce Poole, who is also a National Geographic explorer, joins us now from Sandefjord in Norway. Welcome to the program.

JOYCE POOLE: Thank you so much, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You have a real love affair with elephants. In the recent Nat Geo online story about you, there is a photo of you and your brother in Kenya's Amboseli National Park in 1967. You must be about 10 or 11, sort of calmly posing with a giant, long-tusked elephant. It's an amazing picture.

POOLE: Yeah, it is. We grew up in Kenya. And Amboseli was one of the places we used to go on safari on school holidays. I met my first elephant on a safari when I was 6 and was - got charged - seriously charged by the elephants. So that made quite an impression on me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So it's been a long relationship. Tell us about these recordings. What is an ethogram, and how does it work?

POOLE: Well, an ethogram is really a library of all the behaviors of a species. And so this ethogram is not just the vocalizations, the calls of elephants. But it's also all their behaviors. So the way they communicate, using their ears and their trunk and also the other things they do, for instance, different techniques they use to feed. But, of course, people are - especially radio programs - would be very interested in the sounds that they make.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Indeed, we are.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And I want to play a few of these. Let's listen to something called the baroo rumble.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELEPHANT RUMBLING)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, that sounds almost like a lion, not an elephant. What is going on there?

POOLE: (Laughter) And that's a calf. That's a young elephant, a 4-year-old kind of complaining.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I should hope so.

POOLE: Baroo rumbles are made when a calf or elephant is feeling hard done by. It's a kind of woe is me, and please come and make me feel better and comfort me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. Let's hear now what you call a greeting ceremony.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELEPHANT TRUMPETING)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wow. Tell us about this one.

POOLE: Well, you know, elephants live in families. Elephants live up to 70 years old. And so members of a family, mothers and daughters, stay together for life. But they're not - they're like our families. They're not always together. So the families will split up. And then when they come back together, they have greeting ceremonies. So they rumble. And they trumpet. They urinate and defecate and spin around and clank their tusks together. It's an extraordinary sight.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You've said that you think elephants talk about us and how they should respond to us, which I think is, of course, fascinating. Tell us about that.

POOLE: Let's say one member of the group will feel that they should go one direction and another member of the group feels they should go the other. They use something that I call a let's go rumble. In other words, let's go this way. I want to go together. But they may disagree on which way to go. So, you know, they'll talk back and forth and back and forth and negotiate. But often, these kind of conversations go on when there are people in the area, and they need to decide where to go in relation to them. So you can see them kind of listening to the sounds of people and having these discussions.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This database of audio and video recordings was just opened up to the public. What was behind the decision?

POOLE: Elephants, quite honestly, are running out of time. They're running out of space. And the numbers are declining. And they need more people to care about them. And we felt that a database like this where people can go in and see how very complex these animals are, how creative they are and how versatile their behavior is, how rich it is - that we could maybe inspire more people to care.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Elephant researcher and National Geographic explorer Joyce Poole. Her Elephant Ethogram can be found at elephantvoices.org. Thank you very much.

POOLE: Thank you so much, Lulu.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELEPHANT TRUMPETING) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.