Program Particulars: Whale Songs and Elephant Loves

August 13, 2015

Program Particulars

*Times indicated refer to Web version of audio

(0:13) Quote from Annie Dillard

Krista cites a line from The Writing Life by Annie Dillard: "You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment."

(01:15) Bioacoustics Research Program

The Bioacoustics Research Program (BRP) at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York focuses on tracking wildlife in their natural environments — with a special emphasis on whales, birds, and elephants. BRP distributes innovative software they've developed and invents new equipment for recording, measuring, and analyzing animal communication.

(01:41) Quote from Silent Thunder

Each family of elephants is made up of six to 20 elephants who are ruled by an older matriarch. If the family grows too large because of the availability of food or other social conditions, they may split into another family but continue to closely associate and form matriarchal bond groups. Katy Payne describes trying to learn more about matriarchs in Silent Thunder:

I looked up "matriarchs" in a book called Elephants, by Keith Eltringham, a Cambridge University professor who had participated in an elephant management program in Uganda. He noticed that elephants' attachments are particularly clear when they are terrified, injured, or dying, and quantified his observations. His chapter called "The Social Life of Elephants" contains the following summary:

"Sometimes one female, the matriarch, is very much older than the rest. She is probably the mother, or grandmother, of the others and she is very much the leader. In times of trouble she will defend the group and the rest look to her for guidance. If she runs away they will follow her, but if she turns around and attacks they will charge with her. This was often brought home very forcibly to me during immobilization programmes. If one darts a young female in the group, it is extremely difficult to chase off the matriarch. She will stand guard over the stricken animal, trumpeting loudly and attempting to lift it to its feet. The others follower her example and one is then faced with a milling mass of furious beasts. One tries to avoid this debacle by waiting for a female to wander off a little way before darting her and hopes that the matriarch will not have noticed. An alternative is to dart the matriarch herself. The difference in the reaction of the elephants is striking. In this situation, they seem to have no idea of what to do and rarely make any show of resistance as they are shooed away to stand in a forlorn group, anxiously watching the proceedings. Their first reaction when the matriarch falls is to run to her, and this is put to use in culling operations in which whole family groups are usually taken out. …

It is not clear how leadership is exercised in family groups lacking a clear matriarch or in those with more than one matriarch. … It was found, during cropping, that, if one matriarch was shot in a group consisting of two or more family units, her followers would abandon her and run off with a new leader. …

"Cropping" means treating elephants like a crop, and killing them in large numbers. Cropping procedures are also sometimes called "harvesting." These days people prefer the word "culling," which shunts the emphasis toward the reduction of population size and away from the collection of valuable ivory. Under the new name, the practice continues in several African countries.

It was terrible to read Eltringham's chapter, not only because of what the elephants had suffered but also because of the decisions the author had made. How terrible it seemed that he'd stood taking notes on elephants' behaviors during death as manifestations of their social life. What is this distance, this vow of objectivity, that science permits in or exacts of the scientist? I should not be in science, I told myself as I struggled into sleep.

(02:34) Humpback Whales Communicate by Song

Katy Payne's former husband, Roger Payne, and Scott McVay first recognized that humpback whales sing complex songs that, at the time, were believed to be audible only to humans and birds. These songs, which can last for 24 hours or more, contain two to nine themes of repeating phrases that change after several minutes. Over months and years, Katy Payne discovered, the humpback whale songs change. She also identified that the fixed position of these themes contain rhyming patterns that possibly help them remember their songs. For a more in-depth explanation of songs of the humpback whale, listen to and read Roger Payne's narration as part of a five-year exploratory mission.

(04:24–04:50) Music Element

"Solo Whale" from Songs of the Humpback Whale, produced by Dr. Roger Payne

(07:00) Sound Below the Pitches of the Human Ear

After spending a week at the Washington Park Zoo in Portland, Oregon, Katy Payne thought she had come away empty-handed — until she bordered the airplane back to Ithaca. In Silent Thunder, she recounts how she first realized that elephants may communicate using infrasound, like great fin and blue whales, by way of a childhood memory at church:

The sigh acknowledged a slight failure as well as sadness. I would have liked to learn something new, but it seemed that the time was not ripe. I closed my eyes to review the happenings I'd witnessed in the zoo. I would glean them, and then say good-bye.

Here stood Pet in the back corner, the end of her trunk moving over the floor like a squeegee, collecting together a few last stems and scraps in the hour before feeding time. Here came Hanako and Rama sauntering in her direction. Were they coming to visit her, or to deprive her of what she had gathered? The latter, I decided, and I watched carefully, thinking of Jay's comment that Pet would do anything to stay on the bottom of the hierarchy. I heard a faint rumble and the animals shifted, but Pet held her own. The air thrilled a little: I felt happy for Pet.

Here came Jim with the grain and hay. All the elephants moved to greet him, and I enjoyed his gentle voice, and again sensed a kind of thrill in the air.

Here stood little Sunshine reaching toward me through the bars; behind her, her mother standing by, to "turn me into noodles" should I prove untrustworthy. The airplane throbbed, reminding me of the faint throbbing, or thrilling, or shuddering I'd felt at that moment. It had been like the feeling of thunder but there'd been no thunder. There had been no loud sound at all, just throbbing and then nothing.

Now a recollection from more than thirty years earlier joined the first. I was thirteen years old, and I was standing not in a zoo but in Sage Chapel at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. And what I was hearing was not silence but enormous chords from a pipe organ that was accompanying singers, and I was one of the singers. My mother was across the room in the alto section. The organist and conductor were lit by lamps that illuminated their music. The little circles of yellow light from the lamps were framed by the darkness of early evening inside a vast building. High up in the space of a series of round stained-glass windows, still receiving light from the sky, glowed down on us.

The organ was alive. In a powerful combination of voices it was introducing the great chorus that opens the second half of Bach's Passion According to St. Matthew; we were drawing breath to sing, "Oh man, bewail thy grievous sin." The organist pulled out the great stop and the air around me began to shudder and throb. The bass notes descended in a scale. The deeper they went, the slower the shuddering became. The pitch grew indistinct and muffled, yet the shuddering got stronger. I felt what I could not hear. My ears were approaching the lower limit of their ability to perceive vibrations as sound.

Is that what I was feeling as I sat beside the elephant cage? Sound too low for me to hear, yet so powerful it caused the air to throb? Were the elephants calling to each other in infrasound?

Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, wind, thunder, and ocean storms—gigantic motions of earth, air, fire, and water—these are the main sources of infrasound, sound below the range of human hearing, which travels huge distances through rock, water, and air. Among animals only the great fin and blue whales were known to make powerful infrasonic calls. No land animal approached the mass or power of these great mammals of the sea, but now I wondered: might elephants, too, be using infrasound in communication?

(09:19–9:37) Music Element

"Solo Whale" & "Kaboo (Play)" from Flash of the Spirit, performed by Jon Hassell & Farafina

(09:42) Elephant Listening Project

Payne spent 15 years conducting basic field work and charting the vocabulary of the savannah elephants of Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Namibia. In 1999, she founded The Elephant Listening Project. This program uses acoustic technologies to monitor elephant populations in dense forest areas of central Africa. Visual sightings of elephants are rare in these areas, which makes it difficult to count and track their populations. The project's recordings and analysis provide a clearer view of the intricate social lives of elephants in a wild natural habitat.

(09:42) Tracking Poachers

Elephants are being killed for many reasons: human encroachment and a limited space to roam, human fighting, game hunting, and the illegal trade of ivory tusks and bushmeat. National Public Radio reports that the ivory trade is on the rise, with more than 20 tons of ivory being smuggled into Asia and Africa in the last year. Elephants in Central Africa are at risk because of the increasing demand for bushmeat. Estimates indicate that the total value of bushmeat surpasses the total value of ivory per elephant.

Forest elephants in the Dzanga clearing. (Photo by Melissa Groo)
In the ClearingForest elephants meet in the Dzanga forest clearing in the Central African Republic.
(photo: Melissa Groo)

(13:18)Quote from Silent Thunder

Krista cites an editorial by Katy Payne that was published in the April 8, 2000 edition of the Washington Post. Here, she calls on members of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to make a moral decision that will protect elephants:

Against this background the delegates will soon once more decide whether to allow or curtail further trade in elephant ivory. Now I wish to add some impressions from my own studies of elephants. For 16 years I have studied vocal communication in elephants, with field sites in Kenya, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. The National Science Foundation, World Wildlife Fund, and the National Geographic Society supported the work. I spent hundreds of hours among elephants, and developed a profound interest in these extremely social, long-lived beings whose intelligence is informed by deep memories and passions. I was struck by the extent to which elephants' emotions are shared and, sometimes, vicarious. This is reflected in their patterns of calling during periods of searching, finding, celebrating, comforting, and helping one another. A wide net of compassion surrounds young elephants and their adult female relatives at all times.

Elephants' experiences are, in short, collective, and the collectiveness of their experience colors their responses to everything. The collectiveness escalates and multiplies the trauma associated with losses, and in long-lived animals with long memories, such losses are not soon overcome. Elephants that survive poaching and culling may never fully recover from the repeated loss of what they once identified with and held dear.

(16:27) Audio of Elephant Calls

The track titled "Response to Death" is taken from video footage of elephants from the Dzanga forest clearing in 2002.

(17:40) Dzanga Forest Clearing

The Dzanga forest clearing — which Payne calls "Grand Central Station for elephants" — in the Central African Republic is a central watering hole for forest elephants. More than 3,000 elephants have been observed here feeding, drinking, and engaging in social activities such as games and greetings.
This clearing is a saline area (locally called bai) and is rich in mineral salts and plants, and provides water for animals and birds throughout the year. Other saline areas are inundated in the rainy season and are mostly dry in the dry season.

(20:33-21:03) Music Element

"Suite No. 4 In E-Flat Major: Allemande" from The Cello Suites Inspired By Bach,performed by Yo-Yo Ma

(22:19) Audio of Elephants Meeting

The track titled "Pandemonium" is taken from Katy Payne's video footage of elephants from the Dzanga forest clearing in 2002. The following description of elephants meeting comes from Payne's book, Silent Thunder: In the Presence of Elephants. She recounts an encounter while visiting Amboseli Park in Kenya:

One morning, we came upon the matriarch, Mary. With only a few members of her family, she was peeling bark from a branch of a large acacia tree. Mary's young bull calf stood between her front and rear knees waving his ears and swinging his trunk idly.

I felt idle myself, enjoying sweet fragrances and the light, fresh morning air, still but for bird calls. But suddenly a volley of roars, bellows, and trumpets scared me out of my reverie. Mary whirled around. In an instant, all the adult elephants were running toward us, their mouths open and their ears flapping. I looked over my shoulder to see four others converging on us from behind. "Freda, Fay, Fay's daughter, and Wedge," whispered Joyce breathlessly—"the missing relatives."

Rushing together, Mary and Freda pressed their heads together, then backed up and charged at one another. Their long slender tusks clicked and clashed close to my window. They grasped each other's trunks and pulled first in and then out, reminding me of a square-dance move in which partners hold hands, stretch apart, and draw together. Then they planted their feet firmly and shoved against one another. Loosening their grasp on one another's trunks, they roared and twirled in opposite directions until, completing the circle, they bumped rumps. Then they stood side by side, swaying. Each urinated and defecated urgently. Secretions from their temporal glands were streaming down their cheeks. Trunks low, they swung around again, raised their heads, and looked into each other's wide eyes, then lowered their heads, raised their trunks, and began sniffing—mouths, ears, temporal glands, vulvas—as they rumbled, and rumbled again. Meanwhile, the excitement had spread to the other family members, who were milling around in the dust. Even after the largest females had settled into sniffing, the air rang with bellows, rumbles, screams, and trumpeting from the rest, and the drumming of urine forcefully hitting the dust. I noticed a stream of liquid spurting sideways from a young female's temporal gland, and rubbed my own temples, which itched as I watched. In a small clearing not far way, two pairs of young males started jousting. In the forest of moving adult legs a young calf called out a suckling demand; an abrupt grow signaled (I thought) a refusal; another young voice protested—the mothers were too excited to stand and nurse. Mary backed into her young calf and he squealed loudly—immediately a chorus of hums and rumbles responded. "Reassurance," said Joyce.

Had we parked, by chance, at a prearranged point of convergence, or had they chosen us as their meeting place? "Sometimes it does seem they choose us," said Joyce. Does such a greeting indicate a long and arduous separation? No, Joyce told me; elephants in the same family will greet like this even when they've only been apart for a few hours. Bond groups do the same thing.

(26:01) Quaker Spirituality

A religious group of Christian derivation, the term Quakers is the common name for The Society of Friends. Although the term appears earlier, it took root when the movement's leader, George Fox, instructed a magistrate in Derby, England to tremble at the name of the Lord. Fox believed that churches were abandoning their religious principles and that even reformation could not restore their faith.

Fox emphasized that the inner light takes precedence over external guidance. As such, followers relate directly to Christ without the intervention of clergy, liturgy, or traditional sacraments. Quakers believe meetings of two or more people can constitute a spiritual experience. Women are equal with men.

Quakers oppose war and will not take oaths. Quakers fought for the abolition of slavery, a woman's right to vote, prison reform, and caring for the mentally ill. There are approximately 250,000 Quakers in the world, about half of them residing in the United States.

In the On Being program, Science and Hope, the Quaker cosmologist George Ellis discusses how his faith and his research intersect, and why he became a Quaker. As Ellis says, he was attracted to the faith because they engaged in peace movements and other practical matters without having to believe in creeds and doctrine.

(27:46) Reference to Gurdjieff

George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (1872?–1949) was a 20th-century Greco-Armenian philosopher and mystic. After years of traveling throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa learning about many spiritual traditions, Gurdjieff established the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in 1919 at Tbilisi, Georgia and moved it to Fontainebleau, France three years later, which closed in 1933.

Gurdjieff taught that people should seek self-perfection and striving for knowledge of oneself as part of the sacred universe through "The Fourth Way." The Fourth Way, combining the first three paths — the mental, the emotional, and the physical — involves physical and verbal movements that aide the practitioner in discovering a certain reality and self-awareness.

(28:01–28:44) Music Element

"Three Whale Trip"from Songs of the Humpback Whale,produced by Dr. Roger Payne

(31:33) Reduced Population by 50 Percent

In the early 1990s, the Ivory Trade Review Group found that, from 1979 to 1989, African elephants had declined in population from 1.3 million to 625,000. They found that this was primarily due to poaching for ivory markets in Hong Kong and Japan.

(36:16-36:50) Audio of Elephant Calls

The track titled "Night" is taken from an audio recording of elephants from the Dzanga forest clearing in 2002.

(36:45) Culling of Elephants

Culling elephants is the process of selecting families of elephants by herding the adults into groups and killing them. Proponents argue that culling controls the population for the benefit of the environment and other elephants. Opponents argue that this form of wildlife management is cruel and has adverse impacts in the long term: orphaned calves aren't properly socialized and become hyperagressive as a result. Elephant culling continues to be controversial.

(37:39) Article in The New York Times Magazine

Payne refers to Charles Siebert's long-form article, "An Elephant Crackup?," which appeared in the October 8, 2006 issue of The New York Times Magazine.

An article in the journal Nature, "Elephant Breakdown," compares the social trauma of culling and poaching to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experienced by orphans in war-torn areas such as Kosovo or Rwanda. The young calves who witness culls display physiological symptoms such as depression and hyperagressive behavior. If this sounds very human to you, listen to similar descriptions by medical researcher Dr. Esther Sternberg in the SOF program, "Stress and the Balance Within."

(40:02) Audio of Elephant Calls

The track titled "Family Reunion" is taken from video footage of elephants from the Dzanga forest clearing in 2002.

(40:16-40:46) Music Element

"Nehamusasa: Instrumental Excerpt I"from Explorer Series: Zimbabwe – Shona Mbira Music, performed by Various Artists

(40:50) The Shona People of Zimbabwe

Shona are a people indigenous to Zimbabwe and part of Mozambique. The Shona language is spoken by between six and seven million people and is the primary language for nearly 80 percent of Zimbabweans. The Shona people's culture is widely known for its stone sculpture and music of the mbira. Shona attach great importance to their ancestral spirits, which often reveal themselves in waking and sleeping dreams.

In "Sacred Wilderness, an African Story," Isabel Mukonyora talks about a syncretistic religious movement of her Shona people, the Masowe Apostles, that embraces Christian tradition while addressing the drama of African life and history. The founder of this movement, Johane Masowe, emphasized an ancient Jewish and Christian pull to the wilderness. Through her stories, you can hear more about modern African spirituality, diaspora, and finding meaning, as Mukonyora says, "in the margins."

(45:18) Wife Killed by Elephants

In the beginning of the chapter, "Slaughter in a Sacred Place" of her book Silent Thunder, Katy Payne describes when she first heard that the elephants she studied in Zimbabwe were culled:

On Wednesday, October 27, 1991, I was half an hour late; when I arrived, the men were leaning over Russ's computer, struggling with the issues surrounding the question of Sengwa elephants—coordinated, that is, to a greater extent than one would find were the movements random within overlapping home ranges. But as I entered they stopped, and looked up, and walked quickly to the door to greet me. I thought, "This is odd."

I said, "What's up?"

"Bad news," said Bill. "I got hold of Rowan by phone to ask him to write a recommendation for me. And after we'd settled that, he said, 'I'm working on a difficult letter to Katy.' I said, 'Yeah, what's it about?' and he told me they've culled the elephants of Sengwa."


We moved to a corner of the room where there were chairs. The spaciousness of the big barn room usually made me feel comfortable; now I felt cold.

The Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management had performed a cull in early September in which one-third of the Sengwa population was destroyed. "They got two hundred forty-nine elephants, including four of ours and their families."


Jabula, Miss Piggy, Friday, and one more. Mufambo, I think he said, but maybe it was Munyama. The bush was thick, they had to make decisions fast, they were shooting from a helicopter, they'd get some members of a family and then see the collar, and after that it was too late not to finish off the family."…

We've known each other since my children were little, I said to myself. We've got to get through this; we're like family. But halfway across the room Bill added a hesitant afterthought. "This will make working in Sengwa a lot easier. If there's a cull of the same size next year, the Sengwa population will be small enough so we can collar every family."

No! shouted a furious voice in me as I groped my way out of the barn, for although it was the middle of the morning, no light seemed to be entering the windows over the great doors. I let myself out the small side door onto the grassy hillside.

In brilliant sunlight the grass was green and fresh, the day was high with autumn energy, but I threw myself down and sobbed out loud in grief and rage for wasted blood, aborted lives, and desecrated holiness—pounded and kicked the ground and cried out loud.

(48:34-49:52) Music Element

"Distant Whale" from Songs of the Humpback Whale, produced by Dr. Roger Payne

(49:06-50:06) Music Element

"Artemis"from The Waking Hour, performed by Dali's Car

(49:20-50:37) Music Element

"Freetown"from African Travels, performed by Future Loop Foundation

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is a visiting fellow with the Bioacoustics Research Program at Cornell University's Laboratory of Ornithology. She was part of the research team that produced the original recording Songs of the Humpback Whale. Her book is Silent Thunder: In the Presence of Elephants.