Listening in on trunk calls

The Elephant's Secret Sense

December 21, 2007

Field research on large, exotic animals inspires glorious, romantic images to a greater degree than almost any other area of scientific investigation. Other people's enthusiasm for hearing "tales from the wild" is one of the many rewarding aspects of field biology, and in The Elephant's Secret Sense, Caitlin O'Connell gives a vivid insight into the beauty and wonder of conducting research in Africa.

The book is peppered with beautifully crafted descriptions of the landscapes O'Connell encountered, her colleagues and audiences in the villages where she worked and, of course, the animals. O'Connell genuinely captures the joy of watching wild elephants, giving a real sense of their strength, playfulness and complexity, but she also manages to convey the anguish and despair that is inevitable at times when working in an environment with so many conflicts.

The book chronicles O'Connell's 14-year journey in Namibia and the US, exploring her prediction that elephants can detect and use seismic waves travelling through the surface of the earth to communicate with each other. She has gathered evidence that shows that elephants can detect seismic waves, and use these in communication.

She describes the scientific process, from the first glimmers of a hypothesis, and the almost compulsory false starts and failures, to the growing confidence in how to test her ideas and attain the results.

This is skilfully interwoven with poignant tales of her life in the field, the social difficulties she faced, the daily logistics of living in cultural and even physical isolation, and how she determinedly worked to overcome each problem.

You cannot help but feel great admiration for a woman who can spend nights on end alone in a 10ft square cement bunker, buried 7ft underground, staring out of a horizontal slit in the side waiting for elephants to come into view as they approached a waterhole. This is exactly the sort of stuff adventure stories are made of.

Readers should be aware that this book is not a work of reference: O'Connell rarely names the forerunners whose groundbreaking research on elephant behaviour and communication provides the essential building blocks of her research, and at times it rather feels like she buys into the popular misconceptions surrounding elephants a little too much.

For example, in a description of how elephants respond to the carcasses or bones of dead family members, which is an undeniably intriguing behaviour, O'Connell insists on using the word "graves". She goes on to state: "It's no wonder why there is so much lore around the concept of an 'elephant graveyard'" - without mentioning the fact that these "graveyards" are fictitious; elephants do not naturally converge on one place to die.

Occasionally, there are potentially confusing uses of jargon, both relating to elephant social grouping patterns and to the principles of geophysics that dictated how O'Connell could conduct her research. However, this use of jargon at least reminds the reader that her work has provided real and potentially useful knowledge about elephants, while leaving us with a sense of the scale of the research task she has undertaken.

If you have ever wondered what it is like to conduct research on wild animals, or to live and work in Africa, or if you want to hear how someone else describes your own experiences of life in Africa, you will surely enjoy this book. O'Connell gives a sincere account of the breathtaking and sickening aspects, the joys and difficulties and, above all, the emotions involved in working with wild animals in Africa, and I for one am grateful she has shared her remarkable experiences in this book.

Lucy Bates is a research fellow at the School of Psychology at St Andrews University. Her research, in collaboration with the Amboseli Trust for Elephants, focuses on the social and cognitve skills of elephants.

The Elephant's Secret Sense: The Hidden Life of the Wild Herds of Africa

Author - Caitlin O'Connell
Publisher - Oneworld
Pages - 256
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 9781851685585

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