Episode 15: The woman who knows what elephants are saying

Get to know the sounds of elephants—and what they’re saying.

Elephant expert Joyce Poole poses for a photo. She has studied elephants for almost 5 decades and along with her husband has created the elephant ethogram, the first comprehensive library of thousands of elephant behaviors. There’s nothing like this for any other species on earth.
National Geographic for Disney/Wim Vorster

For almost 50 years, National Geographic Explorer Joyce Poole has been carefully watching the elephants of Kenya’s Amboseli National Park. Over that time she’s gotten to know them by name and has started decoding their sounds, smells, and body language to figure out just what the world’s largest land animal is talking about.

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(Sounds of a herd of elephants)

BRIAN GUTIERREZ (HOST): This is the sound of an African elephant. Actually it’s a whole group of them. And they’re celebrating the birth of one more.

The African elephant is the largest land animal in the world and they also have the largest babies. A newborn elephant weighs more than an average adult man and pregnancy lasts 22 months. All that is to say, a new baby is a cause for celebration.

(Elephant trumpet blast)

Here at National Geographic, Earth Day is a big deal. It’s as big as, well, an elephant.

And we’re charging into the topic tusks first. Magazine articles, maps, animated video, and a documentary series called Secrets of the Elephants. The clip you’re hearing now is from that series.

And the podcast team didn’t want to get left behind. That’s why we’re putting together three episodes for you, each one a different look at elephant behavior and their relationship to humans, all featuring interviews with female National Geographic Explorers.

I’m Brian Gutierrez and you’re listening to Overheard, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

This week: our guest is Joyce Poole, Elephant researcher and Nat Geo Explorer who’s been studying wild African elephants for 50 years.

JOYCE POOLE (BIOLOGIST): I feel we were so lucky you know because we were in a way the pioneers. In those early days there were only a couple of us and that meant that anything we discovered was a—was a discovery.

GUTIERREZ: We’ll hear more about those discoveries right after the break. Fuel your curiosity with a free one-month trial subscription to National Geographic Premium. You’ll have unlimited access on any device, anywhere, ad-free with our app that lets you download stories to read offline. Explore every page ever published with a century of digital archives at your fingertips. Check it all out for free at natgeo.com/exploremore.

We’re back with Joyce Poole, a National Geographic Explorer who’s been listening in on elephant conversations for almost 50 years.

GUTIERREZ: And where are you right now?

POOLE: I am sitting on a balcony overlooking the Great Rift Valley. This is our Kenyan home here.

GUTIERREZ: The Great Rift Valley stretches from Lebanon in the Middle East all the way to Mozambique in southern Africa. It’s a huge valley and—very, very slowly—it’s getting bigger.

Geologists say that in five-to-ten million years, the rift will split Africa in two and a new ocean will form between the two halves.

For now, the bottom of the rift below Joyce’s home is African savanna—not far from where Joyce has done most of her research.

POOLE: And then to the west, where the sun is beginning to set, is just a series of hills and escarpments and mountains and lakes up to the other Rift Valley wall that I can see in the distance.

GUTIERREZ: And you were just saying that an animal walked past?

POOLE: Yes. Well, I was sitting here waiting for you to come on, and then I could hear small rocks tumbling down. And so I stood up and then saw an eland. They come up at night and eat all the plants we have in pots outside the house.

GUTIERREZ: And these are antelope, right?

POOLE: Yes. It’s the largest antelope in Africa.

GUTIERREZ: But they still eat your plants just like deer here in Maryland.

POOLE: Yeah, right. They do.

GUTIERREZ: Do you remember the first time that you saw an elephant?

POOLE: I do. My family moved to Malawi when I was six years old, and I guess it was about a year later that we took a trip through Tanzania to Kenya. And we met this great big bull. And I can picture him very clearly because my father was quite a photographer and he took some nice pictures. But I remember asking him, “Daddy, what will happen if that elephant charges the car?” And my father said to me, “Well, Joyce, he will squish the car down to the size of a peapod.” And at that moment, this elephant charged the car and my father stalled the engine. And I hid under the seat. I always then had a healthy respect, but fascination with elephants after that.

GUTIERREZ: After having studied elephants for so long, do you think they feel emotions like love, fear, anger?

POOLE: Yeah, I do. Absolutely.

GUTIERREZ: Do you have any examples of them showing emotions?

POOLE: Well, early on in my study, I did come across an elephant who I was quite familiar with just beyond the camp when I when I was, you know, driving in in the afternoon from being out watching the males all morning. This female was standing there with a stillborn calf—infant. When I saw her, and with this dead infant, it really struck me then how sad she looked. I mean, her head was drooping down. The corners of her mouth were kind of pulled down. And she just looked, you know, really grief stricken. And she kept trying to lift her baby, trying to get it up and stand it up. And, you know, of course, that didn’t work. But I did go then and bring her water. And at first, she charged at me because she had been fending off hyenas and jackals and vultures. And so she charged me too. And then—so I pulled back a little bit. And then I put this basin on the ground and started pouring water into it. And she came right over to me. And even though I was standing there outside the car because I had one foot on the ground pouring this, she began to drink. And she had a tusk, you know, two inches from my head, totally calm. And then when she finished—I then sort of got back in the car—and she reached in and touched me on my chest over and over. And I really felt at that time that, you know, she was expressing gratitude. So I did come away that day feeling, wow, elephants are sort of experiencing both, both grief and gratitude.

GUTIERREZ: I wonder if you could contrast that story with what it’s like when an elephant gives a live birth.

POOLE: So I was out with the EB Family, that is Echo’s family, and I was with an elephant called Eudora and her daughter Elspeth, and this is her adult daughter, Elspeth. And Elspeth started reaching toward her mother’s genitals and giving what I call a coo rumble.

GUTIERREZ: OK, I think it would be helpful to know how Joyce and her fellow researchers named the elephants. All the different elephant families are named with two letters of the alphabet—AA, AB, AC, and so on. The elephants within each family all have names starting with the first letter.

So Echo, Eudora, and Elspeth are all part of the same family. Here is an example of a coo rumble that Joyce recorded.

(Coo rumble)

Usually these calls are only given to babies, so Joyce thought it was weird that the young Elpeth was cooing to her mother.

POOLE: So I was like, What on earth? Why is she? Why is she doing that? Her daughter knew that she was about to have a baby and was talking about it. So she was either talking to that infant in utero or was saying to her mother, you know, that she recognized she was going to have a baby. I stayed with them for the rest of the day. And then it was nightfall, you know, and we had to go back to camp. So we went out in the morning to look for Eudora and found her with her new infant, but in a terrible crisis because she was surrounded by hyenas. And a line of about 15 minibusses with tourists in them separated her and her infant from the family. And they were all just not thinking and not thinking to make space for the rest of the family to come through. So I barged through this line of minibuses. And, you know, elephants don’t know their names, but she knew my voice. And I just said to her, “Eudora, come. Come, Eudora, come.” And she came right over to the vehicle with her infant. And then I reversed the car and called to her to come. And she followed me. And we went through this line of vehicles, and the hyenas got left behind, and we saved this baby elephant. I mean, it was just an extraordinary moment.

GUTIERREZ: How are you feeling at the end of it? Were you feeling frustrated that there are so many people through this area?

POOLE: Well, of course, I was just feeling, you know, angry, not with the tourists, because I don’t think the tourists didn’t really understand. But the drivers for, well, just not allowing space for the rest of the family to try to come to her aid. Anyway, as scientists, we’re not supposed to interfere, but it’s very difficult in a situation like that.

GUTIERREZ: You know, I’ve heard a lot of biologists say sometimes that it’s a mistake to attribute human terms like love, or fear, or gratitude to animals. Where do you fall in that line? Is it a mistake to anthropomorphize them, or do we just not have better words? What do you think?

POOLE: Well, perhaps it’s a mistake to anthropomorphize animals that don’t have those capabilities. But if you know that the animal you study is capable of empathy—which we know—and some of these other emotions then I have no problem whatsoever. Now, I’m not saying that the love they feel is exactly the same as the love we feel. But I’m absolutely convinced they feel you know, they feel elephantine grief and elephantine love and joy.

GUTIERREZ: Right, right. You have this whole ethogram, which is a sort of dictionary of elephant words and phrases.

POOLE: Yeah. You know What does it mean when an elephant swings its foot or folds its ears or, you know, raises its head. Over time, one begins to have a pretty clear idea of what it all means in different contexts. You know, like us, depending on the context, something that is said or a certain posture can have a different meaning.

GUTIERREZ: Could you teach me a few elephant words? Maybe that’s a weird question, but I don’t know.

POOLE: As in kind of vocalizations? You mean their calls?


POOLE: OK. Well. Hmm. How can I do? I mean the rumbles. There are many, many different kinds of rumbles. But the rumbles are the very low frequency calls and adult elephants, the rumbles all contain frequencies below the level of human hearing. Some of them are completely inaudible to us. Most of those calls are distant elephants calling. So the elephants would hear those elephants calling, but I wouldn’t.

GUTIERREZ: This is a contact rumble.

(contact rumble)

POOLE: You know, calves have calls that mean I want to suckle. And if mum doesn’t stop and put her leg forward, then those calls escalate and get louder, more insistent, more complaining. And, you know, we can hear in one another’s voices whether we’re annoyed or complaining. And same with elephants. So I can hear when an elephant is complaining about something and I call it a grumble rumble, it tends to be woo-woo-woo-woo. So it has a kind of a wavy sound to it. If they’re very distressed, like if they’re being comforted after something really bad has happened, then it’s—I call it a baroo rumble—whoa. That’s usually calves but you know adults as well can can make those calls. And then there are trumpets. Many different trumpets. So one would think that trumpets are just trumpets, you know, but actually they have very different sounds to them. So a trumpet blast when an elephant is trying to chase a predator, for instance. It’s much longer and, you know, really like a blast. Whereas a play trumpet is brrup, brrup you know, kind of much—and they’re usually running when they’re playing. And so it can be pulsated. They make these very funny nasal play trumpets that are well, it’s like a very large man blowing his nose. I love the nasal trumpet.

GUTIERREZ: After the break we’ll hear more from Joyce about her research on elephant behavior, including what it takes to get a urine sample from an irritable bull elephant.

GUTIERREZ: One of the things I thought was kind of interesting was that, like what it takes in order to collect samples of elephant pee, Could you kind of tell me what that process is like and why you wanted their pee in the first place?

POOLE: Oh, God. OK. Well, you know, I was trying to measure the difference in testosterone between the males in musth, these very aggressive males. And when they were not in musth.

GUTIERREZ: “Musth” comes from an Urdu word which means intoxicated. About once a year, male elephants enter part of their reproductive cycle where their body goes through some big changes. Pheromones drip from their temples down the sides of their face. They pee constantly to help spread their scent. They become aggressive and start looking for a mate. When Joyce first started her research, experts thought that only Asian elephants—a different species from African savanna elephants—experienced musth. To prove them wrong, she needed some really compelling evidence. Part of that was testing for testosterone levels from their urine.

POOLE: But the thing about musth males is they don’t really pee properly. They dribble urine, so they leave a trail of urine wherever they go. And the only way to get kind of enough urine so that was a little puddle that I could suction up with a syringe—because that’s what I did—was if the elephant was really annoyed with me. So if I, for instance, drove a little bit too close to the musth male, which was quite dangerous. And then what would happen is he would spurt out a lot of pee. It’s part of, it’s part of his display. So then there would be a little tiny puddle on the ground. And then I had to wait until he calmed down and kind of move the car in between the two of us so that I could get out of the car and get a little bit of urine in a syringe before it soaked into the soil.

GUTIERREZ: That sounds terrifying.

POOLE: Well, yeah. I mean, you know, I did some crazy things, actually.

GUTIERREZ: Do you think you can recognize individual elephants on sight?

POOLE: Oh, yeah. So of course, when you first start looking at elephants, they’re all just, you know, big and gray. Most elephants would have a hole in their ear or notches and tears. And those are very distinctive. Then they have their tusks. The tusks come in all shapes and sizes. Those become just like looking at a person. You just say, “OK, that’s so-and-so.”

GUTIERREZ: One thing that I thought was ingenious as well was the punch card system you had. Could you tell me about that?

POOLE: Yeah, but that of course, that is so outdated. Anyway, in those days, computers had these, you know, cards that would be read, and that’s how the information was stored. But we had all these cards and we used them. Each hole represented a certain characteristic of the elephant’s ear, or tusk, or body size, or age, or sex. And then you clipped out the hole if the elephant had that particular characteristic. And then we had this knitting needle-like thing that we would put through all the cards—we’d stack them all up and align them and then stick this thing though and shake. And then the elephant that had that particular characteristic would fall down. And then you’d choose another characteristic the elephant had. So rather than looking through 400 elephants, you could look through 20 elephants.

GUTIERREZ: So the punch cards weren’t to be used in the computer. They were just like things that you could easily punch holes in and keep in these decks and then shake out.

POOLE: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So we just used them for that purpose.

GUTIERREZ: And you had this whole shorthand system, right? There’s like a code. Because you didn’t have a computer, you had to write all this stuff down in real time.

POOLE: Oh yes. Yeah exactly. Sometimes elephants are very slow. But then there are other times when they’re in musth and trying to guard a female where things happen so fast. It’s kind of non-stop activity. And then it takes too long to write everything down. So yeah I had codes. So T3 meant threaten by walking towards and V3 meant avoid by walking away. And then I would put the number of the male so 13T380V3.

GUTIERREZ: If you’re following along at home that means elephant 13 threatened elephant 80 by walking towards it, then elephant 80 responded by walking away. By recording all this information over many years Joyce and her colleagues have been able to decode the patterns of elephant communication and behavior.

In addition to studying elephants, Joyce is actively involved in protecting them. All species of elephants are endangered and it will take a lot of hard work to ensure that they survive into the future.

POOLE: Yeah, I mean, in the time that I studied elephants, there have been waves of poaching, illegal killing of elephants. And in 1975, when I started, it was—it was actually right in the middle of really terrible slaughter of elephants in Kenya in the late sixties to the mid eighties. I guess Kenya lost 85 percent of her elephants. And in Amboseli we were so fortunate because for some reason the poaching really didn’t touch us there. Perhaps because people around knew that we knew every single elephant by name. I don’t know if that gave some sort—or people thought we would notice if an elephant went missing.

GUTIERREZ: So before this time, people could. It was illegal to poach elephants, but you could sell ivory pretty freely.

POOLE: Of course, elephants die natural deaths, right? So what do you do with this wonderful substance? It is beautiful. Ivory’s beautiful. Ivory carvings are beautiful. And so a lot of people thought—and still think—that, well, you know, what are you going to do with all this ivory that’s lying around? Why can’t we sell it? They’re willing, you know, willing seller, willing buyer. The problem is that there was so there’s so many people you know, there’s so many people who want to buy ivory, there are not so many elephants. And so when you open the door to say, “OK, it’s OK for you to buy ivory,” then everybody wants to buy it. So the first thing was really this public awareness campaign saying, “It’s not all right to buy this ivory. Look what it’s doing.”

GUTIERREZ: In 1990 an international ban on ivory sales went into effect, but it will be hard to stop poaching completely as long as there is demand for the substance.

POOLE: We really need to do some deep reflection. You know, is this whole planet for human beings. And if it’s just for human beings, how is that going to be if we kill off everything? And I always say, if we can’t make space for elephants, are we going to think about the frogs and the—these birds here? At least with elephants, everyone knows what an elephant is. They’re so charismatic. They’re so big. If we could save space for elephants, then we save, you know, a myriad of other species along with those ecosystems. But I think, you know, we need to really start looking at ourselves and what do we want for the future? for our children, and our grandchildren, and this beautiful world that we have.

GUTIERREZ: This was the first of our three-part series on elephants. Next week we’ll hear more about the ivory trade with wildlife warrior Paula Kahumbu and meet some of the elephants in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park.

If you like what you hear and you want to support more content like this, please rate and review us in your podcast app and consider a National Geographic subscription. That’s the best way to support Overheard. Go to natgeo.com/exploremore to subscribe.

We’ve created a hub on our website where you can see all of our coverage on elephants this month. Including Secrets of the Elephants, a four-part National Geographic series streaming on Disney+.

We’ve included a link to the hub in our show notes. You’ll also find a link to Joyce Poole’s website, Elephant Voices, where you can learn more about her research and conservation efforts. All this and more can be found in our show notes. They’re right there in your podcast app.

This week’s Overheard episode is produced by me, Brian Gutierrez.

Our other senior producer is Jacob Pinter.

Our senior editor is Eli Chen.

Our manager of audio is Carla Wills.

Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan, who edited this episode.

Our photo editor is Julie Hau.

Ted Woods sound-designed this episode and Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music

The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funds the work of National Geographic Explorer Joyce Poole.

Special thanks to Joyce for providing elephant calls for this episode.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.

Michael Tribble is the vice president of integrated storytelling.

Nathan Lump is National Geographic’s editor in chief.

Thanks for listening, and see you next time.


Want More?

Check out even more coverage on elephants this month, including Secrets of the Elephants, a four-part National Geographic series streaming April 22 on Disney+. Visit NatGeo.com/elephants to learn more.

Also explore:

Joyce Poole has a lot more to say about elephants. To learn more about her work and to hear more of the sounds she collected in the field, take a look at her website, Elephant Voices

If you like what you hear and want to support more content like this, please consider a National Geographic subscription. Go to natgeo.com/exploremore to subscribe today.