'60 Minutes' Features CU Elephant Project
In February, researchers from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Elephant Listening Project (ELP) caught a charter plane from Cameroon to the Central African Republic with "60 Minutes" anchor Bob Simon and a video crew.
There, in the Dzanga-Sangha Deep Forest Reserve, the crew filmed elephants and interviewed researchers -- including Peter Wrege, director of the ELP.
The program has scheduled a feature on the elephant project for Sunday, Jan. 3. The segment will cover that trip and a subsequent visit by Simon and his crew to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology this past June where he interviewed the founder of the project, Katy Payne, and ELP researchers Mya Thompson, Ph.D. '09, Elizabeth Rowland and Melissa Groo.
"At Dzanga, the focus was on the elephants and their communication," said Wrege. "We did lots of talking about what we know about a dictionary of elephant vocalizations and what we hope to learn."
Simon also interviewed Andrea Turkalo, a Wildlife Conservation Society researcher, a world expert on African elephants and a founding member of ELP. Turkalo, who continues to work with ELP researchers to understand the habits and biology of forest elephants, discussed details on individual elephants, her life in the reserve and efforts to keep poachers away.
At the lab, Simon reinterviewed Wrege; he also talked with Payne about how ELP got started and her perspective on the future of elephant conservation and with Thompson on how the lab uses field recordings to study forest elephant ecology and behavior.
"The software provides a way to see these sounds on a screen," said Rowland. "Each individual call or gunshot will be different, but within a category they share recognizable characteristics."
Project scientists have placed recorders at six forest clearings with elephant watering holes in Gabon, in the Dzanga Reserve and elsewhere. They are refining their technique to count elephants and determine individuals' ages within herds by comparing audio calls with visual sightings of elephants at specific locations.
Meanwhile, they have discovered much more nocturnal elephant activity than previously thought, said Rowland. "People suspected that elephants were active at night, but this is the first quantification of it," she said. They also have picked up gunshots and vehicle sounds in restricted areas in or adjacent to several of Gabon's National Parks, which confirm poaching activity. Wrege is now in Gabon to investigate the use of the recorders to monitor vehicles and gunshots and track poachers.
"People are excited about this ability to monitor gunshots," said Rowland.
Eventually, ELP would like to make their recording techniques available to rangers and researchers in Africa for other wildlife and conservation projects.