Anantara Blogs Elephant Tails

Do you think she's trying to tell you something? (on interspecies communication, bullying dolphins & K-Pop elephants)

By John Roberts
13 October 2010 03:50:00

It has been a week (or two) of communication issues here in camp, a week where I've had to dig deep & communicate our ideas to a broad range of people, a week where I've had to use precise language to qualify what we do & why we do it to some very interesting folks, some don't feel we should be doing it at all & some who feel we should be moving in other directions. (...& believe it or not, though I enjoy words when writing, I have a phobia of the spoken word where there is no time to edit, delete, polish & re-furbish but the answer must be exact first time).

It has been a week when we started to flesh bones on a language project, oft mentioned but never tried, that should allow us to tell a story that has been heard for centuries around campfires but has never reached the ear of a wider audience, stories told in a language last used legally in the '30's and fast disappearing & in another language slowly being buried by the inevitable onslaught of stronger, more populous language groups in neighbouring places and sliding in through the satellite dishes & mobile phones.

It has been a week when, as never before, we have tested our communication skills with the mahouts who work with us, how do we explain our ideas and why we ask them to do things in certain ways that aren't the ways of their forefathers.

In short it has been a tough week where my powers of communication (as well as physical endurance & impressive kilometre covering ability) have been tested to the limit.

It has been a week where I may hazard it would have been a lot easier for me if the elephants could just talk for themselves, then we'd know how to do what it is we're supposed to be doing - Helping Elephants.

But you don't want to hear about our problems, that's why they give me my monthly bag of rice and access to all the filtered water I can drink: to make these problems cease to be problems before anyone knows they are problems at all.

All of this (& a couple of stories in the press) gave me the idea to explore the idea of communication.

The first was a lovely headline from the BBC 'Dolphin Species Seek a Common Language', which outlined some research going on in the balmy waters off Puerto Rico (job swap anyone?) which seemed to suggest that when two groups of dolphins from a different species came together they, bit like me down in the Mekong restaurants with my creaking Karaoke thai ('open yet?', 'fish what?' 'tasty no?' 'Oh kay I eat'), tried to find common ground to communicate, a sort of Karaoke dolphin language.

Then you read on and there's this poor scientist, Dr Laura May-Collado, trying desperately (& this is precisely why Dr Josh our new World Head of Research & Education won't let me tell you about his 'Think Elephants' project) to explain that this isn't what she said at all.

What she said was that when the two species come together the bigger one bullies the smaller one (which she always knew) but in deciding to try & record the calls during the interaction she discovered that one or both of the species modulated their calls to be different which, coincidentally or not, was more like that of the other & she 'wouldn't be surprised' if they were 'mimicking & possibly even communicating'.  When a scientist wouldn't be surprised if something is possibly happening it means there's no actual evidence to prove it is happening but they'd love to design a study to find out, one which would have to rule out all the other, perhaps more probable, alternatives (smaller dolphins talk in deep voices when they're stressed by anything, larger dolphins taunt in high pitched voices when they're bullying anything, the smaller dolphin is just trying to sound bigger etc. etc. none of which would be inter-species language & debate to find a common path & equally divide the fish as was suggested in the headline).  

The whole story was interesting to me though as, of course, there are two meta species of elephants & elephants of the same species who live in a variety scientifically distinct places & social groups; elephants, like dolphins, are known to have complex intra- and inter-group communication (in the case of African elephants heavily studied) and, from conversations with people who've spent their lives listening to elephants, the 'language' of Asian elephants isn't exactly the same as the 'language' African elephants - perhaps another study would be between different groups of Asian (or more probably African as translocation takes place there) with the intra-group vocal communications of each group studied before they are placed in the same area (again, bother, probably Africa as they have the space) & then to monitor the inter-group communications.  Did they have different 'languages' before & do they modify?

Better still, but probably in a zoo environment between an African & Asian elephant.  Do they find a common language?

The downside of concentrating on elephants would be that you didn't get to go to Puerto Rico, the upside would be you wouldn't have to worry about getting your recording equipment wet &, erm..., you might let me listen in!?

The second story is one that has been around for awhile, but my usual sensitivities to the elephant telegraph missed it, in a Zoo in South Korea the keepers have been shocked to find an elephant that can mimmic human voices (or, as the original headline said, talk).

If anyone speaks Korean perhaps they can send me a transcript of the video below? (if you're an elephant who speaks Korean please get someone else to type it for you).

Before we go on, the video title says mimmic, which is not the same as talking, talking (in my book & according to my dictionary) would involve the expression of feelings or desires, but why not...?

...we know that elephants communicate amongst themselves with a complex language, we know that they can learn to communicate basic desires with us (well, to the extent that when they want food that is out of their reach but within ours they'll throw things at us or squeak or, in Lawan's case lift us out of the hammock & propel us towards the food (oh for the old days when I had time to sit in a hammock!). Dr Josh & Dr Laura would, of course, tell me that I can't say these things without scientifically ruling out all other motives for this behaviour and observing to prove that it wasn't done when we're not around etc.  They would, of course, be right so forget you read this bit & let's just say I wouldn't be surprised if they were possibly communicating their desire for food with this behaviour) and, finally, we know that they can learn around seventy verbal commands in a human language & act upon them when given purely verbal cues (when in the mood).

So, given all of this, may it just be that they lack the apparatus to tell us what they think (as the ancient Arabs had it, their tongues are in backwards) that is holding them back and that, having discovered a way to mimic human words (seemingly something between a trumpet & a raspberry) they may be intelligent enough to express their feelings to us?

Somehow, given the fact the Korean elephant seems to have learned only the words he would hear his keeper repeat a several times a day, it feels (if you'll pardon the reference) parrot fashion performing for a treat rather than communication.  

That said, I see from the helpful youtube comments that one of the words he says is 'no' so if they can teach him 'yes' & then we may have the basis for a basic experiment.  Is this black? is this red? do you want this food? (was the last one a silly question?).

Unfortunately (for me), though, I get the feeling that it will be a long time before our boys & girls are able give me their opinion about my ideas for their future & plans to help that of their species or Cherry will be able to explain to Tawan (in Thai or English) that this injection is for his own good.

A long time before they're able to join the debate that directly effects their lives, those of their wild cousins &, crucially, that of their next generation.

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