Deep in the forests of the south Indian Western Ghats, adivasis say there is a time to be silent and a time to speak, when they sense that an elephant stands on a dark and winding jungle path. They talk or sing to warn the beast, keep quiet when it is at close quarters and stay out of harm’s way. Deep listening is the key. Elephants, with their sophisticated communication, give enough cues, animal behaviour experts and ecologists note.

“He whispered in the loudest roar, through his trunk he wove a tale,” Jamaican reggae artiste Burning Spear sang. An elephant communicates vocally with its trumpet. It chirps, screams, rumbles, roars and barks. It can swivel and stretch out its enormous trunk to point, pluck, probe, kiss or suck. It can subtly swish its tail while playing or straighten it stiff when upset. It flaps its ears like fans.

Decoding elephant communication

“An elephant would stomp, pick mud and throw it over its body to show anger or irritation,” said veteran mahout JK Dobbi at the Dubare Elephant Camp at Kodagu in Karnataka. Sometimes, mud throwing is just to cool off on a hot day. Communication is contextual.

Dobbi’s honey-harvesting Jenu Kuruba adivasi group, living in the elephant habitat spread across Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka state borders, know these contexts very well. Jenu Kurubas are closely related to the Kattunayakars, the adivasi group of Bomman and Bellie featured in the documentary Elephant Whisperers. Some ethnographers say they belong to the same tribe.

Dobbi’s father was a mahout at Dubare. “As kids, we used to sit on the elephants,” he said. “Looking after the elephants was family business. Our own work, not the Forest Department’s. Our father told us that just like us, the elephants were also their children.”

A mahout bathes an elephant in the Cauvery river in Kodagu. Elephant communication is contextual. Managing a big beast involves keen listening and clear communication, says veteran mahout JK Dobbi at the Dubare Elephant Camp. Credit: Max Martin/Mongabay.

Mahouts bathe the elephants in the Cauvery river early in the morning. In the evenings, they are taken to an open-air enclosure, where they salute and “bless” tourists with their trunks. Dobbi feeds the elephants honey, jaggery and coconut to “keep them happy”. They learn new skills – lifting huge logs or carrying idols during the annual Dussehra procession in Mysore.

Managing a big beast involves keen listening and clear communication, says Dobbi. “You should be gentle. Beating does not work, you need to keep the animal calm, never angry. You should not talk harshly. It can recognise your tone. Polish maadi (gently brush it with your hand). Feed it, and give it water every day and it sees that you care and begins to trust you.”

To the point that you can safely take a tamed elephant to capture more wild elephants. Meanwhile, in the grasslands on the borders of the camps, elephants graze, and some move towards the forest beyond. A trainer with a cane is struggling to control an unruly calf. Elephant taming is never easy.

Diverse forms communications

Miles away in the conflict hotspots of West Bengal forests, Aritra Kshetri, director of Coexistence Consortium, espouses Dobbi’s notion of shared landscapes. When people are “interacting” more with animals, Kshetri’s group is looking at “reconnecting people with nature”. “People who have lived with elephants can read them like family and friends,” Kshetri said.

Elephants use tactile and vocal communication within herds and with the outside world. “For instance, if the animal is looking at you fixatedly, that means it is nervous and thinks that you pose a threat. Then if turns it back to you, that means it thinks that you don’t pose a threat. Sometimes it slaps the trunk against the ground with a thud, showing nervousness. It can even mock charge you, that is, take a few steps towards you as if to charge. When its tail stiffens, straightens, or stands up it shows stress.”

At Dubare Elephant Camp in Kodagu, Karnataka, tourists throng to see elephants in the evening. Credit: Max Martin/Mongabay.

Elephants often stand still to use their keen senses of smell and hearing. Sometimes the whole herd freezes together. They can sense the nuances of the sound and distinguish between species as well as gender, age and ethnicity of people. They make noises when stressed out, alert or angry.

“A bark means sudden alert, and a roar is a warning. It can be like a lion’s roar. Then much of their rumbling is infrasonic. You cannot hear it (as it is of very low frequency), but feel the vibration,” Kshetri said.

The rumbles contain both sound and ground vibrations that can travel some six kilometres. Elephants can sense ground vibrations on the soft skin on the pads of their feet, the tip of their trunk, or the inner ear, reaching through the bone structure, scientists say. Deep growling and rumbling like an amplified purr make up much of the diverse elephant “talk”.

Understanding elephant cues

Scientists have identified at least ten elephant call types with high-frequency trumpets during emotional arousal related to aggression or mating, and low-frequency growls and rumbles in more relaxed social contexts. “At one end of the spectrum elephants communicate by rubbing their bodies against one another, at the other end they may respond by moving toward the sounds of other elephants calling, perhaps 10 kilometres away,” notes the research group Elephant Voices.

“They convey information about their physiological (eg, sexual/hormonal, body condition, identity) and emotional state (eg, whether they are fearful, playful, joyful, angry, excited) as well as communicating… their intentions or desires.” The group’s Elephant Ethogram, compiles text, still, video and audio clips of African savanna (bush) elephants (Loxodonta africana), contributing to batter management practices. [The other two species are African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) and Asian elephants (Elephas maximus).]

Joyce Poole, co-founder and director of Elephant Voices has worked in Kenya and Mozambique for decades, influencing many younger researchers. Seema Lokhandwala of the Indian Institute of Technology-Guwahati researching on elephants’ social behaviour is one.

Her doctoral work shows elephants trumpet differently in their interactions with mahouts and with other elephants. “(M)ahout interactions incited fear, which was reflected in elephant vocalisations,” her recent paper co-authored with Priyankoo Sarmah and Rohit Sinha noted.

A mahout rides an elephant at Dubare camp. Credit: Max Martin/Mongabay.

Another famous expert, Raman Sukumar, honorary professor at Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, is just back from an exciting trip to the Congo basin. As he narrated, in Central African Republic, Dzanga Bai, a swampy clearance with puddles and streams, attracts huge herds of African forest elephants for its mineral-rich water and mud. When his team encountered some elephants, two local indigenous people just uttered a few words, promptly sending the animals to a safe distance.

“Frequent interactions and exposure help local people understand elephant communication,” Sukumar explained. “Elephants are usually silent. People can pick up sounds like breaking of twigs or flapping of ears. The elephants give out some smell. A bull in musth (with high testosterone levels) gives out a pungent odour. Then you get a throb in the air when they rumble infrasonically. You can even hear the upper frequencies. People pick up these cues.” Then they move away; or try to move the elephant away.

People living near elephant habitats use recordings of bee songs, leopard calls and tiger roars to scare elephants away. Less sophisticated forms of acoustics include firecrackers and drums. People also use pungent substances that ward off elephants as they have a keen sense of smell. Over a decade ago, Sukumar and colleagues successfully tested fences made of ropes dipped in motor oil laced with tobacco and chillies.

“Some people keep a beehive in their farm. Then elephants can go to the next farm. Then that farm will need another hive. These have to be extended all along,” Sukumar said. People have tested the voice of the Masai indigenous people of Africa, who occasionally spear elephants, and the distress call of calves.

Fences made of cotton or jute cord dipped in used engine oil laced with chilli powder and tobacco warded off elephants from villages near Bannerghatta Biological Park near the city, in a 2010 intervention. Credit: Max Martin/Mongabay.

“Formal research into these solutions is still in rudimentary stages. The challenge involves the cost, scalability, and technology,” Sukumar added. Producing and recording infrasound, for instance, need high-end equipment. Then wind, rain, cars, and aircraft noise can make elephant noise detection difficult. While elephants quickly learn how to bypass or destroy barriers, scientists continue looking at smart ways to share space with them.

This article was first published on Mongabay.