Elephant Acoustic Tracking

The acoustic tracking of elephants is a two-pronged method of keeping account of population numbers, particularly in the forests. First, it involves actually learning the sounds that the herd, family or clan within the specific area make and what they mean to that particular elephant society. Although bearing strong similarities to other herds, sounds are actually unique to each small family, much the same as humans display dialects of the same basic language. Second, once deciphered, this communication between and amongst the animals in the forest needs to be used to track and count the number of animals. Because elephants communicate using sounds that are both audible and non-audible to the human ear, this research is fairly complex.

New and ever-advancing techniques are being developed to listen to, record, understand and use sounds to monitor the structure of elephant populations as well as the health of the individuals within those groups. It also exposes the elephants use of their habitat and any potential needs that are not being met therein. This method is particularly called for in areas of dense vegetation, such as forests, where tracking the elephants on foot or aerially is virtually impossible. Of course, this method requires extended periods of research and a keen understanding of the animal in a certain area's unique repertoire.

For an animal such as the African Forest Elephant, this method of tracking is ideal. It allows researchers to glean new information on an elusive beast that is under enormous threat for its ivory, despite international poaching bans. Elephants use vocal and non-vocal communication when conversing with one another. The low-frequency rumbles they emit carry particularly well along the floor of the forest, travelling many kilometres before reaching the receptive ear of its counterparts. These low-frequency sounds are also very easily recorded on acoustic equipment.

About 2000 different vocalisations have been recorded in the acoustic tracking of elephants. Fortunately, there are about 8 main categories into which these can be confined. They include the trumpet, rumble, rev and croak.

The advantages to acoustic tracking are manifold and varied. Firstly, little to no contact between the elephants and the researchers is necessary. Once the equipment is placed, researchers are able to leave it or camp nearby.

In addition, sound carries over distances, so they do not need to be on the elephants tracks to be able to monitor their communication and movement. This also means that data can be assimilated and analysed later, unlike an on-foot census where the only data available is the "right here, right now" sort. So, information can be heard, reheard and discussed with other experienced researchers.

An added advantage is that nothing needs to be attached to the elephant, a process that is both dangerous to implement as well as sometimes hindering and frightening to the elephant. Finally, this method allows researchers access to the more elusive elephant species. This, in turn, results in researchers and conservationists being better equipped to formulate plans and solutions to aid in the protection of these magnificent animals.