ALL CHARGED UP I lived in Connecticut, in the United States, for the first six years of my life and then my family moved to Africa - we lived in Malawi and then Kenya. My first memory of an elephant was in the Amboseli National Park, in Kenya. It was a huge bull elephant. We were in a Land Rover and I said, "Daddy, what would happen if that elephant charged us?" He said, "He'd squish the car to the size of a peapod." And this elephant charged, dust flying everywhere. I dived under the bench seat and my father stalled the car. I'm sure it was a mock charge, but I didn't know that. It didn't hit us. It was a big rush of adrenalin and it's happened many times since. In 1966, when I was 11 years old, we were living in Kenya and I got the chance to go to one of (primatologist) Jane Goodall's earliest lectures. It was introduced by (archaeologist/naturalist) Louis Leakey and Jane talked about her research on chimpanzees. I said to my mother, "That's what I'm going to do when I grow up."
A MUSTH SEE When I was 19 and had finished my first year at university, studying biology, my father accepted a job running the African Wildlife Foundation in Nairobi. I asked him if I could take a year off and come back, and that was when I got to meet (conservationist) Cynthia Moss and join her study of the Amboseli elephants. Cynthia gave me the job of getting to know the males, so I started by going out and photographing them. I would take photographs of their tusks and ears - each ear is like a human fingerprint. I would sit in a tent at night and go through the pictures and give them numbers, identify them. By getting to know them and naming them, I noticed changes in their behaviour. At different times of the year the males would change. Their temporal glands, located behind the eyes, would swell up and they would dribble urine. In the beginning, we thought it was some kind of a venereal disease, but it turned out to be musth - a sexually aggressive period, or a rutting period. The scientists who had come before me - all middle-aged men - had said that musth didn't exist in African elephants. And there I was, 21 years old, and I said, "Yes it does" - it was quite a big discovery. I did my PhD at Cambridge on musth and it propelled me on.
HEARING THINGS When I was studying musth males and before I knew how to read their body language, I ended up in quite a few bad situations. Very early on, in 1978, I borrowed the family Land Cruiser and was following a dangerous musth male, taking photographs. Suddenly he came for the car and I had to get out of there. I threw the car into first gear but I was in a panic and it turned out to be reverse. It was an open plain so I could go backwards but in reverse couldn't go fast enough. He was going to catch the car, so I had to stop to get it into first gear. Stopping surprised him and I had a split second to get away. He got very close, within metres, and my heart was pounding.
When the males are in musth they make a very low frequency sound, like the sound of water going through a deep tunnel. I thought, "This doesn't make sense; it's a threat but you can barely hear it," and I started thinking that maybe it's below the level of human hearing. Someone put me in touch with Katy Payne, who had studied whales and knew about infrasound, so we joined forces and found indeed that elephants are producing sound below the level of human hearing. Many of these sounds can travel many kilometres. That was in 1986 and it was another very exciting discovery.
NAME AND SHAME My daughter was born in 1993 in Africa. Her name is Selengei - it's a Maasai name, the name of a river north of Amboseli where the elephants used to go. During the poaching they stopped going there, so I named her in the hope that they would return to Selengei - and they did. Now with the poaching going on, they may stop again.
How the animals are killed for their ivory depends on the place and the kind of weapons available. In many parts of Africa they are killed by militia using AK-47s and G3s. Some poachers use spears, poisoned pumpkins or poisoned arrows. There are stories about some animals having their tusks chopped off when they are badly wounded but still alive. The thing about elephants is that they are very intelligent and the poaching is destroying their societies. China has gone from having 3 per cent of the illegal market in ivory back in 2003 to 40 per cent now. The demand for ivory has risen with economic growth.
VOICE IN THE WILDERNESS I met my husband, Petter Granli, in 1998. He's Norwegian and was the managing director of an eco-tourism company. He said to me, "Look, you've got all this fantastic information about elephants but you need to share that, get it out to people." He loves animals as well so he just dropped what he was doing and we started Elephant Voices, an organisation we run to inspire wonder in the intelligence, behaviour and communication of elephants. Most of my work has been on behaviour; I could spend my whole life watching elephants, but I also want now to spend time transferring that information in a practical way to Kenyans. We have set up a citizen science project in the Maasai Mara and built an app so local people can be part of monitoring their wildlife. I want them to make a connection with these animals individually.
Elephants are remarkable animals. I can't imagine a world without them and it's horrifying for me that we risk losing them because of people's desire for ivory. There's a very real chance they will become essentially extinct - all except for a few places. There are populations going extinct as we speak.
Joyce Poole was in Hong Kong as part of a push to improve elephant welfare in mainland zoos. For more information, go to www.elephantvoices.org Also see cover story Out on a limb,on page 14.