The Communication Techniques of Elephants

Elephants understand nature on a level we can’t duplicate, but they also share an abundance of traits with humans including the structure of their brains, their ability to mimic speech, and the broad range of emotions they experience.


| January 2017



Mom and baby elephant

Elephants make sounds like rumbling, screaming, crying, barking, grunting, and roaring from their larynx, and they create more tonal noises from their trunks.

Photo by Fotolia/aiisha

Animals communicate, but is it a true “language?” Their sounds have a creative aspect, but can it be called music? Animal Music (Strange Attractor Press, 2015) by Tobias Fischer and Lara Cory presents an overview of this debate about complex animal sentience, which began with the accidental discovery of whale song in 1967. In their travels and studies, these authors have spoken to scientists, researchers, and musicians in the field. They try to decode the latest neuroscientific findings about animals’ communication with each other and the world around them, what we can understand of this language, and whether this understanding might give us the tools to open a dialogue with nature like never before.

For more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

Rumble in the Jungle

Elephants prefer deep listening.

In March 2012, two herds of wild elephants gathered at the home of South African animal conservationist Lawrence Anthony. They had not been to visit the sanctuary keeper’s house for over a year, but on the 2nd of March they made a 12-hour pilgrimage back to Anthony’s home. It was the day that Anthony died of a heart attack.

It’s well known that elephants mourn the death of their loved ones with a human-like solemnity. The herd will gather at the carcass and stroke it with their trunks and then proceed to collect branches to cover, and essentially bury the body. Up to two days is spent mourning in their funereal gathering and what’s more fascinating is that elephants don’t reserve this special ceremony for their own kind. Elephants have exhibited this behaviour towards other creatures also. There are many reports of elephants who display altruistic behaviours towards not only humans but other animals, assisting the wounded and protecting the vulnerable.

This amazing event surrounding Anthony’s death opens up a whole host of questions about elephants and how they connect and communicate in this world. When Anthony opened Thula Thula, his conservation park, he had a reputation for being good with animals. In 1999 a troublesome group of elephants, who habitually broke out of their enclosures, was handed to him by local rangers. They believed Anthony could ‘talk’ with elephants, and true to his reputation, Anthony did indeed manage to keep the wild herd contained and safe within the sanctuary.