What I’m Reading: The Elephant’s Secret Sense

The Elephant’s Secret Sense, by Caitlin O’Connell, is a non-fiction book about the author as she visits Namibia several times over the course of 15 years to study elephants. On some trips she’s working with the Namibian government to find ways to reduce elephant raids on farms in a region called the Caprivi Strip; other trips are pure research funded by American and European non-profits.

On her earliest trip, just out of graduate school and with her new, South African-born husband, her close observations of elephants leads to a theory that elephants can communicate through the ground, sending out messages with very low-frequency rumbles and picking them up miles away through special soft pads in their feet and specialized ear organs. Over her subsequent visits she devises ways to confirm the various parts of her theory: using seismic equipment to pick up the rumbles, studying elephant anatomy, and finally conducting experiments on elephants in zoos to determine whether they can indeed hear such rumbles and respond to them. Finally, she is able to put the whole theory together and test it out successfully on elephants in the wild.

The book is full of lots of fascinating details about elephants and sometimes the odd lion, rhino, or hyena as well. Caitlin’s insights into elephant society show dense webs of relationships, including among males, who were previously thought to be far more solitary than her research shows. Actually, male elephants as she describes them have whole social networks and are even capable of tender interactions with close friends. She also finds that the large female-headed family groups elephants are well-known for are not always headed by the oldest female elephant, as other researchers had assumed; rather the matriarchs seem to be selected by coalition-building within the herd and can sometimes be a younger but especially wise or bold female.

There is not as much in the book about Caitlin’s own life in the wild, although we do get scenes with locals or Namibian conservation officials. She also includes a harrowing accident when she was driving a pick-up truck on a wet road, packed with hitch-hiking locals in the truck bed. Despite her slow speed and careful driving, she is unable to avoid a slick patch that slides the truck off the road, sending the riders in the back flying across the asphalt. One rider dies and several are injured, and she has to fight past her own horror and guilt at the accident to get the truck to the nearest town.

The book is written in an easy, vivid style that belies its hard science underpinning. Despite a paucity of human characters, Caitlin describes the personalities of the various elephants so well the book actually feels well-peopled, and we come to welcome a fresh sighting of an elephant we’ve met earlier. Anyone with an interest in elephants, southern Africa, or real-life adventure would find The Elephant’s Secret Sense entertaining and informative.

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