How To Speak Elephant

From a trunk-in-the-mouth “I’m sorry” to a head-shaking “Don’t you dare!” Caitlin O’Connell decodes the body language of elephants.

By Vicki Croke

Oconnell2015-friendly trunks

Elephants “kind of wear their hearts on their trunks. Their trunks are extremely expressive of their mood,” says Caitlin O’Connell. She should know. By closely observing elephants at Etosha National Park in Namibia part of each year for the past 20 years, O’Connell has become bilingual in a way. Each gesture, ear flap, trunk poke, and even penis pose can convey meaning. If you know what to look for.

Elephant Don by Caitlin O'Connell

Caitlin O’Connell’s latest book offers a rare glimpse inside the world of male elephants. Her work of fiction (an Ebook mystery), “Ivory Ghosts” is just out too.

And O’Connell knows what to look for. Lucky for us, she’s willing to clue us in. In her latest book, “Elephant Don: The Politics of a Pachyderm Posse,” just out this month, the gifted translator of all things elephant, provides a front row seat on a long-running soap opera, which has been cast with some very big stars.

From two observation areas overlooking a reliable water source, O’Connell, a faculty member at Stanford University, watches a steady stream of towering animals as they arrive and interact. By night, the family groups, made up of experienced females with their sisters, daughters, and children, come to drink.

But the days belong to the big boys: The males, who arrive alone or in groups, to meet, greet, drink, play, insult each other, challenge each other, test loyalties, fight, and even forgive.

So much of elephant research concerns matriarchs and the family groups they lead. O’Connell is one of the few researchers to focus on male elephants, and her work has proved that they are much more social and interactive than was thought before.

O'connell in the field.

Caitlin O’Connell photographing her elephants at the Mushara water hole in Etosha National Park in Namibia.

Being the top elephant and staying there isn’t easy. It requires bulk, strength, social smarts, political strategizing, and sometimes luck. O’Connell teaches us this by telling the story of the reigning king, Greg, and his pals, rivals, and neighbors, including Kevin, Mike (the gentle giant), Congo Conner, Prince Charles, Willie Nelson, Stoly, Abe, and Dave. We get to know these characters as we do family or friends. They feel familiar because O’Connell’s body language translations create nuanced portraits of each animal, illuminating the distinct personality of each…

READ MORE on WBUR’s The Wild Life

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