A Sound of Trumpets

The global lust for ivory threatens to silence the African elephant forever. Can a hidden remnant of the Cold War help stem the slaughter?

by Paul Hond Published Summer 2014
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A herd of elephants in Tanzania. / Photograph by Jonathan and Angela Scott / Getty Images

One of Misha’s tusks arrived at Uno’s laboratory. Though bomb-curve radiocarbon dating had been attempted in ivory, it hadn’t been fully validated.

Misha’s tusk was cut down the middle, a longitudinal slice, revealing a pulp cavity into which new ivory was added daily, creating that C-14 diary, that archive of growth history. (The team also worked on the tusks of another elephant, Amina, who had died of natural causes in Kenya.)

Uno didn’t need much ivory for the job. Less than a pinch. Uno took the samples, converted them to CO2 gas, converted the gas into a graphite pellet, and fed the pellet to an advanced instrument called an accelerator mass spectrometer. The machine was capable of counting the C-14 atoms in the sample.

Misha’s results came in. Using this data, and working from Misha’s date of death, Uno was able to calculate the growth rate of the tusk, which he then matched to the bomb curve.

To verify the method, Uno tested elephant tail hair, monkey hair, hippo teeth, and antelope horn — samples from animals with independently known dates of death.

All these tissues recorded the same carbon signal as the atmosphere during the time they were formed. The method worked.

“The social behaviors of elephants are immensely deep and complex,” says Dave Sulzer ’88GSAS, a professor of neurobiology at the Columbia University Medical Center. “Their ability to communicate with us and each other is far beyond anything that we’ve seen in any other nonhuman animals.”

While Uno was in Utah conducting his elephant investigations, Sulzer was in northern Thailand conducting his. Sulzer is a neuroscientist, but he wasn’t studying the elephant brain, which is three times bigger than ours. Rather, in his guise as the avant-garde musician Dave Soldier, he was measuring metal and wood, in order to build traditional instruments large and sturdy enough to accommodate the Thai Elephant Orchestra, a loose ensemble of Asian elephants residing at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center.

According to Sulzer, elephants communicate constantly with each other using lots of caresses and at least sixty different sounds — and that’s just on their own natural instruments. With mallets in their trunks, they create further vibrations by striking custom-made gongs, drums, and marimba-like ranaats. Sulzer cofounded the orchestra in 2000 with the elephant conservationist Richard Lair, and discovered that it took an elephant about twenty minutes to get the hang of whacking a stick against steel. The orchestra produced a clanging, meditative sound, something like the aural counterpart of the abstract elephant painting that Lair helped introduce in the late 1990s, to bring attention to the plight of the Asian elephant — a species devastated mainly by habitat loss, and thought to number forty thousand in the shrinking wilderness of Southeast Asia.

“Elephants understand about a hundred spoken human commands,” says Sulzer. “They can do things that would be unbelievable for any of our domesticated animals. For instance, you can give an instruction to an elephant to pick up all the logs in an area and pile them up crosswise. They can do that.”

Though Sulzer sees a lot of relatable qualities in elephants, he’s hip to the pitfalls of anthropomorphization, and conscious of words that might be construed as such. Still, he will occasionally refer to elephants as “women” and “guys,” and use constructions like “If they don’t enjoy playing, they’re not asked back.” Nor can he avoid attributing to the elephants he’s met such traits as sneakiness, moodiness, compassion, and even a sense of humor. 

“Elephants understand about a hundred spoken human commands,” says Sulzer. “They can do things that would be unbelievable for any of our domesticated animals.” 

“They’ll play tricks on you,” he says. “They’ll play games with you. Once, I was drinking a big glass of water near this elephant, and whenever I turned around, he’d sneak his trunk in and drink some of the water. When I’d turn to him, he’d pull his trunk back and give me this look like, ‘It wasn’t me.’ At some point, I turned to him, and he sprayed the water on me. Now, I’m going to tell you that’s a sense of humor, and every human there thought it was a sense of humor, and my gut feeling is that the elephants also thought the same thing. But how do I demonstrate that? I have no idea.

“People are concerned justifiably about anthropomorphizing,” Sulzer says. “But I think you need a balance. You can’t dismiss an attribute simply because you haven’t been smart enough to measure it.”

To bomb-curve date the Toronto auction-house tusks, Kevin Uno first had to get inventive with his transportation arrangements. He couldn’t just pick the tusks up in his car and bring them back. Nor could the Canadian government send them to him. International and federal law prohibited such traffic. Instead, Uno had to ask the Canadians to convert the samples to CO2 and ship that to an accelerator mass spectrometer facility in California. (You can transport the gas across the border, but not the solid.)

For the next three months, he waited.

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