Silent Thunder: In the Presence of Elephants – Katy Payne (Nature/Science)
I picked this one up on a whim as I wandered through the shelves of animal books at the library, partially because it looked interesting, and partially because it looked like the shortest animal book there (and I already had a pile of other books to read). After reading it… wow. I think I would have seriously missed out if I skipped past this one, and I plan on tracking down my own copy to own.
Payne is first and foremost a marine biologist, in the sense that she spent a significant amount of time researching and studying whale communications. She’s an expert on echolocation, specifically the various frequencies whales use and the ins-and-outs of the correlation between communication & behavior. So, naturally it seems a bit odd that she would be writing a book about… elephants?!
Apparently one day, Payne visited a zoo and became curious about the way elephants communicate. After some observation, she formed some theories about elephant communication – centered around, you guessed it, echolocation and frequencies beyond human hearing – and decided to conduct some tests. The rest, as they say, is history.
Payne was only the second person to suggest elephants could communicate over vast distances, and it was her work that truly paved the way to a better understanding of these magnificent creatures. The first half of this book is packed with incredible anecdotes about elephant behavior (most of which I repeated to anyone who would listen, I was so amazed) and information about elephant society & structures. I raced through the first half of the book, mesmerized…
But when the second half hit, I slowed down. While still very important to read, the material becomes very heavy in the sense that difficult issues are addressed like poaching, culling, and the inevitable difficulties with working in an African country where the local governments aren’t always as cooperative as researchers would like (not to mention the corruption in some places). Payne details several meetings with governments and conservation groups where drastic decisions are made that affect the elephant populations, and not necessarily for the better. After reading some of these sections, I had to put the book down and walk away for a bit, just to let it sit before continuing. Still, it was important to read, and I’m glad I did.
I’d also have to say that the second half of the book dealt not only with the elephant studies, but also with the relationships between the people of the area, the researchers, and the animals (elephants, lions, et al). There are brief forays into ‘spiritual’ observations about the people (and their traditions) and several dreams that Payne has which relate to the animals, which seem slightly out of place, but I didn’t think they distracted too much from the core of the book. If anything, I thought it slightly intriguing that a scientist would include her spiritual experiences in a book like this, as strange as it was.
On the whole, I’m very glad I read this book. I learned so much more about elephants than I previously knew, and I have a greater understanding of what people go through when they dedicate their lives to observing and studying a species in the wild. My favorite part of the book was definitely the inclusion of behavioral anecdotes, which were fascinating – I’m inspired to read more about African wildlife, and would be interested in reading more about elephants specifically in the future.
Rating: 4.5 coffees out of 5