Daniela Hedwig is the Elephant Listening Project’s cheerful and passionate post-doctoral research associate. Daniela joined ELP in 2016. Her work is based on her fascination for the study of animal vocal communication systems, which bridges behavioral biology and linguistics and has direct applications to species conservation. Her previous work includes research on the vocal behavior of wild gorillas and gibbons, and the application of camera traps to monitor mammal species occurrence. Daniela conducted her graduate work at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, where she focused on the vocal behavior of gorillas in the Central African Republic and Uganda. While finalizing her doctorate, she developed a long-term monitoring program for The Aspinall Foundation in the Bateke Plateau National Park in Gabon. Subsequently, she worked with WWF Germany on wildlife crime, particularly the ongoing African elephant poaching crisis. Her work with The Elephant Listening Project focuses on studying various aspects of the vocal communication system of the threatened forest elephant. Her goal is to combine information about an elephant’s environmental and behavioral context when it vocalizes, or ‘rumbles’, with information from microphone recordings in order to study elephant behavior less invasively and with more detail. The resulting data will provide behavioral biologists and conservationists with valuable information¹.
Gabi Hammel, a writer for ELP, interviewed Dr. Hedwig to learn more about her experience and work. The following is their conversation.
Gabi Hammel: How did you become interested in forest elephants? What interests you most about them?
Daniela Hedwig: I became interested in forest elephants and the Elephant Listening Project during my fieldwork with western lowland gorillas in the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park close to Dzanga bai. As we tracked the gorillas, we would frequently encounter elephants in the forest — fascinating and scary at the same time. I also had the chance to visit Dzanga bai a few times, and even stayed there once overnight. It is one of the most magical places I have ever been to and back then, I was imagining how amazing it would be to study forest elephants. What fascinated me most was their social interactions — despite looking so different from us humans there is something in the way they interact that I was able to relate to and understand. They are so social, gentle and everyone has her own personality. It really puts in perspective how we humans are apparently so special.
Gabi Hammel: Can you briefly explain what you are currently working on in Dzanga? What are you hoping to discover?
Daniela Hedwig: One of my main goals for Dzanga is to “decipher” the elephant rumbles. Rumbles are acoustically very variable and we will investigate in which contexts elephants produce different types of rumbles. This will provide us with intriguing insights into what elephants are “talking” about with each other. But importantly we can also apply this information to the rumbles we record with our acoustic monitoring units. This will help us to figure out what elephants are doing in the forest, where we cannot observe them directly. My upcoming field season, supported by a National Geographic Explorers grant, will be focusing on the rumble repertoire.
GH: What does a day in the field typically look like?
DH: We usually get up around 6 in the morning (or earlier), get the fire started to boil water for coffee and oatmeal. The mornings we usually spend in camp entering data, archiving recordings and charging devices, but also doing laundry, cooking and other camp chores (everything takes so much longer without much electricity!). Around noon, we have lunch mainly consisting of rice and beans and then we head out to the clearing around 12:30. It’s a 30 min walk through the beautiful rainforest. We stay at the clearing until about 4:30 to get back to the camp around 5:00. The evenings we again spend entering data etc. and having dinner. It gets dark early so close to the equator — around 6 pm — with little light and thousands of tiny bugs around your headlamp we usually call it a day early and retreat under our mosquito nets to read and….sleep.
GH: How will this project benefit local communities near the bai?
DH: Capacity building is super important to me. Dzanga should not be a place where only expats work — it is the Central Africans’ natural heritage and it would feel very strange to me to not collaborate. By taking on a master’s student from Bangui University I am hoping to build a strong collaboration with Bangui University. I hope to be able to engage and train students on a regular basis who will be able to develop research projects and eventually lead the Dzanga elephant project.
GH: Why is it important to understand the role of vocalizations in elephant society?
DH: Just like we humans are talking with each other all the time, elephants use rumbles to coordinate their social interactions. Vocalizations are a social behavior and without understanding them, we cannot fully understand their social organization. What makes it so interesting to study elephant rumbles is that they do not only use them during close range interactions but they play an important role in coordinating their interactions over long distances. Savanna elephants use them to recognize associates and competitors at distances over more than 1 km, which helps them to make important decisions to avoid resource competition and reunite with mothers, daughters and aunts etc. In one of our previous studies we found that the rumbles of forest elephants attenuate (fade over distance) much faster, which means they might not be able to avoid competitors and stay in touch with their relatives over such large distances!
GH: How will this research enhance conservation efforts?
DH: The information on the contexts in which elephants use different types of rumbles will be directly applicable to passive acoustic monitoring methods, and significantly expand its range of application. Currently, we record and count rumbles to infer changes in elephant activity and their abundance. We will apply the information on the contextual use of rumbles to the rumbles we record during the landscape-scale acoustic survey Peter Wrege is currently conducting in Nouabale-Ndoki in northern Congo. With this, we will be able to tell what elephants are doing in different parts of the forest and how this changes over time. Because it is so difficult to observe elephants in the dense rainforest, this new method will generate valuable information for conservationists and behavioral biologists.
This interview was conducted over email, and has been edited for clarity.
¹Adapted from Daniela Hedwig’s autobiographical statement