Type “hi” into a new website, and it responds with a low rumble: This is how an elephant gives a casual greeting. The site, Hello in Elephant, uses a database created over decades of research to translate English (or an emoji) into its nearest elephant equivalent.
“At our orphanage in Nairobi, we’re hearing these elephant calls all the time,” says Rob Brandford, executive director of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, a nonprofit that rehabilitates orphaned elephants for release to the wild. The nonprofit realized that letting the broader public listen to elephant vocabulary might inspire more support for their conservation.
The site is based on 40 years of research led by Joyce Poole, who has recorded and analyzed thousands of elephant voices with her cofounder and team at an organization called ElephantVoices. “As they’re recording sounds, they’re taking notes of exactly what the elephants are doing at that point in time,” says Brandford. “Are they in a group, are they youngsters, are they in a drought? They’re looking at all these different variables so that they can go back and analyze the sound database.”
Rough translations include elephant versions of “Let’s go,” “I’m annoyed,” “I love you,” and “I’m miserable,” demonstrating the depth of an elephant’s emotional life. “They’re extremely similar to us in terms of their emotional capacity and how emotionally sophisticated they are,” he says. “Elephants do demonstrate humor, they’re self-aware, they experience joy. They experience grief, which is extremely rare in other animals apart from ourselves.”
The team hopes to spark new interest in elephants with the site. There were more than 10 million African elephants around 100 years ago; now there are fewer than 400,000, and in seven years, that number is projected to drop to 190,000. Poaching is one major cause of the decline–an average of 70 elephants are poached each day, far more than the birth rate–and growing development in Africa is another. On routes that wildlife would traditionally take to reach water, new communities or infrastructure like roads are often in the way.
To respond to that development, the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust works to acquire new land for conservation. (The routes are sometimes protected by fences lines with beehives, since bees terrify elephants and keep them from crossing; the beehives also provide local communities with honey and a reason to keep the fences in repair.) When it rehabilitates orphaned elephants, the organization returns them to a national park that it protects with anti-poaching teams and mobile vets. These efforts can help sustain populations, but the organization hopes to increase the scale of its reach.
The key, they say, is increasing interest in elephant conservation now, since the elephant population–and their language–is dwindling so quickly. “This language is in danger,” says Brandford. “We know so little about a species that actually, in our lifetime, might be gone. There’s so much more to learn. We’re not going to get that opportunity unless people get excited about the species.”