Saturday, August 18, 2007

Caitlin O'Connell's "The Elephant’s Secret Sense"

Caitlin O'Connell is a research associate at Stanford University, in the Department of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery. Her discoveries have been published and reported in various periodicals, including Science, Science News, Natural History, National Geographic, The Economist, and Discover. She has appeared on National Geographic, the BBC, PBS/Nature, and the Discovery Channel. O'Connell and her husband direct the nonprofit organization Utopia Scientific, which promotes elephant conservation and scientific understanding around the world.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to her book, The Elephant's Secret Sense: The Hidden Life of the Wild Herds of Africa, and reported the following:
When I opened my book, The Elephant’s Secret Sense, to page 99, the text fell two pages into the chapter entitled “The Mother of all Elephants” which starts out:

“They called me ‘the mother of all elephants’”. The women of Lianshulu village thought this was fitting since I had no children of my own, and I protected the elephants’ food and defended their land. These local women loved to tease me, sometimes out of malice, sometimes as a compliment, and sometimes out of pure wonder at the world of the white man and his magic. When it came to elephants, however, the women had only anger. Why would I care about how much nourishment the elephants were getting from these women’s mealie fields unless these animals were my own? Naturally, all elephants must have been my children; it was the only logical explanation.

It was the plight of these indigenous women farmers and the hope that I gained from working with them that originally inspired me to write this book, so it is particularly fitting that page 99 describes the interviews that I conducted to hire my first interpreter.

There were many applications for the position scrawled on stained and yellowing notepaper torn out of a schoolbook and carefully delivered by foot or bicycle to Lianshulu Lodge. The brief essays were filled with assurances like, ‘I am health, happy and strong,’ or ‘I am very much interested in animals and I am having good health.’ In retrospect, it was kind of ominous to think about a preoccupation with health: a foreshadowing of the coming plague of AIDS.

The page then goes on to describe the kinds of questions that I had asked these women and how one particular woman, Janet Matota stood head and shoulders above the rest.

Janet Matota answered the questions with a clarity that seemed out of context to her rural village background.

Our relationship grew and flourished, allowing me a unique window into the political and socio-economic complexities of society in the Caprivi that served as an important motivating influence for both the women and me.

Women did not have much power in the village, but they did exert a lot of pressure within the household, which indirectly affected decision making within the community.

At first, the overwhelmingly negative attitude these women had toward elephants made me wonder what hope elephants might have in the future within the region. How could I blame the farmers when elephants were coming in on a nightly basis during the harvest and eating a whole years worth of food in one fell swoop? It was no wonder that no one was concerned about making sure that there was enough land for elephants as well as the farms. And the biggest threat to elephants in many countries where poaching is minimal is the loss of habitat. And as farms expanded every year, so did the conflict with elephants. I could see the writing on the wall. Something had to change.

In as much as the book is journey of scientific discovery about elephant communication and their societies, The Elephant’s Secret Sense chronicles the hopeful efforts of both government and NGO’s to address rural farmers and see them as custodians of elephants and other wildlife by providing benefits which would offset any negative impact from their interactions. These efforts promise to ensure more habitat for elephants, which in the end will protect both elephant and traditional farming societies.
Read an excerpt from The Elephant’s Secret Sense and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue