Thank you so much for all of your great questions. Its getting late here in Norway, where I am writing. I would love to do this again, so that I can answer more of your questions - I know that that are many, many that I wasn't able to get to. We will try to set up a question and answer session on ElephantVoices Facebook Page soon. Until then, Trumpets! Joyce

Hello! My name is Joyce Poole. I have studied elephant behavior and communication for over 40 years and am Scientific Director of ElephantVoices and a National Geographic Explorer. My research and conservation work has focused on the elephants of Amboseli and Maasai Mara, in Kenya, and of Gorongosa, Mozambique. Read about our ongoing Gorongosa Elephant Project, supported by National Geographic here. If you'd like to learn about the Gorongosa elephants, check out this page here. We are currently working to create a unique online resource on elephant behavior called, The Elephant Ethogram, where we will document over 300 elephant behaviors with written descriptions, images, audio and video. You can read more about the work I do on

The National Geographic article, What elephant calls mean: A user's guide, is based on our long-term research and our thousands of recordings of elephant calls.


Comments: 427 • Responses: 29  • Date: 

skyskr4per342 karma

Is there any version of a healthy interaction between tourists and elephants other than observation in a natural habitat, or are essentially all of them harmful?

nationalgeographic505 karma

One example might be at the DSWT elephant orphan nursery in Nairobi. But I write this with caution. There are an increasing number of elephant orphanages popping up and there have been examples of elephants being purposefully "orphaned" and then used in a tourist place. There have been other ugly stories, too.

imageWS284 karma

Hi Dr. Joyce!

Thanks for the AMA! My question is: are their efforts to curb or stomp elephant ride tourist attactions (given how elephants are usually conditioned through torture), and if so, how can the public support these efforts?

nationalgeographic388 karma

Yes, there are efforts to curb elephant back rides. We have been involved with some of these efforts in both Africa and Asia. But as long as people are willing to pay to ride elephants, people will continue to find it lucrative to capture wild elephants for elephant back safaris. The key is to educate people not go on such safaris. You can help by spreading the word that elephants have to suffer a lot for those rides to take place.

jackdadog888223 karma

Do elephants snore?

nationalgeographic333 karma

Haha - yes elephants do snore. In Amboseli I was sometimes woken by elephants sleeping next to my tent and breathing heavily. When I feel anxious and cannot sleep I try to imagine the rhythm of the breath of sleeping elephants :). Try it!

PoncesMom148 karma

While everyone takes a moment to say "how cool is her job?", may I ask you:

Do you have a favorite elephant? Was there one character among all of the elephants that you have met? Please tell us about him/her.

My respect for your work is as enormous as their hearts.

nationalgeographic259 karma

I have so many favourite elephants! In Gorongosa NP, Mozambique, where I work now, my favourite elephants are among the adult females. I love Mwana Nzo, Valente, Corajosa, for their wild, stroppy characters; I love iJunia for her beauty, and I love Iria for her calm nature.

In Amboseli, I had a special relationship with a male named Vladimir….he used to come up to the car and let me touch him. He remembered me after I had not seen him for 12 years. Ahhh! The list goes on!

Emsd125 karma

Hi Dr. Joyce!

How did you get your start in this field?

Also, as many of us adore all kinds of elephants, what are good ways normal people can help them? Any great places to donate, volunteer,etc?

Thank you!

nationalgeographic148 karma

I was lucky to have grown up in Africa. I met my first wild elephant in Amboseli, Kenya when I was 6 years old and spent much of my childhood in the national parks. I have always loved animals and decided to study biology when I went to college. My family moved back to Africa when I was 19 and I took a year off from college to go back with them. I was fortunate to have the chance to work with Cynthia Moss in Amboseli. That experience led to some major discoveries about elephants that kicked off my career - and of course I fell in love with them.

The easiest thing you can do is to donate to an organization that you think is doing a good job at protecting elephants - or is working for their better welfare in captivity, if that is your interest. Have a look at ElephantVoices, for example :). You can also help by writing to your congressman/woman when issues related to elephants come up - for instance regarding banning the trade in ivory trade. And of course spreading the word on social media. Please follow ElephantVoices on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and share our posts. The more people who care about elephants and other species the better chance they will have to survive.

AnkleFarm121 karma

My wife has read that when elephants sway it is because they're mourning or depressed, so when we visit zoos (because she loves elephants), this bums her out. Is there any truth to this?

nationalgeographic265 karma

Yes there is truth to this. Elephants do not sway in the wild - it is a function of life in captivity where some have been chained, they have too little space, no where to go, nothing to do. These are highly intelligent animals that need to be active in body and mind. They should not be held in captivity, in my view.

scottishwhisky95 karma

Do elephants actually like humans? Or do they tolerate us?

nationalgeographic190 karma

I think the answer really depends upon which elephant, which population and which human being. Elephants are very capable of discriminating between individual people and their reaction will also depend on the experiences they have had with people - or their mothers have had. In Gorongosa, for example, elephants had very bad experience with people in the war 25 years ago. They are still very wary of people.

Fuck_You_Downvote85 karma

Where did Hannibal get his elephants in the second Punic war? Where they Asian or African elephants?

Given a choice are Indian elephants or African elephants better for a siege of Carthage in 216 B.C.? I say African due to their size but my buddy says Indian because they are better disciplined. Wondering what your thoughts are on the matter.

nationalgeographic129 karma

I am not an expert on the use of elephants through the course of history, but I do remember reading that Hannibal’s elephants were African. One species isn’t necessarily more “disciplined” than the other. They are both highly social and intelligent animals though people who work with them say they have different temperaments. It must have been pretty gruesome to have been a war elephant….

PullNeckInTheHeat84 karma

Hello Joyce,

They say elephants never forget a place once they have been there. What are the effects of human development of the elephant migratory corridors? What can be done to remedy the habitat loss (in terms of development of their corridors)?

nationalgeographic105 karma

Human development in elephant habitat is really problematic - elephants are being squeezed into smaller spaces and conflict with people for resources is increasing. It is critical for the counties where elephant roam to have spatial plans that take elephants and people into account so that both can thrive.

Eversmann_81 karma

Do elephants form friend groups outside of their families? Ive always been fascinated by elephants, they're my fav animal.

nationalgeographic123 karma

Yes they do form friendships outside their immediate family. Usually these are with more distant relatives - within their bond group and/or clan. But there have been instances where elephants have formed friendships with non-relatives. Indeed they have even formed new families by making friends with non-relatives. And of course males make friends, too.

HillaryBoobPhD57 karma

Hi Dr. Poole :) With your understanding of elephant calls, do you think it’s possible that elephants either are capable of a full-on language or already have a language that we just haven’t identified yet?

nationalgeographic119 karma

I don't think they have a full-on language - as you put it - with syntax the way we use it - but I do think that they can communicate in greater complexity than we give them credit for. We have documented some 300 calls, gestures, and behaviors that we differentiate. Presumably if we understand these postures and signals, then elephants do, too. I believe that elephants will continue to surprise us for decades to come.

Ey_b0ss_57 karma

What do Elephants smell like?

nationalgeographic106 karma

Elephants smell so warm and good!

Gegei8443 karma

Greed and poverty both play a large role in the poaching of elephants- what do you believe is the best way to combat this cycle in a way that can benefit both people and elephants?

nationalgeographic88 karma

Yes, both greed and poverty do play a role in the poaching of elephants. The simple answer is that if people didn't buy ivory there would be no incentive for poverty stricken people to kill elephants, or pangolins, or giraffes, or lions, etc etc to make ends meet. They would find other avenues for earning an income. But when the price of wildlife "trophies" or "products" are high killing wildlife is like low hanging fruit. It is easy and the chance of getting caught is relatively low. We need to knock out the trade in animal parts!

Hubble-Gum42 karma

What is the weirdest situation you found yourself in involving an elephant?

nationalgeographic146 karma

The weirdest situation.... elephants do a lot of uncanny things that make you wonder - for instance, when elephants walk in a procession - one after the other - the matriarch (leader) is usually the last in line. And yet, when she stops and freezes, everyone does so at that same instance. How do they know that she has stopped? Before we understood that elephants are able to detect sounds below the level of human hearing and pick up minute vibrations through their feet, this observation was weird. Now we see that it makes sense that they are able to Freeze in unison.

aliceroyal38 karma

I have always been fascinated with elephants, they seem so gentle and friendly to me. Have you developed any ‘friendships’ with the elephants you have studied?

nationalgeographic46 karma

Yes I have - I wrote about an elephant named Vladimir above. But there have been many elephants I have known and who have likewise known me. :)

sanescience38 karma

What was the first moment you had watching an elephant/s that you realized that they are a lot smarter than they appear?

nationalgeographic214 karma

Well they always appeared smart to me - they are so contemplative and you can kind of watch them as they think something through. But watching how elephants respond to the death of a member of their own species is pretty incredible. An elephant I knew gave birth to a stillborn calf and stayed with her baby trying to lift and defend it for two days. Her face and body spoke of grief to me - her head hung down, her body slumped, her mouth was sad. During that time she had not food or water. After two days I took water to her. She came and drank as I stood half in half out of my car - her tusk not 2 inches from my head. Afterwards she touched me on my chest as if to say thank you. I felt that I had seen both grief and gratitude in her.

J0riis36 karma

Is it true that elephants can’t jump?

nationalgeographic59 karma

It is true that they cannot jump with their pillar-like legs :)

islandgirl1535 karma

what is typical elephant behaviour?

nationalgeographic98 karma

Yikes! That is a HUGE question. My favorite answer to that is being a Drama Queen ;)

Ghoti_NMS28 karma

Do elephants (and largely other mammals that travel in groups), communicate using nonverbal queues?

nationalgeographic59 karma

Elephants communicate with in all sorts of ways - with their voices, using postures and gestures, using vibrations that travel through the ground, and via scents that they give off.

cubbie4life127 karma

Do elephants really find people cute like people find cats or dogs cute?

nationalgeographic67 karma

I have never thought about is a nice thought, but I fear that most elephants see most people as a threat and certainly not particularly cute :)

Magicbitch25 karma

Hi Dr.Poole!

What is a misconception about elephants that you want to clear up for everyone?

nationalgeographic68 karma

Male elephants are not loners! They are very social and form long-term friendships.

guykirk921 karma

Hello Dr. Poole, Why is it that Elephants love to swim when it’s raining out?

nationalgeographic46 karma

I think they love to swim rain or shine!

Badaajoshi20 karma

Will there be any wild elephants left in 50 years? Thank you in advance.

nationalgeographic33 karma

I believe so - but I think that many populations will go extinct while some, with good support/protection will survive.

snakesandstuff17 karma


nationalgeographic56 karma

If elephants are kept in captivity the safest for both the elephants and the care-givers is to work in protected contact. So-called free contact involved working in the same space with the elephant and involves the use of bull-hooks - which sometimes have to be used on the elephant. Protected contact allows the elephants more autonomy. BUT - I would rather not see elephant held captive at all - they belong in the wild - free to roam and to choose where to go and who to go there with.

The_Wholigan15 karma

Why do think that such a weird animal is so popular?

nationalgeographic71 karma

One the one hand they are so weird and kind of mystical - responding to voices we can't hear, smells we cant detect, vibrations we can't feel - and on the other hand they are so like our better selves. The world would be a better, kinder places if we were more like elephants.


There's an old wives tale about how young elephants in captivity are held in place by a rope tied to a stake in the ground they cannot remove. As they get older and larger it becomes easy to escape but they never even try. Is there any truth to this?

nationalgeographic13 karma

I have not heard this.

Soggy_-jizz-Biscuit-12 karma

Are elephants and horses in the same family of species?

nationalgeographic44 karma

Horses are in the Family, Equidae, and elephants are in the Family, Elephantidae - so, no, they are not in the same Family.

ruinevil2 karma

Have you eaten elephant meat?

nationalgeographic10 karma

No and I never, ever would. It would be like cannibalism for me!

the_onion_hater-8 karma

Wait what?! Today is Father's day in Brazil

nationalgeographic5 karma

Happy Father's Day in Brazil, then!