When you have got an elephant by the hind legs and he is trying to run away, it’s best to let him run.


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Silent thunder : in the presence of elephants New York : Simon & Schuster, c 1998 Katy Payne; illustrations by Laura Payne Elephants Behavior Hardcover. 1st. ed. and printing. 288 p.: ill.; 25 cm. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

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Scientific discovery is always the result of a careful accumulation of data and a measured consideration of the facts. Sometimes it requires a leap of imagination to determine which facts are to be accumulated and considered. Katy Payne, a naturalist and conservationist, took just such a leap and made an amazing discovery about how elephants communicate. In 1984, Katy Payne visited the elephants at Washington Park Zoo in Portland. Oregon. She had been studying whale songs for the last fifteen years, and she was curious about the ways that elephants – the largest living land mammals – communicated with each other.

African Elephants with Calf

What Payne observed in her first week seemed, at the time, to be little cause for scientific excitement. But on her flight home, she remembered a childhood experience of singing in the church choir. Suddenly she realized that she had felt, in the presence of the elephants, a deep throbbing in the air just like the lowest notes of the church organ. Payne and two colleagues were soon able to show that elephants are powerful infrasound – sound pitched too low for the human ear to hear – in communication. This “silent thunder” allows elephants to intract over long distances.

Steven coming eye-to-eye with a majestic beast who wanted a better look at him - from his blog

Steven coming eye-to-eye with a majestic beast who wanted a better look at him – from his blog

This was the basis of her discovery of infrasonic communication among elephant and is typical of Payne’s work as a naturalist. It also infuses this deeply felt and observed book with an extraordinary spirit, Payne and her colleagues went on to do important field research on elephant communication in Kenya, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. But in 1991 the peaceful rhythms of their work were violently interrupted by a cull – a planned killing – that destroyed five of the elephant families they were studying. This destruction convinced her that all life is sacred. Payne determined to challenge the philosophies that support culling.

If you are leading it by the trunk you may not say it has followed you home and may not keep it - from Steven's blog

If you are leading it by the trunk you may not say it has followed you home and may not keep it – from Steven’s blog

Silent Thunder is a natural history rich in ponderings about the animal world and how humans participate in it. It is also a passionate story of Payne’s own quest as she turns an observant eye on her own role in this world and honors the perspective of her friends in Zimbabwe, who became her teachers. Payne’s courage and empathy are evident on every page, giving this unique combination of scientific journal and personal memoir an unforgettable power.

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