The Elephant's Secret Sense: The Hidden Life of the Wild Herds of Africa
by Caitlin O'Connell


Free Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-7432-8441-7.
Reviewed by Susan Andrus
Posted on 02/29/2008

Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment; Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Travel/Adventure

One would expect that a book written by a research associate at Stanford University on elephant communication would be boring and pedantic, but not so with Caitlin O'Connell's The Elephant's Secret Sense. The daughter of a doctor, whose earliest memories found her carrying her father's medical bag in hopes that he would use his tools to examine her ears, O'Connell grew up to study the enormous ears and hearing systems that encompass the elephant from head to toe. Her studies led her in a quest to help the Namibian farmers, resettled from South Africa during apartheid, by using sound to protect their farms from hungry elephants.

O'Connell's work combines the suspense of a mystery writer with the lyrical prose of a travel writer, and reveals her compassion for all living things. In her book, she chronicles her adventures and misadventures as she strives to understand how elephants communicate with each other within their African environment.

In the Caprivi, violent death is as much a part of the landscape as the capricious nature of rain. Nobody knows when it will come or how much to expect, but in the end it always comes. Death can snatch people away without warning—for example, a leopard stealing into a hut leaving a faceless victim, a croc seizing a laundress off the riverbank, or an elephant using its powerful knuckle to smash the ribs of a hapless person lost in the forest...And a neighbor may disappear simply for being from the wrong tribe, or from the cold sweat of the ever-present malarial fever, or even from an unexpected twist in the night, silencing the cries of an infant.

O'Connell traveled between two settings in Africa, one in the wild with elephants, lions, rhinos, crocodiles, and elands, and one in the villages of Namibia with unfamiliar residents, corrupt officials, and compassionate reserve stewards. As well, she dealt with various educational institutions in the US. Throughout the book, she shows the reader the contrasts between the different cultures.

...When it came time to leave the Caprivi, I was stricken yet freed. Which way did I feel? Which way should I go? How could I tease apart these feelings?...How is it that I had come to grieve for this land, for the animals, and for these people? How did I let it consume me? How could I put things in perspective? After leaving and gaining some distance, would I ever be able to return? I wanted desperately to help, yet my visions for the inevitability of failure paralyzed me. In the end, had I really helped these people?

Including pictures of many of the elephants she studied, O'Connell shows how a researcher can quickly become attached to the animal's personalities almost to the point of anthropomorphism. But she maintains the balance necessary to study the wild animals without interfering too much in their environment.

After reading this book, one will undoubtedly want to read more about preserving the last wild herds in Africa and support O'Connell and her husband, Tim Rodwell in promoting elephant conservation and scientific understanding around the world. For those interested in science and ecology, this very readable book also serves as an inspiration to the next generation of researchers.


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 lives in San Diego, where she and her husband direct the nonprofit organization Utopia Scientific.

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