Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Elephant expert shares story

nexStage Theatre hosts Joyce Poole

Elephant expert shares story

Joyce Poole observes two of her elephant subjects, Ele and Kili, in Kenya's Amboseli National Park.

"Bad Bull paused, giving me the split second I needed to veer past him, and I roared off across the open plains with him charging after me. I had made it, but I was shaken to the core."

—Joyce Poole, "Coming of Age with Elephants"

The lives of people who dedicate their time on earth to one thing, one noble cause, are an enigma to many. Those who forsake all else to pursue a dream and a passion, whilst incredibly inspiring, can make the ordinary folk down here on the ground feel a little worthless. When that passion is focused towards animals, well all bets are off.

Meet Joyce Poole. She is to elephants what Jane Goodall is to chimpanzees and Dian Fossey was to gorillas, their savior.

The residents of the Wood River Valley can bask in the glow of Poole's good karma next week at the nexStage Theatre. On Wednesday, Dec. 22 Poole will talk about her inspirational life, a life she has dedicated to elephants.

For close to three decades Poole has made important discoveries about the intimate social lives of elephants through the study of their communication. Using her in depth knowledge of elephant society she is fighting for their better treatment and protection, building tolerance where there is conflict, and encouraging delight in the intelligence of these extraordinary mammals.

Poole's lecture will focus on her life's work, and why the voices of the elephants should continue to be heard.

In addition to the talk, Poole will attend a book signing at Iconoclast Bookstore in Ketchum on Dec. 28 at 7 p.m. She will be signing copies of her memoir "Coming of Age with Elephants."

As the book sleeve proudly boasts "'Coming of Age with Elephants' is both a thrilling adventure and a deeply beautiful meditation on the rich and complex relationships between the human and natural worlds."

Born in Germany, Poole is the daughter of a Peace Corps director and subsequently spent most of her childhood in Kenya. After completing her education in several distinguished western schools (Smith College, Princeton and Cambridge) she returned to Africa in 1975 to join Cynthia Moss's prestigious elephant study at Amboseli National Park in Kenya.

There she has conducted groundbreaking research into elephant sexual cycles and communication. She became acquainted with almost 800 individual animals and her memoir details her interactions with them, from the playfully affectionate Vladimir to the crafty and terrifying Bad Bull whose harassment of Poole culminated in a frantic pursuit across the plains:

"Once I had a terrifying encounter with Bad Bull. I felt quite safe there (observing him) because I knew that my car could move faster than Bad Bull could... I was using an old Toyota Land cruiser and when Bad Bull charged, I turned the key in the ignition and slammed it into first gear.

"To my horror I found myself shooting backward across the plain with Bad Bull bearing down on me. In my terror I had forgotten that the... old style Toyota had only three forward gears, and reverse was in the position one normally expects to find first.

"As Bad Bull's tusks came closer and closer to the front windshield, I remember recalling Iain Douglas-Hamilton words: 'You can never escape from an elephant in reverse.'...As the car started moving in his direction, Bad Bull paused, giving me the split second I needed to veer past him, and I roared off across the open plains with him charging after me. I had made it, but I was shaken to the core."

Poole's memoir details the hardships she endured whilst pursuing her passion. She has had to deal with rampant sexism in her field, a brutal physical attack in the Ngong Hills and the devastation of Kenya's elephant populations during the worst ravages of ivory poaching in the mid-1980's. There were 1.3 million in Africa in 1979; today there are less than 600,000.

"Coming of Age..." also highlights the many triumphs of the biologist's life. For example, Poole played a prominent role in having elephants recognized as an endangered species in order to halt their murder for ivory.

Poole's work has established her as a recognized elephant specialist and she has participated in over 75 science documentaries, talk shows and news programs as well as numerous lectures. Two films have been made about her work "Champions of the Wild" in 1998 and 1996's "Coming of Age with Elephants," which is based on her memoir. The one hour National Geographic Explorer documentary was produced by her brother Bob Poole, who lives in Ketchum.

Joyce Poole currently serves as Scientific Director of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project as well as the Director of the Savanna Elephant Vocalization Project. The SEVP's role is to gather and analyze the acoustic repertoire of savanna elephants in order to develop a scientifically based multi-media collection. In developing the collection Poole and her colleagues are striving to establish a new scientific basis of understanding for the intelligence and social complexity of elephants and provide tools for their conservation and management.

Poole's lecture begins at 7 p.m. on Wednesday Dec. 22 at the nexStage Theatre. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and there will be a reception afterwards. Admission is $10 with proceeds benefiting the SEVP.

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