National Geographic Society Newsroom

The Fate of Forest Elephants: Andrea Turkalo Shares Her Experiences, Insights—and Concerns

Andrea Turkalo is Associate Conservation Scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and cofounder of Cornell University’s The Elephant Listening Project at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in Ithaca, New York. Turkalo is considered the leading expert on Africa’s reclusive and lesser understood forest elephants. She’s been studying them for more than two decades at...

Elephants at the Dzanga Bai. (Photograph courtesy Andrea Turkalo)

Andrea Turkalo is Associate Conservation Scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and cofounder of Cornell University’s The Elephant Listening Project at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in Ithaca, New York.

Turkalo is considered the leading expert on Africa’s reclusive and lesser understood forest elephants. She’s been studying them for more than two decades at her Dzanga Research Camp at the Dzanga-Sangha National Park in Central African Republic (CAR).

According to Fiona Maisels, a scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, Africa’s forest elephants stood at around 100,000 in 2011 and most likely number no more than 72,000 today. She estimates the CAR population at perhaps 1,500.

In March 2013—for the first time in her career—Turkalo was forced to flee the camp because of the political violence in CAR. Soon after she left, 26 forest elephants were slaughtered at the Dzanga Bai (“bai” is local word for “clearing”), reportedly by Seleka rebels. The killers have never been found.

Seleka, which means “alliance,” is a coalition that overthrew CAR’s president in March 2013, causing an upheaval and sparking ongoing Muslim-Christian conflict. (CAR was listed as number nine on the Fund for Peace’s Failed States Index for 2013). Nearly one million people have been displaced by the violence, and the situation has been described as “an orgy of bloodshed.”

Turkalo is now holed up in Massachusetts, waiting for the political atmosphere in CAR to settle so she can return to Dzanga and resume elephant research from her observational platform at the bai.

Russo: Seleka rebels invaded Dzanga-Sangha National Park last spring, and you were forced to flee. Can you discuss in detail how you heard about the incoming Seleka rebel group, and how you responded?

Turkalo: I was in the U.S. in December 2012, and I returned to the capital of Bangui at 4 a.m. on December 26th. When I arrived, there was all this talk about the Seleka—that they were about a hundred kilometers north of Bangui [CAR’s capital]. So, I called the U.S. embassy, and they said: We’re leaving [CAR]. So I knew I had to leave Bangui as soon as possible to Bayanga, which is the nearest village to my research site. I found a ride leaving later that same day at 4 p.m. We drove all night—500 kilometers of mostly unpaved road—arriving in Bayanga in the early daylight hours.

We spent the next three months following the movements of Seleka who were located a hundred kilometers north of Bangui. The only reason Seleka were prevented from coming into Bangui during the period of December 2012 to March 2013 was the presence of South African troops. At the end of March, I heard that the South Africans ran out of ammunition, that they were overrun, and that the Seleka were able to continue to Bangui and take over the government.

So I left Bayanga on March 24th for the Republic of Congo, where WCS maintains a project site downriver.

Was it because the Seleka rebels were so close to the camp that you fled?

I’ve been in the country with other coup d’états, and they were generally pretty peaceful. The last one had been in 2003, and we had been waiting for it. The president was totally incompetent and senile, for all I know. I remember it. We wanted it to happen. So, they [coups] are generally very quiet, and they occur in Bangui, and there is no overflow.

But this was different. The Seleka is different. It is five different rebel groups who—before December—were on their own. And they came together, and they have a hell of a lot more power. I also knew that this time was different, given the reports of violent Seleka activity from other parts of the country.

I was in the local village of Bayanga when I received the news of the impending coup d’état from one of the Muslim traders. Shortly thereafter, I made the decision to leave.

I returned to the Dzanga camp to tell two other researchers the news and gather up what was needed to leave. Everyone was like: What?! Everyone was surprised, including the employees and park guards. We then returned to Bayanga, where three boatloads of people left for the WCS site in Congo, which was approximately six hours south on the river. We traveled at night by the light of the moon.

Andrea Turkalo. (Photograph courtesy Andrea Turkalo)
Andrea Turkalo. (Photograph courtesy Andrea Turkalo)

Who went?

There were five women, with two Africans. [The group included Anna Feistner, then Principal Technical Advisor Dzangha Sangha Protected Areas, World Wildlife Fund Central Africa Regional Program Office]. One of the Africans was in charge of the outboard motor, and there was good visibility on the river, and we got to the border. But then at the border crossing, the gendarmes started to discharge their Kalashnikovs.

So we get to shore, and everyone was very hyper and aggressive. There were police and gendarmes, and everyone was yelling at us. Anna Feistner—she was very smart—said: Don’t take the bags out. Because we had about $25,000 altogether. Anna and I walked up to the guy who was hyper—he was very well armed—and I speak the local language, and I kept saying to him, “We didn’t know you were here.” And then he eventually recognized Anna because she had given him a battery sometime before to help them run their radio. And so he calmed down.

We gave them some money, and we got back in the boat and headed to Congo. This is still the 24th. We got to Congo at midnight.

And you took six hard drives worth of material, correct?

Yes. I’d been through these drills before, and you hear these horror stories of people losing three years of data. So that’s what I grabbed.

You later returned to CAR. How long were you in Congo before you went back?

I was in Congo for three weeks before I returned.

Eventually, we got word from Bangui that we could come back. So Anna and I went back up the river and returned to Bayanga with the hope of staying. But we were there for only three nights. I spent one night at the bai.

At that point I was keeping my satellite phone on during the night, which I didn’t usually do. And on the last night I noticed the phone went off: It was Anna sending a text. She wrote that we needed to get out tonight. There were reports that the Seleka were again coming to Bayanga. So we got into a boat and again made the trip down the river to the WCS site in the Republic of Congo.

Where was Anna when she texted you?

Twelve kilometers away in the village. She manages the park. I’m an independent researcher.

Did you anticipate you would be gone almost a year?

Yes I did. Well, you never know. Sometimes things calm down, but sometimes they don’t. These Seleka groups were very aggressive, and we’re seeing real friction between Muslims and Christians. The Seleka have really polarized people.

After you left, 26 elephants were slaughtered at the Dzanga Bai. That incident occurred on May 7. Have there been any incidents at the bai since?

No, because there’s private security there. They went after the poachers.

Tell me about the private security.

After the elephants were poached on May 7, Ofir Drori—he runs LAGA (The Last Great Ape Organization Cameroon), he’s incredible—after the elephants were poached, he said: “We have to do something about this.” In Cameroon, he goes after wildlife traffickers. He gets people busted. He was very upset about the poaching at the bai, and he had friends who did private security, and he called on them to go into Bangui and talk to the Seleka to keep things under control. It has been very effective.

Who were the poachers of the Dzanga Bai elephants?

I got an email before they killed the elephants. About six kilometers from my camp in the park, there is a gorilla habituation program. People who work there communicated that the Seleka were roaming around looking for the clearing.

Do you think the ivory is being used to fund the Seleka?

I think so. They’ve done a lot of poaching. One would imagine that they’re using wildlife projects to fund weaponry.

However, the bigger question is where is weaponry coming from? This is what intelligence people can find out.

Has there been any arrests or prosecutions in connection with the poaching incident at the bai?

Nope. The Seleka came in, killed the elephants, took the ivory and left.

How many Seleka do you think performed the massacre?

I heard there were 17.

I was visualizing the massacre. In the photos I saw, the elephants were running. What I think happened is that they were in the bai and they heard the Seleka coming and tried to run. I didn’t see any carcasses in the center. Their bodies were all along the edges of the bai. They were all killed.

Did the guards at the bai respond to the poachers?

There were guards and researchers there. I assume when the Seleka came, they ran into the forest.

AVFE recently spoke with Melissa Groo, who worked with you at the bai. Groo called the bai “sacrosanct,” and she never thought a massacre would happen there. Did you feel similarly? Does it somehow shift the situation for you in terms of the crisis?

My feeling is that I knew it was going to happen. Because the Seleka are vicious killers.

In terms of your second question, I hate to say this, but I do feel like because we lost these elephants, it really brought the crisis to the foreground. I think when animals are killed and people see carcasses, it makes people aware that this is a real problem.

Photograph courtesy Andrea Turkalo.
Photograph courtesy Andrea Turkalo.

Is the Dzanga Bai exceptional?

Yes. There’s no other bai like it. In Gabon, they talk about bais, but they aren’t really heavily used. The Dzanga Bai is a big, sandy pan. You can see the elephants—you see 20, 30, sometimes 40 elephants.

You’ve explained that the bai is an important social space?

Yes. You see elephants entering the bai on these huge trails, and their paces pick up. They see that there are other elephants to play with. Elephants, like people, are long-lived and have a long physical and social developmental period in life, so they essentially have to learn how to be “elephant.”

I think of the Dzanga clearing as a social arena for the forest elephants in the area. For males, I consider the bai a “bull school.” Unlike females, young bulls leave their family groups and lead a more solitary existence than females. Their social learning consists of bouts with many males, whereas females stay in groups caring for young and traveling together.

At the bai we see musth bulls. We see mating. We’ve actually only seen two births the whole time. I think the mothers go into the forest to deliver. It would get far too busy if she gave birth at the bai.

You have counted some 4,000 individual forest elephants at the bai?

Yes, and some of them I’ve only seen once. Many I see on a regular basis.

Some elephants will stay at the bai for hours, and some for weeks.

Right. Some are even seasonal.

Were there any indications to you—by watching elephant behavior—that a renewed wave of poaching was taking place in Africa?

No. Because things had been pretty calm in the bai until four years ago. We lost four elephants then, but that was local people, and we knew who they were. But to the east that whole area of Republic of Congo is being heavily exploited for timber, and there has been road building. When I came to CAR in 1990, there was no logging. Ten years ago that began. Interestingly, the number of elephants increased in the bai. But I think it was due to the fact that the elephants felt safe in the bai.

One of the interesting paradoxes of the forest elephants is that they’re harder to see, but they’ve been poached at an extraordinary level, as shown by Maisel’s and Strindberg’s study, in which your data were used. In some way is their habitat their biggest vulnerability?

That’s a good point. In CAR, the parks are what I call paper parks. Their borders are on paper only. A president signs a decree making it a protected park, but it’s only on paper, and there are only a few guards on surveillance.

The French just never got this whole idea of guarding them down. In regards to colonizing nations in Africa and their conservation ability, the British left a working park system. In the case of the other colonial powers, parks were created, but for the most part they only existed as paper parks with little real management on the ground. Look at the difference between British and French Africa in terms of conservation. In French Africa there are loads of parks, but there wasn’t much effort to take care of them.

Is there any way to deal with that disparity?

Similar to what I’ve said before: Better trained guards, and guards with equipment. That’s the problem. The guards do all this work—they work on foot, and they walk for kilometers, and during the rainy season they’re just out there doing their jobs. They need to be morally supported.

How are the poachers getting to the forest elephants? By foot, or are they using helicopters or some other means?

By foot. Africans are tough people, and when they find out something is somewhere, they will get to it, and they will hammer it.

You have said that you didn’t know any of the elephants who were killed. Has that changed?

I saw photos. On the ears, there were no marks that I recognized. My only thought is that when I go back, a lot of those elephants that I knew, if they don’t show up, they were killed. There were some who were very regular visitors.

Lots of NGOs don’t seem to want to publicly advocate for military-like boots on the ground. I’m curious if you think that makes a difference?

I think it is the only option right now. That is one of the big failings of NGOs— they don’t give support to people on the ground. Each situation is different, but the basic need is to have well-equipped, trained guards on the ground. Otherwise you’re going to lose them [elephants]. The price of ivory is up, the poachers are sophisticated, they have sophisticated arms, and they know where the elephants are. That’s because of the information highway. The Internet has been great in some ways, but it has also enabled criminals to do their work.

Why is there NGO resistance to a call for a military-like response?

I think it’s perceived as being oppressive. But there are a lot of criminals out there who want to kill elephants. When you have poachers around, it affects local populations and affects their security. But NGOs aren’t equipped to deal with the escalation in poaching.

So, who is right to do this kind of work?

Presently in Bayanga there is a private security team managing the situation. They come with military and intelligence training. I think this is the type of skill set needed in dealing with Seleka.

One of the most effective things we can do right now is to train soldiers. I know a lot of guards, and they don’t know what is going on. They aren’t in contact with that realm. So I think training these people is a big thing. The guards in our area felt like their work was important after their training by the French military. I remember one guy was so psyched, and he had a letter of recommendation from his training. This was very important for him and for overall morale.

Photograph courtesy Andrea Turkalo.
Photograph courtesy Andrea Turkalo.

When you do your research, whom do you work with?

I work with two teams of Bayaka pygmies, three on each team. Two are research assistants, but in addition to the research we do everything else that goes into maintaining a study site, like constructing infrastructure and maintaining a vehicle. Between us, we’ve acquired a vast skill set, including carpentry, which I didn’t have before coming to this site. Adjacent to our research camp there’s a permanent guard camp that is part of the Dzanga Ndoki National Park management team. We have contact with them every day and help out with communication to the central park headquarters 12 kilometers away, as well as some transport and basic medical needs. We also communicate any observations about possible poaching activity in the area.

Are the people you worked with at Dzanga still there?

The people I worked with are still there. I know they were trying to do some work at the clearing. The area in which I worked hasn’t undergone the same kind of brutality [as other parts of the country].

I haven’t been in touch with them lately, but they’re still trying to do daily monitoring at the clearing with the help of park authorities. WWF has maintained a team on the ground that is overseeing management of the park, especially guard patrols.

Do you have a vehicle?

I had a brand new car, but I had to hide it in the woods because of the possibility of it being stolen by Seleka. It took six months to get this car into the country from Europe. Vehicles are valuable commodities.

After more than two decades working, do the elephants respond to you differently from the way they did when you first started?

They don’t know me per se; they just know there are humans. There are days we’re just chatting away, but the elephants don’t seem to react. They know we don’t hurt them. But other days they’re skittish. We don’t always know what kind of experience is happening outside the bai. But they do associate it with safety. The animals feel very safe there in daylight hours.

Do you ever have any intimate interactions with the elephants at the bai?

No, I try not to. I don’t want them to trust people. Because outside of our area they aren’t protected. They need to be afraid. It’s like—we see that in human beings—most of us don’t trust a stranger. That is the same for elephants. Fear will ultimately be the thing that most protects them.

You are considered the foremost expert on forest elephants. What’s the difference between studying forest elephants and savanna elephants?

People know savanna elephants. They’re easy to see. We have to do everything on foot. So you are on the ground with the elephants. Actually, last October I almost got killed by one. We’d been observing this male since he was a juvenile. He started coming for me, and I just dove in the water and hid behind vegetation. You really have to interpret them in their environment. I’m pretty cautious.

Anyway, the forest elephants aren’t different from savanna elephants. I’ve identified a huge network of elephants. The difference between them is the trees. You go to Amboseli, and you can see the elephants a mile away. And that’s why these clearings like the bai are so important, because they’re the best form of monitoring the animals.

Back to your research on elephant sound with The Elephant Listening Project. Part of what you study is infrasonic sounds—elephant vocalizations that are inaudible to humans. How far can those sounds travel?

I think this is a question for Peter [Wrege, Director of the Elephant Listening Project], but I think it’s two kilometers. Though it might be more.

What’s the most important sound they make to each other that humans can’t hear?

It’s probably contact calls. Because they’re so social and get separated. I recorded one right in front of me. A female was calling for her daughter who was down at the end of the bai. Some calls are totally infrasonic, but a lot of audible calls have an infra component. The infrasonic gets through vegetation. The elephants have ears that are equipped to hear them.

Can other animals can hear those sounds?

Yes, and I think there are other animals that make infrasonic sounds. They’re looking now at that with apes. Sound is the last frontier of these animals. Before, we didn’t have the technology to record it. I’ve learned so much through this kind of lab work.

Photograph courtesy Andrea Turkalo.
Photograph courtesy Andrea Turkalo.

Do you ever think there is a point of just too much knowing? That some things about elephants should just be left to mystery.

Well, I don’t think I’ll ever know too much because I don’t think a lot of it will be revealed to me.

I said this to an interviewer years ago: As a woman, I love to watch elephants because it is very meditative. I don’t have to meditate because my work takes me there. I get very relaxed at the bai, and you always find out something new. Now, I’m able to predict vocal reactions, like seeing two related individuals when they meet up and talk. As a woman, we have more patience to sit there and just watch. I think men are more into big discoveries. But women—we have the staying power.

It’s interesting that some of the most famous wildlife conservationists are women.

A lot of us came into it without any formal training. I came as a secondary school teacher. Dian Fossey was a physical therapist. But you get hooked at watching. The job isn’t a job—it’s your life.

How would you grade the U.S. response to the poaching crisis in Africa?

I think there’s been a lot of effort. Obama signed off to stem it. But I think we need to do a lot more on the ground, and we have to make it on the ground. In the U.S., we don’t have much of a connection to Africa—we don’t have a lot of history on the continent besides the slave trade.

What countries in Africa do you see taking the lead?

A remarkable country is Kenya. They really get it. They’re connecting wildlife and conservation and tourism. They’re competent. South Africa is doing some good work. Kruger is one of the most managed parks in the world.

Except there’s a massive crisis in South Africa in terms of rhino poaching.

Yes, but that’s the white people doing that.

Are you afraid?

No. The poachers up until now have never harmed me. I was held at gunpoint once when the guards had left their camp. But if I were really afraid, I would have to leave for good.

Talk to me about the level of corruption you’re witnessing in CAR?

There is so much of it. I always say that when people aren’t paid for their work, you really feel the corruption. The corruption is non-stop.

How does that intersect with poaching?

Government officials facilitate the movement crossing borders, going through airports, customs. And a lot of the ivory isn’t being confiscated—it’s all ending up in China. And the people who have that power to transfer this ivory are government officials.

Do you have any sense of when you may return to CAR, or what conditions must occur to do so?

I’m watching the political situation and would like to return within the next few months. There must be more political security—the Seleka are highly unpredictable and have a violent reputation.

Do you have any plans in place to continue this study long into the future— even after you’re gone?

The study will be continued since it’s the longest ongoing study of forest elephants. Finding a replacement will be difficult, not only because of the work but because of the lack of support and the conditions under which we work. Now the situation has become even more tenuous.

You have said that you both study and protect the elephants in the bai.

There are different types of research. My research is long-term. I’m invested, I know government officials, the president who got chased out. Then there are people who do graduate work, and they need to get data and get out. That is different research. I’m obligated to protect these elephants.

For example, one day a couple of years ago we were at the bai to do our daily observations, and there were no elephants, and this was very suspicious. I turned to the tracker who was with me and asked, “What’s going on?” He answered by saying, “People are here.” We left the clearing and found human tracks crossing our trail, and upon returning to camp tried to contact the park authorities on the radio but had no luck. So I drove the 12 kilometers to town to get some guards. We then returned to camp, followed by a group of guards who arrived later that night. They proceeded on foot to the bai in the darkness, and about 30 minutes later there was all this shooting. The guards actually caught six people on the [research] platform with guns. All were known to be connected to elephant poaching.

This is part of the job—I’m obliged to do what I can in terms of protection. If we don’t make an effort to protect these animals, they won’t be there.

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

Christina Russo
Christina Russo is a freelance journalist. For nearly 15 years, she has worked as a producer for a number of public radio programs, including NPR/WBUR’s "On Point" with Tom Ashbrook. Christina also freelances for Yale Environment 360, where her written work focuses mainly on wildlife conservation issues. She is the co-producer, with WBUR, of the nationally syndicated documentary on American zoos, From Cages to Conservation. She has written numerous articles about animals, including a story about caring for donkeys in Ethiopia; a veterinarian saving horses in Sonoma County, CA; an elephant sanctuary in northern Thailand; and the work of pre-eminent whale biologist Roger Payne for her hometown newspaper, The Gloucester Daily Times.