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Saving Elephants in Central African Republic: A Conversation With Andrea Turkalo

02/11/2014 08:49 am ET | Updated Apr 13, 2014

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. I spoke with her about the violence in CAR and the future for the elephants she studies and protects.

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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?

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.

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.

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.

This article was published with permission from National Geographic, where it originally appeared in "A Voice For Elephants." You can read the rest of the article - and see more images of the elephants and Andrea Turkalo - by clicking here.

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