Endangered Forest Elephants, Caught in the Crossfire

A researcher turns activist when violence and political chaos in the Central African Republic put the elephants she studies — and her life's work — in peril.


On a muggy Sunday afternoon last March, Andrea Turkalo realized it was time to flee.

A few hours earlier, rebel forces had swept into Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR), and overthrown the government of President François Bozizé. Now they were pushing toward the country’s southwestern rainforest, massacring civilians along the way. 

At her jungle compound near the village of Bayanga, the elephant researcher grabbed a bag of cash and six hard drives crammed with 20 years of data. Then she joined a dozen other foreigners on three skiffs heading down the Sangha River toward the Republic of Congo, 50 miles to the south.

They reached the border about 10 o’clock that night. As the flotilla approached through the darkness, armed guards at a checkpoint shouted angrily and fired into the air. Turkalo got out and tried to soothe the men, whose belligerence seemed to be fueled by a mix of nerves and alcohol. 

“I said, ‘I’m sorry, we didn’t see you, you had no lights,’ ” she recalls. One gendarme, waving a pistol, threatened to search the refugees’ belongings. Turkalo feared he would confiscate their valuables. But after a few tense minutes, his comrades recognized the small, wiry American from previous visits. They greeted her warmly, apologized and let the group pass.

Turkalo, 61, is a field biologist for the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society and arguably the world’s foremost expert on African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis). Since 1990, she’s been observing the elusive and endangered pachyderms — regarded by many experts as a distinct species from their larger savanna-dwelling cousins (Loxodonta africana) — at a 30-acre clearing called Dzanga Bai. 

Her study, by far the longest and most detailed of its kind, has been thrown into limbo by the ongoing upheaval in the CAR. Yet those who have seen her in action insist she will find a way to continue her work.