Over the years, Turkalo identified more than 4,000 forest elephants, charting their family structures, social relations, physical growth and reproductive cycles. She also eavesdropped on the animals’ complex vocalizations: their infrasonic rumbles of friendliness and lust, their squeals of pleasure and distress, their surprisingly varied trumpets of warning.
In 1999, as part of Cornell University’s Elephant Listening Project, she began capturing the calls on automatic recorders hung in trees while observing the accompanying behaviors. Every summer since, she has brought her data to Cornell, where the project’s specialists (aided by a few other observers in Gabon and the Republic of Congo) are compiling a forest-elephant lexicon using spectrographic analysis.
Turkalo has published only a handful of scientific papers, but she shares her unpublished findings with colleagues around the world. “Her dataset is one of a kind,” says Colorado State University conservation biologist George Wittemyer, chairman of the scientific board for the Kenya-based Save the Elephants, a nongovernmental organization. “She’s the only person who can give us any insight into what the life of a forest elephant might be like.”
Turkalo’s data have provided researchers with the single largest source of firsthand information about behavioral differences between savanna and forest elephants. Although DNA studies show that the two species branched off genetically 2.5 million years ago, their physical differences are subtle.
L. cyclotis is smaller, with a maximum height of about 8 feet, compared with 13 feet for a male L. africana. Forest elephants have straighter tusks, rounder ears and narrower jaws. (Juvenile male forest elephants also develop tusks earlier, leading to mistaken reports of “pygmy elephants” in the region.) Turkalo confirmed some similarities between the species, such as their preference for forming extended families with up to two dozen members. But her observations have also revealed forest elephants’ unique culture.
While L. africana males may form bachelor herds, for example, Turkalo discovered L. cyclotis bulls are resolutely solitary. Unlike their grass-loving savanna cousins, forest elephants feed heavily on fruit, along with leaves and bark, following seasonal routes to harvest the richest pickings. And for social interaction — as well as vital doses of calcium, potassium and phosphorous — they visit salt licks like Dzanga Bai.
An Unknown Fate
Turkalo yearns to rejoin the forest elephants and resume her life’s work. But no one knows when, or if, that will happen. After her dramatic escape in March, she spent three weeks at a Wildlife Conservation Society camp in Congo, visiting with colleagues and keeping tabs on the turmoil in the CAR.
In April, when the rebels left Bayanga, she returned to her compound, which had been looted in her absence, and got back to work. A few days later, however, word came that the troops — part of a coalition called the Séléka, drawn from disgruntled northern ethnic groups — were returning. She fled again, this time to her childhood home in Massachusetts.
Since then, she’s been trying to draw international attention to the plight of the people as well as the elephants she left behind. Soon after her evacuation, she traveled to Washington to brief State Department officials on the situation. Forest elephants throughout the greater Congo Basin have been decimated in recent years by organized poachers supplying the booming Asian market with illegal ivory; according to a study published this year in the journal PLoS One, their numbers plunged by 62 percent between 2002 and 2011, to about 100,000. (Savanna elephant populations also declined, though less drastically, and now total about 400,000.) And the chaos in the CAR is making previously protected areas far more vulnerable.
In early May, after Turkalo returned to Massachusetts, a gang of unidentified poachers armed with AK-47s killed at least 26 elephants — including several calves — at Dzanga Bai. Guards at the site, who’d been disarmed by the rebels, stood by helplessly. After the poachers hacked off the tusks, villagers scavenged the carcasses for meat. “It was a food fest,” says Turkalo, who learned of the killing via email from local contacts. She fears that the victims included individuals she’s known for years, but the corpses were too disfigured to identify.
Although the new government has pledged to restore order and protect the nation’s elephants, Turkalo sees little change so far. “There’s still violence and rape and looting,” she says. “I got an email from someone in Bayanga, and he said people are living under an ‘atmosphere of psychosis.’” For now, she’s operating out of a borrowed office at Cornell, writing papers on forest-elephant demographics and their visiting patterns to the Bai.
A portrait in patience, Turkalo refuses to consider the possibility that her life — and her research — among the animals is over. “I’m not going back until I feel the situation is much more secure than it is now,” she says. “But I will go back.”
[This article originally appeared in print as "Caught in the Crossfire."]