For the feature story related to this gallery, see "Endangered Forest Elephants, Caught in the Crossfire".
Andrea Turkalo watches elephants from an elevated platform at the edge of Dzanga Bai in 2011. Turkalo is a field biologist for the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society and arguably the world's foremost expert on African forest elephants.
Forest elephants gather around mineral-rich pools and salt licks that form a 30-acre clearing called Dzanga Bai, part of the Dzanga Sangha Reserve in the Central African Republic.
Since 1990 Andrea Turkalo has been observing these elusive and endangered pachyderms here.
Dzanga Bai stands in stark contrast to the dense forest surrounding it.
The elephants bathe and soak themselves in the mineral-rich mud at Dzanga Bai, where they get social interaction as well as vital nutrients of calcium, potassium and phosphorous.
A grandmother in her late 40s, Anemone is one of the Bai’s tougher characters — at least where humans are concerned.
“She’s aggressive,” says Turkalo. “She’s always on high alert.”
Most forest elephants will trumpet at an observer who comes too close, but Anemone charges without warning, which has led to close calls for researchers and photographers visiting the Bai.
Anemone is seen here with a calf.
Anemone’s attitude, Turkalo theorizes, may stem from having seen her sister, Lady Beard, shot by a poacher. This female’s eight offspring are equally combative: “The calves imitate the mother’s behavior,” Turkalo says.
Turkalo has witnessed only two forest elephant births at her observation site.
One of them took place in 2009, when a 16-year-old named Maureena, shown at left here, had her first baby.
“Females usually avoid giving birth in the Bai,” Turkalo says, “because it’s too stressful with all the ruckus that goes on. There’s this huge interest in the newborn. The other elephants have to come touch it and smell it. You hear all this trumpeting and screaming. It’s like a reception committee.”
The other elephants' interest in Maureena's newborn visibly upset her, and by that afternoon, she was squealing in protest. Then Maureen, a matriarch in her 50s who is part of Maureena’s extended family (shown here), bustled up.
“She took care of the situation,” Turkalo recalls. “She scooted the calf and mother to the edge of the clearing, out of harm’s way.”
Some forest elephants, Turkalo says, are practiced at the art of deception.
Unequal I (so named because her tusks are different lengths) and her grown daughter, Unequal II (pictured here with her calf), have a sneaky way of getting access to their favorite pool: When other elephants are bathing there, the pair will rush up and trumpet madly, as if alarmed by an intruder.
After the occupants scatter in panic, the Unequals settle in for a nice, long soak. “They’re really evil,” Turkalo says with a laugh.
Elodie, shown here in the background, is a 16-year-old adolescent who has always been a rule breaker.
As an infant, she had a habit of wandering off across the Bai, distressing her inexperienced mother and ignoring urgent “come back here” rumbles.
Then she developed an even more disconcerting quirk: hopping into dry mineral holes beside astonished adult males. (Females are usually relegated to pools, where they suck up less concentrated minerals from the muddy water.)
“That’s risky,” says Turkalo. “These big bulls can kill you.” But Elodie’s youthful impertinence has so far gone unpunished. “I’ve never seen any bull harm her. They may push her a little bit, but they don’t get violent.”
The largest female on the Bai, Gargantua (at left in this photo) stands almost 8 feet at the shoulder — nearly as big as an average male.
This female is unusual in other ways as well: She’s solitary, like a bull, and even though she’s in her 40s, she’s never had a calf. In fact, Turkalo has never seen a male approach Gargantua for sex.
And unlike most females, who often coddle or discipline other elephants’ young, she shows little interest in calves. “You look at her and say, ‘Is she male or female?’” observes Turkalo. “She’s almost hermaphroditic in a way.”
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