Rumbles of Discontent: An Interview with Andrea Turkalo

World-leading African Elephant expert discusses the elephant chatter, poaching and conservation work which goes on at Dzanga Bai

Andrea Turkalo, an Associate Conservation Scientist for the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, has devoted the last twenty-three years of her life to the protection of African Forest Elephants. Through demographic studies Turkalo has identified and catalogued over 4,000 elephants and continues to track their life cycles and social relations. She is also a founding member of Cornell University’s Elephant Listening Project (ELP). Her work takes place in Dzanga Bai, a 30-acre clearing in Dzanga-Sangha National Park in the Central African Republic (CAR). Turkalo’s studies are by far the longest and most detailed of their kind; her contribution to the field integral for improving elephant conversation, as her research enables us to understand these giants on an unprecedented level.

African Forest Elephant

Though Turkalo is known as one of the world’s leading experts on the study of African Forest Elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis), she says how her work with elephants ‘was accidental and was never part of my life plan. I started working for WWF in the Bayanga area doing rural public health with the local Bayaka pygmy people. Every afternoon for a change of scenery we would go to the Dzanga Clearing. The clearing presented a great opportunity to study a population of forest elephants which had never been formally studied in such a setting. After my contract with WWF lapsed at the end of 1990 there was some funding for a preliminary study of the Dzanga forest elephant population which I undertook.’

Along with a team of scientists, Andrea for the last ten years has been working on the ELP. The ELP is a unique study which researches and decodes elephant vocal communication. It is through what sound to us like low frequency rumbles that elephants can communicate over great distances and bind the family social system together. Not all these sounds, however, are audible to the human ear, as most are infrasonic.

‘By knowing the social context of calls this “lexicon” of elephant vocalizations are being used to interpret the meaning of long term remote recordings in areas where we can’t see elephants. Long term recordings are analysed using software which detect elephant calls.’ Turkalo says.

By understanding elephant communication progress can be made particularly in our interaction and treatment of them, while also being able to monitor their locations. The Dzanga study is vital for this research, Turkalo specifying how it ‘is one of the few places where we can observe elephants in the open and determine the relationships between groups, which enables us to understand what the vocalizations mean.’

Though the trading of ivory was globally banned in 1989, elephants continue to be severely threatened by the practice. In recent years forest elephants have been targeted in the greater Congo Basin to supply the booming Asian market; according to a study published last year in the journal PLoS One, forest elephant numbers have plunged by 62% between 2002 and 2011. Current estimations are that 36,000 forest and savanna elephants are killed annually; equivalent to one dying every 15 minutes.

It was on the 6th of May a group of 17 heavily armed poachers entered the Dzanga-Sangha National Park and headed towards Dzanga Bai. They retreated in the evening on the 8th of May. The following day guards explored Dzanga Bai and found 26 dead elephants: 20 adults and four calves in the clearing, with another two located in the nearby river. All their tusks had been hacked off. The villagers scavenged the carcasses for meat—by the end their corpses were too disfigured to identify. The poachers disarmed the guards at the site so they were unable to stop the slaughter. Since this incident Turkalo says how ‘the study is now working at a minimal level with several people recording baseline data at the clearing on a daily basis. Because of the tenuous political situation we are fortunate that work continues at some level.’

Dzanga Elephants

The Dzanga Bai is fundamental to elephant conservation, Turkalo explaining that ‘is one of the true wonders of the natural world. Elephants come to the clearing in search of mineral salts which exist there as part of a unique geology. The elephants excavate huge holes in search of minerals and other elephants are observed aspirating soil from the surface of the clearing. Minerals form an essential part of their diets in maintaining general health and reproduction. We also think the Bai serves as a social arena for elephants by providing a central area where related groups meet up and a place where elephants find reproductive mates.’ The poaching even more disastrous as the elephants’ important relationship to the Bai is inevitably damaged.

When the news reached Turkalo that armed guards were heading her way, she packed up her six hard drives filled with 20 years of data and fled. Currently she is working from a distance at her home in Massachusetts. ‘I hope to return to the area once there is more political security hopefully early in 2014. Leaving so quickly was emotionally difficult and after spending so many years there, I consider Central Africa my home. In the meantime there is plenty to do while I am away, like writing and doing media pieces to keep elephant conservation in the foreground.’

Before the discovery of the Bai and Turkalo’s work there, few scientists had ever caught more than a glimpse of the Forest elephant in the wild. Now, with her fighting spirit and continued commitment to the cause, Turkalo’s ground-breaking work is set to continue and help protect these vulnerable giants in the future.

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