Civil War Invades An Elephant Sanctuary: One Researcher's Escape Andrea Turkalo spent 22 years in central Africa, studying rare forest elephants. Then civil war forced her to flee — and poachers killed many of the elephants she'd shared a life with.
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Civil War Invades An Elephant Sanctuary: One Researcher's Escape

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Civil War Invades An Elephant Sanctuary: One Researcher's Escape

Civil War Invades An Elephant Sanctuary: One Researcher's Escape

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This is unbelievable, no matter how many times you hear it. Every year, ivory poachers kill some 22,000 African elephants. Recent casualties included a group of rare forest elephants in the Central African Republic, and longtime listeners to this program may have heard some of them. Back in 2002, we broadcast the story of a researcher with a wildlife conservation society who lived among them.

More recently, the story changed. A civil war spread across the country and the researcher had to save herself, returning to the United States. Two people who worked on that 2002 story went to visit her. One is NPR's Christopher Joyce. The other is sound engineer Bill McQuay, who recorded some of the amazing sounds you're about to hear.

BILL MCQUAY, BYLINE: I went to the Central African Republic when it was still peaceful. I was expecting to find an amazing new world of sound to record for NPR's Radio Expeditions program. And I did that, but I also discovered researcher Andrea Turkalo. She had dedicated more than a decade of her life to studying forest elephants, which for centuries had remained hidden within the dense canopy of the rainforest. When I heard she had to flee the CAR because of civil war there, I knew I had to track her down and find out what happened.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: I was the editor of those stories in 2002. I didn't get to go to Africa, but I've never forgotten what my friend and colleague Bill told me about Andrea and her elephants. So we decided to go see her in Providence, R.I., near where she lives.

All right, we're off.

MCQUAY: We're off.

JOYCE: Take a right on Post Road.


JOYCE: So what was your impression when you first rolled into the Dzanga, the camp?

MCQUAY: It was hot; it was humid.


MCQUAY: We walked through - it was then called the Elephant Swamp...


MCQUAY: ...which led us to a path through the rain forest, where we ended up at the bai - this large clearing in the center of the rainforest, which was a gathering ground for elephants.


JOYCE: Andrea Turkalo had this platform that she'd built to observe elephants, but I guess at a height where she was safe.

MCQUAY: The platform was about 15 feet off the ground. It was large enough for a group of people to stand or sit, and observe the elephants.


JOYCE: Turn left on Thayer Street. Thayer?

MCQUAY: OK. Thayer.

JOYCE: Do you want to try to park on Hope Street?


JOYCE: Let's go find Andrea.


JOYCE: We meet in a coffee shop. Andrea wears her dark hair pulled back in a no-nonsense bun. She's compact and direct. She's famous in the world of elephant behavior. She was one of the first people to study forest elephants. She explains they're not like elephants that live out in the savanna.

ANDREA TURKALO: We didn't know anything about them in terms of their social structure, the numbers in the area, their genetics, their communication. So all that was wide open to me. I didn't go looking for this. It sort of found me.

MCQUAY: Unfortunately, a year ago, civil war in the CAR eventually found her, too. She'd lived through civil strife before but this time, she told us, it was much worse.

TURKALO: This time, they were able to cover most of country, and pillage and rape and kill.

MCQUAY: They were the Seleka, the Muslim rebels who had overthrown the government.

TURKALO: It was the 24th of March. We heard that these people were on their way.

JOYCE: As she sips her tea now, Andrea is the picture of calm. But in the chaos of the civil war, she says she feared for her life. It was just impossible to stay.

TURKALO: We got in a boat. We went downriver. We were all women - five women.

JOYCE: They were heading toward the Democratic Republic of Congo. Andrea said all she was able to rescue were electronic copies of her research data. After several hours, they floated by a village.

TURKALO: The people on the shore, they started discharging their automatic weapons in the air. So, we heard this rat-a-tat-tat. We stopped the boat, and they were yelling at us: Everybody out! Everybody out! And I walked up to the one man in charge, and he had an AK-47. There was moonlight, and I could see he had a revolver, and he might have been drinking. So I said to myself, I'd better go into a very passive mode.

JOYCE: To her relief, the men turned out to be local, and knew one of the women in the boat. The tension broke.

TURKALO: We gave them a little money, and we said the Seleka are coming. And they were terrified because they had nowhere to run. We left just before 6 p.m., and we got to the campsite in Congo at midnight.

JOYCE: Andrea did go back to the bai two weeks later, but there were armed combatants roaming everywhere. She fled once more. And it was several weeks after that when she heard that poachers had invaded the bai. They shot 26 elephants, and cut out their tusks.

MCQUAY: It's so painful to imagine that scene. I spent hours on that platform with Andrea, listening to those elephants.


MCQUAY: She told me what they were doing, and how they were communicating with each other.


TURKALO: When they get together, groups that have not seen each other for a while, they're elated. There is an emotional thing that goes on between them. They start ear-flapping and vocalizing - and the whole recognition thing.


JOYCE: Now, a year later, Bill and I are a bit surprised at how stoic Andrea is about that loss.

TURKALO: I can never get too emotionally attached to things there because otherwise, you set yourself up for a lot of disappointment. I mean, I've been through a lot of poaching.

JOYCE: You knew these elephants.

TURKALO: Well, I don't know which ones they killed, but I'm certain that I knew a few of the elephants that they killed.

JOYCE: And I assume some of the elephants that Bill recorded might be among those.

TURKALO: Yeah, very possible.

JOYCE: Andrea would rather be back in Africa, instead of a coffee house in Rhode Island. But she knew she had to leave. She's a researcher for a non-governmental wildlife organization. She's not a warrior.

TURKALO: You know, a lot of the NGOs, we just cut and run. When it gets bad, we leave.

JOYCE: But now, she's part of an extraordinary operation to protect the surviving forest elephants. It's run by a band of men who are warriors, and who can deal with civil war as well as poachers.

MCQUAY: We'll get to that story tomorrow.

JOYCE: I'm Christopher Joyce, NPR News, with Bill McQuay.

INSKEEP: McQuay is with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where the Radio Expeditions archive is located. And for more information about the archive and a glimpse of night vision video from the elephant bai, go to

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