Former Commando Turns Conservationist To Save Elephants Of Dzanga Bai Nir Kalron was once an Israeli commando, then private security consultant to African leaders, and a dealer of legal arms. Today he's working with African locals to hunt ivory poachers via satellite.

Former Commando Turns Conservationist To Save Elephants Of Dzanga Bai

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Let's return now to the story of the mass killing of African elephants. They're being slaughtered by the tens of thousands for ivory. Victims include a group of rare forest elephants in the Central African Republic. A team from NPR News recorded those elephants a dozen years ago. Our story included an American scientist who was researching them. More recently, civil war drove the scientist back to the United States, but she has teamed up with former soldiers who now protect the elephants that remain. Today, NPR's Christopher Joyce and sound engineer Bill McQuay have more of her story.


BILL MCQUAY, BYLINE: I found myself in a forest clearing in 2002 surrounded by insects, elephants and rainforests.


MCQUAY: That's where I met Andrea Turkalo. She lived and worked in a place called the Dzanga bai. Hundreds of elephants congregated there. Turkalo studied their social life.

ANDREA TURKALO: It's extraordinary, because they recognize each other's voices, just like women recognize their babies' cries. To see it actually happening in front of you, that makes my day.


MCQUAY: When I was in Africa, Andrea told me then she'd like to spend the rest of her life there. But last year, she fled. Civil war made it too dangerous. Weeks after she left, poachers invaded the bai and killed 26 elephants.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Andrea's now living near Providence, Rhode Island. Bill and I met her there at a cafe. She's an American, but she's not quite sure how to be one now after 22 years in the rainforest. She clearly wants to go back to the elephant bai. She's worried about the safety of the elephants she left behind.

TURKALO: In a lot of ways, those elephants saved me and made me focus. For me, it's not even work. It's my life.

JOYCE: And now, even though she's still in the U.S., she's found a way to do that, by forging an unlikely alliance of conservationists and former Israeli soldiers.

MCQUAY: Here's how it happened: soon after coming back to the U.S., she met a former Israeli soldier named Nir Kalron.

JOYCE: Nir had heard about the bai massacre, and about her. He sought her out. He said he might be able to protect the elephants. He was part of a security company called Maisha in Tel Aviv that specialized in wildlife protection.

TURKALO: He said to me, you know, you don't have to kill poachers. His approach is interesting.

MCQUAY: She encouraged him to go to the bai and told him who to talk to there.

JOYCE: Nir certainly had credentials unlike any conservationist. After serving in the Israeli army, he went off for adventure in Africa. He hired himself out as a security expert to African leaders. He also dealt in weapons - legally, he told us, when we called him in Tel Aviv.

NIR KALRON: God forbid, no, not a mercenary. I was never a mercenary.

JOYCE: But he told us he did become disillusioned with that work and the people he did business with, like Russian arms dealers.

KALRON: The awakening I had was that it's a waste of time, and we should invest time in the environment, and not in equipping and making better or stronger African armies to fight a war that doesn't exist. The war is on the ground in the national parks.

JOYCE: Nir and a team of former Israeli soldiers got to the bai about two weeks after the killings.

KALRON: The Bai was empty, full of carcasses and forensic evidence that we found - ammunition casings and tracks on the ground. We didn't see a single elephant. It was quiet.

JOYCE: The poachers were gone. But Nir knew they could come back and kill more elephants. He hatched a plan to create a military-style reconnaissance team there, bring in communications equipment, satellite phones, solar power. He would train local people how to use these tools to warn authorities if poachers returned.

MCQUAY: But first, he needed the cooperation of the rebel leader who had taken over the area, a man known as Colonel Bahit.

KALRON: And I remember thinking, wow, this guy, maybe - we were not sure - but maybe had a lot of blood on his hands. But you have to be pragmatic. He's the guy in charge. What can we do? Say, hey, we're not dealing with you because you're a murderer? And we don't know, by the way. He seemed like a very kind person, sympathetic and cooperative.

JOYCE: Nir's experience working with African military officers paid off. He brought food and gifts. He took his time.

KALRON: We went in, met the colonel, agreed on calming the situation down, made a gentleman's agreement that the elephants will not be touched.

MCQUAY: The colonel said his men had not killed the elephants.

JOYCE: In fact, evidence the poachers had left behind suggested they'd come from Sudan, on the northern border. Criminal or terrorist groups are known to traffic in ivory to raise money.

KALRON: What a breeding ground for terrorism the ivory trade is for these people. I found it fascinating that I was not aware of this.

JOYCE: Nir did know that this could get dangerous. He'd already been in a gun-battle with poachers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He knew poachers who were killed, park guards, as well.

MCQUAY: But with the all-clear from Colonel Bahit, Nir's group went ahead. Over several trips, they quietly brought equipment to the bai and set it up.

JOYCE: Team member Omer Barak says many local people bought into the plan.

OMER BARAK: I realized that they really care, that the Africans care, not only the officials in different the wildlife services, but villagers. That realization made me feel less patronizing, and not think of it as a new form of conservation colonialism.

MCQUAY: Now, they've even got video cameras set up that send real-time images of the bai via satellite. That really amazed me. There's no power there, and hardly any roads.

JOYCE: The money to do this comes in part from the Wildlife Conservation Society, where Andrea Turkalo works, and from the World Wildlife Fund. I asked scientists at the Wildlife Fund what they thought of collaborating with a security outfit, with soldiers who'd dealt arms in Africa. They said ivory poaching is so bad now, they need people with skills that environmentalists just don't have. Andrea told us she agrees. Poachers are organized and heavily armed now. They will kill people, as well as elephants.

MCQUAY: And poaching aside, places where elephants live - like the Dzanga bai, that seemed so remote 12 years ago - are now war zones, the kinds of places Nir and his team know how to negotiate.

TURKALO: I think in a lot of areas we're going to have to have people with their skills dealing with these situations, you know, where they go in and they actually deal with rebels and, you know, warlords.

MCQUAY: Nonetheless, Andrea's making plans to go back to the bai with Nir Kalron. There's still a civil war going on there, but this time, she'll be with people who are tackling elephant poaching in a completely new way.


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


INSKEEP: Bill McQuay is with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where the Radio Expeditions archive is located. For more information about the archive and audio and video from the elephant bai, go to

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.