By Richard Schiffman
I was choking back tears by the end of my interview with Andrea Turkalo.
Turkalo is one of the founding members of the Elephant Listening Project, which is documenting elephants' ability to communicate, often using low-frequency sounds below the threshold of human hearing. She is conducting her fieldwork at Dzanga Bai, an idyllic clearing in the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park in the Central African Republic (CAR) where elephants come to drink the mineral-rich waters and wallow in the mud.
Unlike their cousins on the open savannah, forest elephants are typically hidden by thick jungle and difficult to track. Scientists often locate the reclusive animals by monitoring their vocalizations, some of which can be detected from miles away.
Despite being one of the best protected sites in the region, heavily armed poachers entered Dzanga Bai last May butchering 26 elephants, mostly mothers and their calves. They fired their automatic weapons from the observation platforms used by researchers themselves, leaving behind a horrific crime scene. The grassy glade, usually teeming with elephant family groups emotionally reuniting after weeks of wandering in small bands through the forest, was littered with piles of elephant parts, bones and blood-soaked scraps of skin.
Tragically, such scenes are becoming commonplace throughout Central Africa. An astonishing 60 percent of the region’s forest elephants have been lost in the first decade of the 21st century, and they have disappeared entirely from over half of their range in just the past 30 years. The forest elephant is regarded by biologists as a separate species from the more numerous and larger bush elephants of the African plains, but it is under the same unrelenting pressure from poachers, who are slaughtering them in order to hack off their tusks.
Elephant ivory is fashioned into intricately carved statues, jewelry and religious icons, which are in demand worldwide, but especially prized in East Asia and the Philippines—a $7 billion to $10 billion a year business. Most ivory is processed in China, but a lot of the carving is now being done in Africa itself, particularly in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The prime subject for African carvers, ironically enough, is elephants. Ivory elephants may already outnumber the living creatures, which are being killed at the unsustainable rate of 35,000 per year. Fully eight out of 10 elephants now die as a result of poaching rather than from natural causes.
The frenzy to obtain ivory is accelerating, as many Asian economies boom and prices for the increasingly rare luxury items soar. Andrea Turkalo knows all about this frenzy. Last March, she managed to escape from advancing Séléka guerilla fighters who were descending on the nation’s capital Bangui to stage the coup that ousted former CAR President François Bozizé. Turkalo is now back in the states waiting for things to settle down before returning to Africa. Groups like the Séléka train their guns on innocent civilians as well as the wild elephants in their path. More....