By Kenneth Miller
The border guards, wary of advancing rebels, fired their guns in the air as three motorized skiffs approached along the Sangha River in the late April night. But the boats’ occupants were unarmed foreigners, fleeing a bloody insurrection that had gripped the Central African Republic (CAR). Among the refugees was elephant researcher Andrea Turkalo, carrying $25,000 in cash and six hard drives—packed with more than 20 years of data—which she’d grabbed before fleeing her jungle compound.
Turkalo, 60, is a field biologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society, and one of the world’s foremost experts on African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis). Since 1990, she’s been observing the elusive pachyderms—thought to be a different species from their larger, curvier-tusked, savannah-dwelling cousins (Loxodonta africana)—at a clearing known as Dzanga Bai, in the CAR’s southwestern rainforest. But her life’s work now hangs in the balance, as does the fate of the elephants themselves.
Driving out research The trouble began last November, when a coalition of rebel groups known as the Séléka, based in the country’s northern region, started an uprising against the government of President François Bozizé. Turkalo was in the United States at the time, getting some dentistry done, but she returned to the CAR in late December. She arrived just as the U.S. embassy’s staff evacuated from the capital, Bangui. But Turkalo decided to stay on at Dzanga Bai for as long as possible.
She spent a tense three months at her compound, near the village of Bayanga, as the Séléka marched southward, massacring civilians along the way. On March 24, the rebels took Bangui, and Turkalo got word that they were heading toward her area. She consulted with World Wildlife Federation staffers at the nearby headquarters of the Dzanga-Sangha National Park, who agreed that it was time to go. Turkalo joined a dozen others heading downriver toward the Congolese border, 50 kilometers to the south. More....