“I always wanted to do something different,” says Andrea Turkalo, one of the world’s experts on Africa’s elusive forest elephants. For most of the past 24 years, the former high school science teacher from Taunton, Mass., lived in the Central African Republic’s remote Dzanga-Ndoki National Park, an area she calls “the epicenter of forest elephants.” Working closely with a team of Bayaka pygmies, Ms. Turkalo, 61, a scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, documented the social behavior and physical characteristics of the elephants, which are harder to follow than their savanna relatives because of their dense rain forest habitat. She lived in a solar-powered, thatched-roof house, spoke Sango (the local language) and kept a machete in her pickup truck. Unfazed by coups, malaria and the risk of trampling, Ms. Turkalo identified and researched 4,000 individual elephants. Her presence helped deter poachers eying elephants for their ivory; by watching the animals closely, she could head off problems early. The region became her home.
All that ended abruptly last year when civil war in the CAR forced Ms. Turkalo back to the U.S. Grabbing computers, camera equipment and six hard drives, she and several female colleagues fled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Three weeks later, Ms. Turkalo returned to her camp and soon spotted Delta, an elephant she’d identified in 1992, with a new calf. Delta was nervous, glancing repeatedly over her shoulder—a bad sign in an area known as secure. “This might be my last day here,” Ms. Turkalo thought.
It was. Now back in Massachusetts, Ms. Turkalo works to raise awareness of ivory poaching. After she left last April, poachers massacred 26 elephants for their tusks. That was unprecedented in Ms. Turkalo’s immediate research area, but 62% of all forest elephants in central Africa were killed for ivory between 2002 and 2011, according to a recent landmark study. That statistic spurred conservation groups to push for more protection and government action to halt ivory imports and destroy stocks.
Since last May, there has been no more poaching at Dzanga. Ms. Turkalo credits efforts by CAR authorities, local workers and conservation-minded ex-commandos from Israel who help patrol the area. She still hopes to return to her old home when it is safe. “If I have the privilege of studying these animals,” she says, “then I have to protect them too.”