Natural World Hero

Andrea Turkalo

WIDELY known as The Elephant Whisperer, and considered to be the leading expert on Africa’s reclusive forest elephants

The Elephant Whisperer - Andrea Turkalo

Andrea Turkalo works for the Wildlife Conservation Society and has been studying the forest elephant population at the Dzanga Clearing in the Central African Republic since 1990. Andrea, sometimes referred to as The Elephant Whisperer is considered to be the leading expert on Africa’s reclusive forest elephants.

Andrea spent her formative years a world away from the forests of the CAR, in Taunton, Massachusetts. She lived here as part of a blue collar family attending public school until leaving the area to attend Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio where she majored in environmental studies and cultural geography. This period opened her eyes to the wider world, and gave her a taste of the wilderness with the opportunity to spend time in the Rocky Mountains. The remoteness and isolation appealed to her, preparing her for the Dzanga Study.

Interview with Andrea Turkalo

How did your career and passion for the natural world lead to you spending over twenty years camped in Dzanga-Ndoki National Park?

I was always attracted to wild places and spending time in the outdoors and never wanted to pursue the “normal” life I observed around me growing up. What truly changed my outlook on the world was joining the U.S Peace Corps which enabled me to live in other countries and learn not only other languages, but immerse myself in other cultures.

My first overseas experience was in Tunisia where I worked in a national park studying vegetation and after a two year stint there I went to the Central African Republic in 1980 where I worked for two years as a lycee teacher of biology, then I had the opportunity to go to the northern part of the country where I worked in a national park - Gounda-Saint Floris. This was at the height of Sudanese poaching of elephants in the region and at that point I decided that I wanted a career in conservation. Several years later while helping my then husband with work on his doctoral thesis we came to the Dzanga area. No one had ever studied forest elephants using direct observational methods and Dzanga was the perfect site. It is all history from then.

Do you have a single most influential or defining moment when you knew that you wanted to study forest elephants?

While working for the World Wildlife Fund in Bayanga, where I was doing public health with the local Bayaka Pygmies, I would go to Dzanga Bai where I realized it was possible to identify the individual elephants. This knowledge of the individuals gave me a sense of empowerment, and I realized that Dzanga was the place to study forest elephants, something no one had ever done.

Tell us more about the work that you do and how it supports long-term conservation efforts?

Our work on forest elephants at the Dzanga Clearing is the first and longest study of forest elephants. Unlike previous studies we have been able to observe forest elephants for sustained periods of time. Until our study, little was known about forest elephants and what was known was based on secondary evidence and anecdotes. Forest clearings not only opened up a new world for biological studies for forest elephants, but also for other forest species. Our daily monitoring also helps inform the park authorities about the threats posed to the wildlife, since if the area is being poached elephants fail to appear in their normal numbers. Since all protection surveillance has to be done by park guards, surveillance of forest clearings are a powerful monitoring tool and can help protect animals when regularly monitored.

You’ve spent a long time in the Central African Republic. What have been the biggest changes to the region that you have seen during this period?

The biggest change in CAR has been the change in human demographics which impacts directly on wildlife populations. Areas that previously had low human density are now inhabited, putting added hunting pressure on the wildlife. Some of this change has been due to civil strife forcing people to leave conflict areas for less inhabited and safer areas of the country but the biggest threat is from commercial logging.

In terms of conservation, what are the biggest challenges faced by forest elephants?

The biggest challenge faced by forest elephants is coping with less and less area available to them. Elephants require lots of space for feeding and ranging. Their space has been drastically reduced by commercial logging and other extractive activities. When the Dzanga Forest Elephant Study was first started, all the area to the east of the Dzanga-Ndoki Park was road-less, now it is all being commercially logged and inhabited by humans. This has resulted in compression of elephants into a smaller and smaller area. In addition to compression, poaching has escalated not only just for ivory but for meat to supply the protein demand of the increase in the local human population.

How can we change local attitudes towards nature? The Dzanga-Sangha Protected Area offers employment and opportunity - is this enough to influence change?

Employment is definitely the way to put less hunting pressure on the wildlife but the Dzanga Sangha Project is just one player and their impact is negligible in terms of the entire country. The national government of the CAR needs to attract private investment in order to create gainful employment for its citizens and so far this hasn’t happened due to corruption and more recently, civil strife. With an unemployment rate of more than 90% nationwide, its citizens have few alternatives in generating income. This results in over exploitation of the natural resource base which in the end is the livelihood of the poorest people in the population. When the natural resource base is eroded there will be true poverty which will affect everyone.

Can we as members of the public do anything that genuinely helps preserve the natural world?

Each person living in the developed world needs to evaluate their own personal consumption. Inhabitants of the developed world consume most of the world’s resources and produce most of the waste in the world and this is all at the expense of the poor of the world. We in the industrialized world are able to live the way we do only because the poor people of the world live at the level they do.

For people in the developed world it is not only a matter of donating to a conservation organization but also cutting out the waste and over consumption on a daily level. This is the only way the degradation will slow down. Inhabitants of the developed world live far from the natural resource base and have no real idea of how their consumption impacts the natural world. There must be drastic change.

What has been your best natural world experience to date?

I haven’t had one best experience in the natural world but have memorable ones every week when studying forest elephants. What astounds me on a daily basis is their awareness and sense of family connections.

Who is your own personal Natural World Hero and why?

I have many personal heroes and they are mostly the unsung heroes who go about their daily work without need of recognition. Some of them are the people I work with and depend upon to make my work possible. Many of my heroes are park guards who work under very poor conditions and get very little credit. More and more of them are dying in the line of duty.

What is your dream natural world destination that you haven’t visited yet but would like to?

Antarctica is high on the list because it is as different a place from where I have worked for many years.

What natural world insight would you like to leave us with?

My insight is that we are all interconnected and part of the vast natural realm. Our daily actions affect this realm and that we must all make a more concerted effort to curtail activities such as over-consumption which impact the natural environment.