Published: September 2008

Forest Elephants

Elephant Eye

Forest Elephants

(Originally published in the February 1999 issue of National Geographic)

In a remote clearing in the Central African Republic, biologist Andrea Turkalo observes the lives of endangered animals.

By Don Belt
NGM Staff
Photograph by Michael Nichols
National Geographic Photographer

"It was once said that in Africa human communities were like islands surrounded by elephants," recalls Andrea Turkalo, of the Wildlife Conservation Society. "These days it’s exactly the opposite." She would know: Her pioneering study of forest elephants is conducted at Dzanga Bai, a remote, 30-acre clearing within one of the largest such islands on the continent—a cluster of rain forest preserves in central Africa. When Turkalo came here nearly a decade ago, little was known about Loxodonta africana cyclotis, the savanna elephant's elusive smaller cousin that makes up perhaps one-third of the 600,000 remaining African elephants. Ranging widely through dense vegetation, forest elephants are extraordinarily difficult to study. For years researchers considered themselves lucky even to spot a forest elephant, much less observe one, and based their limited conclusions on indirect evidence such as dung or feeding trails. Then Turkalo set up camp at Dzanga Bai in Dzanga-Ndoki National Park, where elephants congregate to drink and dig minerals from the soil. Today, working from a platform in the trees, Turkalo meticulously observes every elephant that visits, noting physical characteristics to establish individual identities, then builds on this data to study life histories, family structure, and patterns of group behavior. Equipped with insect repellent and a spotting scope, Turkalo spends most afternoons on her platform, "unraveling the intricacies of the forest elephants' lives."

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