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We all put our heads down as the boat sped away into the night
Dzanga Bai, Central African Republic
The Dzanga deep-forest clearing, Central African Republic. © Elephant Listening Project

 

Elephant Listening Project


April 2013: Trouble in the Central African Republic
[Andrea Turkalo keeps us in the loop as trouble sweeps the core of Africa. A short time line of the conflict appears below.]
“[21 March] ...still in camp watching the evolution of the situation in Bangui, the reports are a bit conflicting.  Seems like Bangui will fall today or tomorrow and then we will see what happens. Last night at 20:00 I heard the French military plane and could only think that Bangui was heating up. This morning’s emails confirmed my fears.....No one on the radio from Bangui and it is noon.

“Don’t worry, I think I know the drill and in the past we haven’t had problems here.  I feel sorry for the locals, this is their country—we can leave.

“[25 March] We evacuated Bayanga yesterday going downstream to the Wildlife Conservation Society camp [in Ouesso, Congo] for a few days to see how the situation evolves. This was precipitated by news that rebels were heading east.  We didn’t want to wait, so packed up a few things and headed south on the river.    It was a beautiful night with almost a full moon on a beautiful river.  We had a close moment when we tried to run the border.  The gendarmes on the CAR side started firing into the air, so we headed toward them.  One of them was acting absolutely crazy threatening us.  I passively listened making some lame excuses.  Then a few of the younger men recognized me in the moonlight and started saying my name.  This diffused the situation and the maniac then turned into a collaborator.  It was eerie to see how fast the situation changed because once this guy started in on us I was sure we were stuck for at least a few hours, but all of this transpired in about 15 minutes.  As we headed off we all put our heads down as the boat sped away and I was waving with my head down.  I think our one advantage is that we were five women with two African men managing the boat.  This was one memorable incident and after we arrived in camp in Congo at midnight we recounted the experience with a lot of laughter.

"I think within three - four days we will have a good idea of whether it is wise to return.  The worse part about leaving was leaving the local people and trying to reassure them that we will return.  I think there is enough loyalty there to keep the infrastructure intact.”

Regards,
Andrea

[As of 11 April Andrea is still in Ouesso.]

 

  Andrea looks out over the bai
  Andrea at Dzanga. © Melissa Groo
We have been depending on email updates from Andrea since the beginning of the coup in Central African Republic (C.A.R.), thankful that she has had either a satellite phone or an Internet connection to send the occasional note. I think the emails reprinted above give a wonderful feeling for the character of this amazing person. Simultaneously she is considered, brave, pragmatic, humorous, and so genuinely interested in people (as well as elephants) that she has close contacts in the most amazing places and finds recognition in the most surprising situations.

 

We are all terribly concerned about what this extended breakdown of government in C.A.R. might mean for Andrea’s base camp, her team of Bayaka assistants, and especially for the forest elephants that know Dzanga as a sanctuary. More is at risk here than most people would know: a study system that can’t be replicated, the busiest known forest clearing in the world, and an extended family like no other—Andrea’s family.


A bit of the back story:

For the last several months, the C.A.R. has undergone a series of dramatic, violent political uprisings. In December 2012, rebel groups – calling themselves the Seleka, which means “alliance” in the Sango language – joined together to protest and overthrow the leadership of president Gen. Francois Bozize (Bozize himself took control of the country in a 2003 coup, although won election to the presidency in 2005).

In January, after a month of rebel advances toward the capital, Bozize and the Seleka signed a ceasefire agreement, but the deal quickly deteriorated as rebel groups marched forward. On March 24, conflict peaked as Seleka forces took over the capital, Bangui, forcing Bozize out of the country. The city and surrounding areas were subjected to days of looting and violence. Rebel leader, Michel Djotodia, declared himself President and Defense Minister in his newly appointed executive cabinet.

U.N. leaders oppose Djotodia’s take-over, calling it an “unconstitutional seizure of power,” and the U.S. has stated that it will not recognize Djotodia’s presidency. 

The C.A.R. is home to vast mineral resources, timber, and diamond industries, with considerable activity by South African and Chinese companies. China’s presence in the rainforests of the C.A.R. is of great concern for conservationists who recognize China as the leading importer of elephant ivory. And with so many recent power shifts, it is difficult to say how well Chinese activities in the forest are being monitored, if at all.

  Andrea in the ELP offices
  Andrea during a visit last summer. © Alexa Hilmer
We are all thinking of you, Andrea!

Peter H. Wrege, Director
Elephant Listening Project
The Elephant Listening Project is dedicated to the study and conservation of elephants, with a focus on the forest elephants of Central Africa. Visit the project's website at http://elephantlisteningproject.org.

Copyright © 2012 Cornell University, all rights reserved.
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