The Dzanga Sangha protected area, located at the Central African Republic, is one of the last unspoiled jungles of Africa. Gorillas, jungle elephants, leopards and the Baaka people live here together in a delicate balance which is being threatened by illegal hunting, deforestation and war. This photo essay documents the fight to save one of the last natural treasures of the African continent.
Makumba’s silver back shines in the thick of the jungle. With his 200 kilos and his piercing eyes, no one can compete with him in Dzanga Sangha. Makumba is more than thirty years old, and as far as the eight gorillas belonging to his troop are concerned, it is clear who is the boss here.
Makumba means ‘speed’ in the language of the Baaka, the pygmy tribe that lives with these huge herbivorous primates in this forest, spread between the Central African Republic, Cameroon and Congo. The alpha male received this name from the Baaka trackers when they saw how fast he fled from them when the “Primate Habituation Programme” was started, back in 1997, which has made this region one of the scarce places in planet Earth, along with Rwanda, Uganda and Virunga (RDC) where free-ranging gorillas can be observed. Some 400 individuals arrive every year to this remote corner of the world, just to live that experience.
“We have many gorillas here, and thanks to our habituation program, people can come here to observe them”, explains Luis Arranz, the man in charge of the Dzanga Sangha. National Park. This 62-year old biologist from the Canary Islands, former Natural Reserves manager in Equatorial Guinea, Chad and The Democratic Republic of the Congo, is currently managing, for a year and a half now, this protected area which is jointly managed by WWF and the Ministry of Waters and Forests of the Central African Republic. “This project with the gorillas is critical for the future of Dzanga Sangha, since it allows us to foster tourism and walk towards the sustainability of our preservation and research projects”. In other words, to raise funds for the preservation and the social and economic development of the area.
Hidden in the weeds, Makumba enjoys a fruit banquet, although he is constantly on guard, always keeping an eye on his family. His piercing eyes are just a storm warning. “I tolerate your presence, but do not go over the top”, he seems to warn. His concentration is broken by the sound of some broken branches. Inguka and Inganda, the 2-year old twins he had with Malui, one of the three females of the troop, come off from the thick vegetation.
Malui is the Baaka word for ‘ears’ that in her case, are especially prominent, although they could have also been inspired by her T-shaped nose, a characteristic inherited by the five offspring she has had with Makumba. The delivery of the firstborn, in December 2007, was the first occasion when the birth of a Western Lowland Gorilla, which is the scientific name assigned to the species, could be observed. For this occasion, Malui built a delivery room on the thick branches of a tree, at a distance of 15 metres from the ground. She made it all by herself, closely monitored by the father, who was eating fruit from a neighbouring tree, and by the younger adults, attracted by such an infrequent event.
In the light of these circumstances, it is not surprising that the Minister for Tourism, carried away in excitement, decided to name the baby Mowane, ‘gift of God’. The Baaka, who are more connected to the jungle, with their beliefs and traditions – they worship Eyengui, the spirit of the forest, always present in the depths of the jungle–, nicknamed it Tembo, after the tree in which he was born.
Like his brothers and stepbrothers, Tembo has grown accustomed to humans. On some occasions, they even try to play with visitors, a situation that the guides try to avoid by driving outsiders away. The experience consists of observing them, without touching them and treating them like pets, not to mention the risk of disease transmission.
To reach such a familiarity with gorillas has not been an easy task. It took ten years of hard work –the first visitors came in 2002 – and the involvement of the Baaka people. “They are the only ones who may follow the gorillas –underlines Luis Arranz–. They play a crucial role for the primate habituation programme”.
For the Baaka, the jungle is their homeland, and their deep knowledge makes them unbeatable when locating the species in a place of overwhelming luxuriance and limited visibility. The track of gorillas is elusive, and to follow their trail through the thick layer of dead leaves which covers the ground is a task which is beyond the capacity of inexperienced observers. Furthermore, primates also cover long distances in their fruitful pilgrimage through the tropical forest.
Each morning, one of the teams of the Program searches for the Makumba troop, from the rising of the sun to noon, when the replacement team arrives and a second group goes on with the observation, Buanga is one of the Baaka men who plays a crucial role to locate the gorillas and come back with the visitors, safe and sound. Today, the trailer rejoices while watching the mischievous manoeuvres of the twins of Makumba and Malui. For him, they are like part of the family. He spends long days with them, collecting key information for the scientists of the habituation programme.
The involvement of the Baaka in the preservation of the forest and the gorillas is their last hope as a threatened people. The sustenance of this millenary tribe, whose numbers currently barely exceed seven thousand individuals within the Dzanga Sangha protected area, is endangered. Their existence, their traditions and their identity are inextricably linked to the jungle, to their balance with it. However, new disturbances alter the spirit of the forest.
Besides the gorillas, the immense and coveted richness of Dzanga Sangha, one of the African ecosystems with a greater biodiversity, is complemented by leopards, buffaloes, antelopes, chimpanzees and one of the largest colonies of elephants of the African forests –4000 individuals, according to the last census. At the Dzanga Bai salt pond, located in the Park area open to tourists, it is very easy to find hundreds of elephants socializing at any time of the day. There is no other place in the world where this phenomenon can be watched. This privilege, on the other hand, is also its Achilles’ heel.
We do not suffer still professional illegal hunting, like Gabon, Garamba, Congo and other places, where a true war is being fought. Here, poaching is still practised at local level, but with the large number of elephants we have, illegal hunting will come soon –regrets Arranz. We must be prepared. Currently we have neither men, nor weapons, nor the training required to face real poaching. This is a race against the clock. I am trying to train the park rangers and have the necessary resources available when hunters arrive: otherwise, if we are not prepared, we will have a really bad time”. The consequences may already be noticed by the Baaka, as it can be easily verified during one of their hunting journeys.
Anisé leads a group formed by 20 male and female Baakas, who go deep into the forest in search of food and medicinal plants. He has a net and a spear, and he walks at a fast pace. The soft rays of the rising sun pierce the fog. Silence reigns, broken only by his whistling sound, imitating a bird call. The Baaka deploy themselves. Several of them hang the nets, others tighten them and the spear and branch bearers form an arch. A new whistle and a mess of howls resounds in the forest. Everybody shouts and beat with their spears for several minutes. Anisé travels around the traps. Once again, the forest could not do its task as food provider. “The forest is ours –says Anisé–. I was born here, and my people lived on the jungle, but to obtain meat is becoming increasingly difficult. And this is because illegal hunters”.
In the light of these circumstances, many Baakas have left Dzanga Sangha in search of alternatives. However, the harsh reality of the Central African Republic is much more difficult than the jungle. “They are considered second-class citizens. Nobody takes them into account. They are exploited, abused and treated as slaves by the Bilo people –says Emilia Bylicka, a Polish Doctor who works at the Monassao Hospital, in a community founded 40 ago by the Polish Church to care for those Baaka who leave the jungle. They are lost, they move from living in the jungle to live in a country which is devastated by war. It is very sad to see how they destroy themselves with alcohol”.
Liz Hall, a U.S. anthropologist who has already spent one year and a half treating them, is neither optimistic. “Their future is linked to this jungle, she states, but new generations do no longer understand the forest”. This is what the Ndima Kali project tries to mitigate; it has been developed by WWF to preserve the Baaka traditions, by supporting generation exchange. “My parents taught their secrets to me and I will do it to my sons and grandsons –Anisé says–, but today, they must learn the training of the outer world if they want to survive”.