Central African Republic

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© Saba Douglas-Hamilton – Skulls of poached lowland gorillas in Dzanga Sanga, CAR

Bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo (previously Zaire), Uganda, Sudan, Chad, Cameroun and Congo (Brazzaville), it’s fairly unsurprising that Central African Republic has a history of unpredictable politics.  The most infamous of its dictators, Bokassa – who crowned himself emperor in the style of Napoleon Bonaparte (said on occasion to feed human flesh to foreign dignitaries) – is now long gone, but the country remains tense and at the time of filming rumours of a potential coup were rife.  We avoided the capital Bangui by flying straight from Douala in Cameroun, to a small logging town in the heart of the Central African forest, Bayanga, with a dirt strip that borders Dzanga-Sanga National Park in the southwestern corner of the country.

Here, two passionately dedicated researchers – Andrea Turkalo, who studies forest elephants, and Angelique Todd on lowland gorillas – hosted our visit.  Veterans of the jungle and committed conservationists, both amused us with horror stories of insect-borne parasites like filaria (which leads to elephantitus), or putze flies whose eggs, laid on wet clothing, hatch into infestations of larvae which burrow into your skin.  A tip on removing these revolting worms is to wait until they pop their heads out to breathe then roll out the rest of the body on a matchstick. Inevitably the most common cloth target is freshly laundered underwear, so ironing one’s clothes is a must – but beware of jungle coal irons which should be dipped briefly in to a basin of water to cool before being applied to clothing.  I managed to burn a massive hole in the seat of my trousers which didn’t help!

Returning to the theme of insects, one of my father’s favourite stories was of a Christian saint who’d pick up maggots as they fell from his suppurating wounds and press them lovingly back into his flesh, saying, “Eat what God hath given thee!”  Whilst I’m sure it had its medical upsides, and clearly delighted my father’s wicked sense of humour, I can’t admit to my love of maggots, mango worms, mosquitoes or filaria stretching quite that far.  There’s definitely an element of paranoia to one’s first days in the forest, but soon the discomfort recedes into a background of permanent itchiness and you just get on with life.  The Ba’Aka people deal with insects and the heat of the jungle by shedding most of their clothes, I often wished we could follow suit as the brush of rain droplets against skin was sweet relief.

The most interesting insect event we came across – apart from thousands of communal spiders in a palace of towering webs – was the slow motion horror story of an ant devoured from the inside out by the parasitic fungus Cordyceps.  It’s not a nice way to go, but does leave one in total awe of the day to day dramas of life in the forest.

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© Rowan Musgrave –  Saba meets the mythical forest elephants of Dzanga Bai, CAR   

In one of the “Babar the Elephant” children’s books the elephant king visits a planet of alien pachyderms. Approaching Dzanga Bai and seeing forest elephants for the first time reminded me of his experience.  The burbling sound of these secretive creatures blowing air onto mineral salts in stream beds echoes through the forest until, suddenly, you step out of the tangled vegetation into a very private elephant world.  Their vocal range is sensational – ranging across ten octaves – and can slide six octaves in a single scream. Andrea has recorded infra-sound in forest elephants down to a record breaking 3Hz, which is far lower than the infrasonic range of 20-14Hz in their savannah cousins.

The most sobering fact we learned was that forest elephants are highly sensitive to any kind of human disturbance and thus are good indicators of the vulnerability of forest to human exploitation.  Any track cut into the forest leaves a swathe of human impact up to 50 kms wide on either side of it – snares, logging, gunshots, scarcity of elephants, and a forest that is rapidly emptied and silenced through commercial hunting for bush-meat.  We filmed a traditional Ba’Aka hunt of duiker with nets – which is how they’ve always lived in the forest – but I was shocked by the number of Bantu poachers that have invaded Ba’Aka hunting grounds, who use snares and guns and whom we saw daily with poached duiker strapped to their shoulders.

Rising demand for hardwoods leads to an increase in logging concessions that are now cross-sectioning the Congo forest, building roads into previously impenetrable areas.  Even selective logging has a negative impact, for on the back of increased commerce and access comes growing human settlement and a corresponding demand for bushmeat.  Conservation NGO’s are alarmed at the rate of empty forest syndrome where the commercial bush-meat trade is clearing the forest of animal life particularly in Cameroun and DRC, bringing a deafening silence to the great Congo ecosystem.  No animal is safe, and we found mangabey, antelope and even elephant meat in the markets.

Whilst some logging companies apply strict ethical standards, others have no qualms about clear-cutting forest and wiping out animals.  There is also an imminent “protein-crisis” looming due to the upward trajectory of a growing human population, and the forest fauna simply cannot meet the demand.

With global warming at the front of our minds, I would urge airlines or large companies needing to offset carbon emissions to buy up logging concessions as quickly as possible and conserve the trees in perpetuity.  The longer we can keep the Congo forest whole the better, for a sustainable future on our planet.

Part of the BBC series, Unknown Africa

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