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Story Publication logo July 29, 2020

Congo Basin’s Endangered Wildlife Find Unlikely Guardians in Indigenous Hunters

Image courtesy of PBS NewsHour.

In the depths of the second-largest rainforest on the planet, an Indigenous community is waging a...

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Image courtesy of PBS NewsHour.
Image courtesy of PBS NewsHour.

The Congo Basin is home to the world's second-largest rainforest and a unique array of biodiversity. But the ecosystem's remote location cannot protect it from the threat of poaching. Special correspondent Monica Villamizar and videographer Phil Caller traveled to the Central African Republic before the pandemic to report on indigenous tribal hunters working to protect endangered wildlife.

Judy Woodruff:

The Congo Basin rainforest is the second largest on earth, home to unique biodiversity.

But even its remoteness cannot protect wildlife like gorillas and elephants from the threat of extinction from poaching.

With the support of the Pulitzer Center, late last year, before COVID-19, special correspondent Monica Villamizar and videographer Phil Caller traveled to Dzanga-Sangha, a wildlife reserve in Central African Republic, to join indigenous tribal hunters who have turned gamekeepers to protect Africa's most endangered wildlife.

Monica Villamizar:

Bonda Blaise is following animal tracks through the forest. He is a member of the Bayaka Pygmies. Men and women hunt together, encircling the area with nets.

They don't use firearms, which are illegal to use for hunting within the Dzanga-Sangha National Park, only machetes and spears. They are looking for small animals and edible plants. All are expert trackers and imitate animal noises to drive their prey towards the nets.

This isn't a sport. It's survival, and, each day, they must go further into the forest for the hunt.

Bonda Blaise (through translator):

Our forests are being emptied of animals by poachers, who hunt completely irresponsibly, without following the rules.

Monica Villamizar:

The Bayaka believe the forest is sacred. This chant is a ritual asking for good luck.

They are one of the last hunter-gatherer communities in the world. Their diet is made up of plants and nuts they collect from the forest, and their source of protein comes from wild animals they hunt. If they fail to catch anything, their village will go without meat.

After four hours of hard work in the humid jungle, some of the women have managed to trap a porcupine in its den. They dig carefully, knowing that, if it escapes, all of their efforts will be for nothing. It does not, and celebration follows.

Back at the village, Blaise shows us his home. His community was traditionally nomadic, but now lives in a settlement at the edge of the forest. They have few employment prospects, and are seen as the lowest class of ethnic groups in the area.

Bonda Blaise (through translator):

I live here with my wife and five children. Tomorrow morning, I will leave home early to go to my job as a park ranger.

Monica Villamizar:

Working as a park ranger is one of the few jobs on offer to the Bayaka.

The national park is divided into areas. Most of it is off-limits to loggers and all types of hunters, sport hunters and poachers. But a few areas have been designated for traditional hunt, which is what the Bayaka do, hunting for sustenance.

Dzanga-Sangha is one of the remaining sanctuaries for species like the forest elephant, pangolins and gorillas, all highly prized by poachers. Protecting these animals is the park rangers' main task, and they have a fight on their hands.

Colonel Christian Ndadet, one of the chief rangers in the park, says poaching has caused major damage to the animal population. And seizures of ivory, pangolin scales and illegal weapons have gone up 80 percent in the last five years.

Poaching is carried out both by well-organized armed criminal gangs, and by local villagers trying to make a fast buck.

Does it trap the gorillas, like, their hands, I heard, right?

Christian Ndadet (through translator):

Yes, it can catch gorillas and other large animals. It's very dangerous, and it doesn't discriminate between females or infants. Whatever the size, the animal is caught in the trap and can't escape.

Monica Villamizar:

Gorillas are poached for their meat and body parts, which are used in traditional medicine or sold as trophies.

Christian Ndadet (through translator):

All of these tusks are from forest elephants. Our park rangers are the only thing that continues to guarantee the natural richness of this area.

Monica Villamizar:

The rangers' program is one of the first to incorporate local community members like the Bayaka. It's a multiagency partnership. The rangers are employed by the government, and supported by the World Wildlife Fund and an anti-poaching nonprofit called Chengeta.

The founder, Rory Young, recently introduced Dutch-trained cocker spaniels to detect ivory, weapons, and illegal bushmeat.

Rory Young:

They know that means they are going to go to work, which to them is play, so they are going to run there in a hurry, like, let's go, let's go, let's go.

Monica Villamizar:

Today, Blaise's unit and the two dogs, Bobby and Mitch, are searching for contraband at a checkpoint.

The rangers are the local police in the park, and they carefully check their weapons. Each bullet is precious. There is limited ammo to go around, and they have to share three assault rifles. Blaise and his unit have come under fire by poachers several times. It is a high-risk job.

Freddy, the dog handler, practices the search before the real work begins.

Freddy (through translator):

I love my work here. This job helps me feed my family. My parents are really proud.

Monica Villamizar:

The dogs help the rangers a lot, but they also have a psychological effect, because the community will start speaking, and it will spread by word of mouth that there are these trained animals that can detect illegal goods, and this dissuades people from poaching.

Each ranger makes $150 a month, which is three times the average salary in the Central African Republic. Deep in the Dzanga-Sangha forest are the critically endangered lowland gorillas.

Bayaka trackers are helping scientists study the gorillas, with their local knowledge of the forest and their ability to locate the elusive primates.

Right now, we have to be really, really quiet, because we're getting very close to them.

The exact number of these animals left in the wild is unknown, but scientists estimate that hunting, logging and disease have wiped out more than 60 percent of the population in the last 20 years.

Rory Young:

It's a perfect storm of destruction facing not only the gorillas, but the forest elephants and many other species and these forests as a whole.

Monica Villamizar:

Gorilla meat is sold in the market. Some people think it will give them the animal's strength.

Ghislain Malegbade used to believe this myth, and now he is one of the gorilla researchers.

Ghislain Malegbade (through translator):

I have discovered that gorillas are just like human beings. Before I started working here, I didn't know that gorillas act exactly like we do.

Monica Villamizar:

Scientists and rangers collect data on the ground and send it to Saint Louis, Missouri, to Dr. Odean Serrano. A former NASA scientist, she plots on a map the information from the ranger patrols, weather satellites and data from GPS collars placed on elephants and gorillas.

Odean Serrano:

The novelty is the correlation between wildlife trafficking and intelligence gathering and execution.

Monica Villamizar:

This research is helping to predict where poachers are likely to strike, allowing the rangers to better deploy their forces.

After a several hours' trek through dense jungle and across rivers, the forest gives way to a huge clearing, Dzanga Bai, or the Village of Elephants. Unlike their savanna cousin, the forest elephants have denser tusks, which fetches a higher price on the black market.

They have come to Dzanga Bai to access mineral salts in the mud to prevent dehydration. There can be hundreds of elephants in the Bai at any given time.

Rory Young:

So, elephants are a keystone species. So many other species depend on them being in the forests, and then we depend on these forests. The air we breathe comes from these trees.

Monica Villamizar:

Poachers sell these tusks for up to $2,000 a gram. The coveted pink ivory is mostly destined for markets in Asia, the U.S. and Europe. Young warns that, if poaching is allowed to continue unchecked, the rainforest can be completely emptied of wildlife.

Rory Young:

With an empty forest syndrome, you don't have any animals. You just have the trees. And you get undergrowth, thick undergrowth, and it's even harder to get animals back into those forests.

Monica Villamizar:

Last year, poaching trends started to decrease, thanks to the ranger program, according to Young.

But it's a constant battle to stay one step ahead of the poachers.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Monica Villamizar in the Central African Republic.