Peace has returned to Dzanga Sangha but the battle to conserve its wildlife goes on
Nothing prepares a visitor for the first glimpse of Dzanga Baï. In the midst of the Central African jungle, the massive trees and dense foliage suddenly open up, giving way to a picture-perfect clearing. Dzanga Baï is an oasis in the rainforest: since time immemorial, it has lured hundreds of elephants, buffaloes, antelopes and giant forest hogs every day with its mineral rich soils.
Sadly, it has also lured poachers.
In May 2013, at the height of the civil war that tore the Central African Republic (CAR) apart, the Baï bled as well. Heavily armed poachers killed 26 elephants and left unscathed with their ivory. Meanwhile, militias also raided the headquarters of the Dzanga-Sangha Protected Areas (DSPA), looting vital surveillance equipment.
Admittedly the situation could have been far worse, but two key forces intervened. One was the hard power of the anti-poaching teams, which exhibited extreme bravery and resilience in very adverse conditions. The other was the soft power of the neighbouring communities, which have long been supportive of conservation efforts. In particular, their involvement in the WWF-run ‘early warning system’ played a crucial role in alerting authorities when presumed poachers were approaching.
With the insecurity over, the area reopened for tourism last July but challenges to the integrity of DSPA and its inestimable biodiversity remain acute. While poaching of iconic species such as elephants and gorillas is now rare, antelopes, monkeys and bush pigs continue to be targeted at an alarming rate by poachers and traffickers.
Covering 4,450 km2, the DSPA includes one community hunting area, a national park demarcated into two distinct sectors (Dzanga and Ndoki), and one reserve. The park, which harbours the precious Baï, is legally off limits to all human activity except strictly controlled research and tourism activities, while only limited harvesting of forest products by quota and with legal weapons is allowed in the reserve.
However, the reality on the ground is very different. The 74-strong force of eco-guards and trackers routinely return from their patrols with sizeable hauls of illegal weapons and bushmeat. In one of their most successful missions in 2014 – a gruelling nine-day patrol in the northern sector of the DSPA – the team confiscated 11 guns (10 of which were homemade), 59 rounds of ammunition and 193 steel snares.
"We are proud to work here to protect this jewel of our country," said team leader Zephirin Mbele Sosso, who has received five letters of commendation over the past four years for his outstanding dedication and effectiveness. “But our task is not at all easy. We have very large areas to cover, so parts of DSPA always remain at risk. We also sometimes catch poachers in the act, and they become aggressive towards us.”
The demand for protein is huge both locally and nationally, following the mass exodus of the Muslim herders during the conflict to safety in neighbouring Cameroon. The proliferation of small arms after the war also makes it easy for impoverished local people to acquire weapons and join the illegal wildlife hunting and trafficking business. The fight against poaching is further compounded by lenient gun ownership laws, which make it possible for many people to officially own guns. This creates a real problem for the DSPA authorities: even if confiscated weapons were used for poaching, if their legal owners claim them and pay an insignificant fine they have to be handed back.
In 2014, WWF – a long-time financial and technical supporter of DSPA – conducted a seven-week training course for the DSPA anti-poaching teams, which strengthened their knowledge of topography, first aid and weapon handling, as well as increased their physical endurance. And the results were impressive. In total, 217 guns, 2,729 rounds of ammunition and 30,150 steel snares were confiscated in 2014, while 581 kg of bushmeat and 14 elephant tusks were seized.
Following a tradition begun several years ago, all illegal weapons were destroyed and buried in cement pits in the ‘anti-poaching cemetery’ at the DSPA headquarters.
Justice was also served in the most serious cases: three poachers who were caught red-handed with products from protected species were transferred to prisons in the capital, Bangui.
But real challenges remain. One is the shortage of equipment for the anti-poaching teams, although they will shortly receive new uniforms, tents, mats, vehicles, and communication equipment. However, this does not resolve an underlying problem posed by the terrain itself: even state-of-the-art gear often fails in the thick forest and harsh climatic conditions.
At an institutional level, corruption and impunity also play a major part in enabling poaching and trafficking. A WWF-run project, which looks at the application of wildlife laws, found that over half the wildlife crime cases that enter the justice system face corrupt attempts to derail them, ultimately resulting in widespread impunity.
According to another eco-guard, Denis Ndomba Lambut, it is poverty and lack of alternative economic opportunities for local communities – combined with ever more sophisticated trafficking networks – that have resulted in today’s unprecedented levels of poaching.
But there is hope. Increased tourism could prove instrumental in reversing the current trend and reducing wildlife crime since communities are entitled to 40% of the park fees for local development. Lambut firmly believes that law enforcement is not enough and only by promoting multi-faceted programmes can conservation begin to pay off.
“We have to work much harder to educate people about the long term negative effects of poaching and about alternative solutions,” said Lambut. “If not, one day we will wake up and the forests will be empty. And then what?”