This investigation was made possible by a grant from the Leon Levy Foundation
Last November Survival International, the London-based tribal people’s advocacy group, ran a story on its Web site about a big-game hunter and trustee of World Wildlife South Africa named Peter Flack who went on a safari into the rain forest of Cameroon and shot a forest elephant. There was a picture of Flack posing beside the dead pachyderm. This was on one of the private hunting concessions surrounding Lobeke National Park, in the southeastern part of the country. North of the park, according to Survival, on a new concession, one of whose partners was Benjamin de Rothschild, of the famous banking family, local anti-poaching squads, including ecoguards from the park who are supported by WWF Cameroon, were beating and evicting the Baka “Pygmies,” the country’s original inhabitants, from the forest they had been living and hunting and gathering in for eons. Survival’s story made it seem like Flack shot the elephant on de Rothschild’s concession, called Faro Est, and that it had just happened.
(Neither of which turned out to be true, but I didn’t know this yet.)
WTF? I thought. We’re supposed to be contributing to an organization that is dedicated to saving wild animals so its trustees can shoot them and that is abusing the human and land rights of the local indigenous people it should be working with and incorporating into the conservation and ecotourism efforts?
There are only about 65,000 forest elephants left, if that. They were only recognized in 2016 to be a different species from the larger savanna elephant, more closely related to the long-extinct European straight-tusked elephant, which went extinct fifty thousand years ago, the Indian elephant, and the wooly mammoth. Most of them inhabit countries with large blocks of dense forest like Gabon, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Cameroon and Central African Republic (CAR) in central Africa, and Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, and Ghana in west Africa. More than 25,000 forest elephants, 80% of Gabon’s population, were killed by poachers between 2004 and 2014, and the poaching since then has become even more intense. A new report by TRAFFIC estimates that one forest elephant is being killed every fifteen minutes. The tusks of forest elephants are harder and more orange and especially sought after by Chinese ivory carvers, so the heat is on. Plus logging and mining operations and oil palm plantations are devouring their forest, and they have a very slow reproduction rate. The females don’t start to bear young until they are twenty- three, while for savanna females motherhood begins at eight. It will take 60 years for the population to recover from the devastation it has already suffered, and the slaughter continues, so there aren’t going to be as many in sixty years as there are now. Here’s a photo of June II and her calf in the bai, or forest clearing, in Dzanga-Sangha National Park, Central African Republic, which I took in 2011:
In Cameroon there are only about three thousand left, if that, and killing them is forbidden, except in hunting reserves, or zones de chasse, surrounding national parks where trophy hunters from abroad like Flack can get a special permit for 33,000 euros from the Ministry of Eaux, Forêts, Chasse, et Pêche, to shoot a forest elephant and export its head and tusks to hang on their trophy rooms back home in Spain, Germany, Texas, wherever. But the Baka, who have hunted elephants for millenia, sustainably, only one or two a year per community— young men traditionally had to kill an elephant to prove their worthiness to the parents of their prospective brides, and the whole village feasted on its meat for weeks— are forbidden to hunt elephants and are beaten and thrown into prison if they are caught doing so, or caught killing elephants for their tusks at the behest of Bantu poachers.
There are roughly half a million “Pygmies” in central Africa, and wherever they are they are treated like chattel by the local Bantu. They are among the most intelligent and genial, gentle and cunning people, I have ever met, with an encyclopedic knowledge of and a connectedness with the incredibly diverse flora and fauna of their forest, cemented by a complex system of animistic correspondences and reciprocities, and they do this incredible polyphonic yodelling, which has been described as the Uhr music and karaoke with the sounds of the forest. The first “Pygmies” (Homer’s term for a mythical race of dwarves who lived south of Ethiopia, now considered pejorative, but there is no other collective term for these dimunitive forest people, only their tribal and sub- tribal names) I met were the Bambuti and the Efe, when I traversed the Ituri Forest in the northeastern DRC in 1983.
They were still living in camps in the forest, in domes of thatched mangungu leaf, hunting and trapping animals and gathering fruit and nuts. In 2013 a terrorist group called the Mai Mai, who are deep into witchcraft, invaded the Ituri Forest, and there were reports they were eating the Bambuti and Efe, whose flesh, they believed, would give them supernatural power. The Twa of Uganda, Rwanda, and the eastern DRC are completely marginalized. Forbidden to even enter their forest, they are living in the street and have lost their culture and their wonderful music. So these seemingly new reports of abuse of the Baka in Cameroon, which has been going on since the national parks were created there, in the CAR, RC, and Gabon in the 90s, are not surprising. But that the WWF was allegedly complicit in it, and participating in the slaughter of the country’s last forest elephants, was unconscionable, beyond the pale. But then the WWF has come under fire for many things of late. “All they do is raise money,” one prominent American conservationist, who has her own foundation, told me. “They are ineffective on the ground. I would never fund them.” And now its brand, with its incredibly successful adoption of the panda as its logo, is taking a big hit, with these allegations of serious misconduct in WWF Cameroon and Survival’s subsequent lodging of a formal complaint with the Organization of Economic Development (OECD) against WWF Cameroon and WWF Africa for violating the Baka’s human rights. The WWF is pulling in two million dollars a day and is funding over a thousand-so projects in a hundred-some countries, some of which are important science that I cite and circulate. I have had a productive relationship with both WWF and Survival over the years. I understand where Survival is coming from. The local indigenous people have to be cut in to the ecotourist action and allowed to live their traditional way of life, including sustainable subsistence hunting of wild game, and their homelands have to be protected. In the case of the Baka, they have a tremendous amount to offer, and are used as trackers as ecoguards, poachers, and trophy hunting guides alike.
Here are some of the Baka’s cousins across the Sanga River in the Central African Republic, the Babendjelle of the village of Yandoumbe, not far from the bai where they elephants are, doing a dance for Djenge, the god of the forest, in 2011:
I have to get over there and find out what’s going on. Elephants and Pygmies are sentient beings that I have had life-changing interactions with and care deeply about, and the WWF and Survival are valued collaborators.
Just before I left, a friend who has an ecolodge in the CAR, where Survival has been making similar accusations of WWF- supported park rangers beating up the local Pygmies and torching their forest camps, emailed:
“Write what you will but honestly as you may know I am not a fan of WWF but believe that a lot of the shit that has been spewed out by Survival International is just garbage. I had the bloke [The British primatologist running the local WWF outpost in Dzanga-Sanga National Park and studying the gorillas there) here in my camp and he said the Ba’aka were talking about things that happened 20 years ago as if they were last week…. Anyway I know you will do the right thing, just my opinion and heads up.”
His colourful caveat would prove sadly prophetic.
June 26: Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon
Cameroon is a little bigger than California, but it has incredible biological and ethnic diversity, five geographical zones, a mountain range that slices down from the arid north and culminates at its seacoast in 4216-meter Mt. Cameroon and is a global hotspot for spectacular and unidentified butterflies. The southern third of the country is rain forest, part of central Africa’s equatorial rain forest, the second-largest on earth, after the Amazon, and bigger than Borneo’s. The issues I will be investigating are in and around Lobeke National Park, in the southeastern corner of the country, on the CAR and near the RC borders.
More than 250 languages are spoken in Cameroon. 78% of its 35 million people are literate, but most still believe in witchcraft. More than 30% of the population lives on less than $1.25 per day. Cameroon is also very corrupt, the 45th most corrupt of the 189 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index.
I meet with Marius Talla, who brings his book on the many types and networks of corruption in Cameroon. “We have a lot of competence and a lot of resources, but they benefit a small number of people,” he explains. “It’s a problem of governance, of endemic systemic bad governance, which translates to bad comportment of people from ordinary citizens to managers. Conservation, health, education, all the sectors— the army, the police—you name it, the problem is governance. Household income is in the lowest 10% in the world. Everybody is just trying to survive. Survival for you and your family comes first, then doing the right thing.”
And there is no more plum target for people who are not concerned about doing the right thing than the well-heeled WWF. Only a generation ago, you could buy elephant or gorilla meat in village markets. Everybody 35 and over I will talk to remembers how delicious they were and misses them. Another thing the country is missing: a conservation ethos. It is still a relatively recent Western concept that comes in with the creation of the national parks in the l990s (with indispensable help from the WWF).
The German, French, and British who colonized it were only interested in extracting and harvesting every animal, vegetable, and mineral resource the place had to offer, with forced local labor. Three forest reserves were created in the thirties, protecting 40% of French Cameroon. Now there are 20 protected areas, comprising 12% of the country. In Gabon, which borders southern Cameroon and has the greatest number of forest elephants of any country, the national park system didn’t get going till ten years ago, when Mike Fay walked across the forest of central Africa and identified thirteen forest elephant populations, and then, camping with the hobos and other homeless people in Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., laid seige on Colin Powell at the Department of state until he agreed to urge Gabon’s president, Omar Bongo Junior, to create thirteen national parks based on their ranges, which he did, which has not stopped some of the populations in these protected areas from being decimated by poachers and miners.
I go the offices of LAGA, a feisty ngo that combats wildlife trafficking in Cameroon and nine other countries. Its front door is locked and guarded, to deter vengeful traffickers who have been released from prison sentences they never would have gotten without LAGA making sure justice was served. It even gives bonuses to government officials when a trafficker is successfully prosecuted, it pays them to do their job, and if the process is derailed, it goes to the press, to publicly shame the ones who have been bought off. Eric Taba, LAGA’s media person, explains that LAGA doesn’t go after the poachers themselves, which is the job of the ecoguards of the Ministere des Eaux, Forêts, Chasse et Pêche (who are equipped and logistically supported by WWF Cameroon). “We go after the buyers higher up the supply chain and dry it up. Our focus is on law enforcement,” Taba explains.
LAGA’s founder, Ofir Drori, is a 39-year old Israeli who was traveling around Cameroon in 2002 and rescued a chimp (Cameroon has three subspecies) and realized that the country’s l994 wildlife law, sections 101 and 158, was not being enforced: anybody found in possession of whole or part of a protected wild animal is considered to have killed or captured it and is therefore liable to a sentence of three years and/or three million Central African francs ($1700). “There are so many loopholes for the government unwilling to apply the law,” Taba tells me. “We are fighting a whole chain of corruption, right up to the judges. We actually got a judge sacked, and that’s a lot.”
A year later Drori started LAGA. In Cameroon forest elephants are the main victims, but also pangolins are killed for their scales, whose keratin is sought after by the Chinese for its alleged aphrodisiac and medicinal properties, and African grey parrots are netted and sold through the pet trade. Gorilla meet is sought after by Bantu politicians and lawyers who believe it will make them powerful speakers. WWF came to Cameroon in the early nineties, the same time as the trophy hunters, when the parks and the peripheral zones de chasse were being laid out. “The first impression when you say WWF is that it is big and ineffective,” Taba says. The World Wide Fund for Nature (whose American and Canadian branches are known as the World Wildlife Fund) is a huge multi-national corporation, headquartered in Gland, Switzerland, with over a thousand projects going in 100-some countries.“We at LAGA have a much smaller budget, and we are careful about cost- efficiency, and we look at the kind of money WWF is spending on staff and accommodations, and there is a lot of wastage. It is clear the majority of its projects here are mismanaged. We go over a list that I got from Survival of eight former or current employees of WWF Cameroon allegedly involved in wildlife crime, embezzlement, kickbacks, and other corruption.
- Dr Leonard Usongo – the head of IUCN Cameroon; a current high-ranking WWF employee confirmed that he was involved in the trade of African grey parrots
- Dr Martin Tchamba – a former head of WWF Cameroon; a former high-ranking WWF employee confirmed that he was involved in the ivory trade
- Vincent Anong – said to have been involved in the ivory trade .
- The odore Milong “Milo” Etonde – said to have been fired for giving ammunition to elephant hunters; the case was quashed in 2014, because the bullets were traced to a senior military figure, and for a long time Milo was pressuring WWF to give him his job back
- Herbert Ekodeck – Ofir can tell you a terrible story of how Ekodeck extorted money from a community and embezzled funds; according to a former highranking WWF employee, Ekodeck was involved in the illegal wildlife trade too
and three current employees:
- Olivier Njounan Tegomo – said to have been working with “Milo” but there wasn’t enough evidence to dismiss him
- Gilles Etoga – Ofir talks about how Etoga deliberately subverted investigations into kingpins behind the illegal wildlife trade
- Laurent Some – same as Etoga. He is now the head of all of WWF’s programs in Africa and Madagascar .
Taba confirms most of them and tells me about another WWF big shot who would tell young college graduate job applicants, okay you have the job, your salary is (a whopping 60,000 Central African francs a month ($110), but when you get paid, you must transfer 60% to my account. He calls a former employee WWF who comes over and provides three more names and offers to wear a hidden mike and get me direct recorded evidence of corruption. There is a bar in Yaounde where WWF drivers will talk about how much money they have to pay in order to be sent on a mission, he tells me.
“There have been reports of Baka being tortured for years,” Taba says, “and nothing has been done, it’s still happening. This is the third round of the same problem. So many people are abusing the Baka. WWF is totally uninterested, although they support the ecoguards who are doing a lot of it. So Survival has lodged the complaint with the O.E.C.D. about WWF’s complicity in human rights abuses. But Survival’s information is sometimes not that accurate, so it’s great you are doing an independent investigation of its allegations, and it’s great that an international journalist is finally going after WWF Cameroon.”
My driver, Eric Kamdoum, is waiting at 5:30 in front of the Hotel Girafe and we take off for Bertoua, the capital of the eastern region, in a Mitsubishi 4×4 truck full of provisions for ten days, on a four-lane 480-kilometer-long highway recently paved by the Chinese. After an hour we pass patches of rain forest with very tall trees, emergents rising fifty feet or more from dense forest like “monstrous stalks of broccoli,” in Tim Cahill’s inspired description. We are skirting the raggedy northern edge of the world’s second-largest rain forest. We begin to see more and more flatbed trucks with three or five sections of huge tree trunks, thirty feet long, five-six feet in diameter, chained to them, destined for sawmills and lumber yards in Yaounde or for the seaport of Douala to be shipped mainly to China. A depressing sight more and more common all over the tropics, Truck after truck after truck. We will pass hundreds on our journey south into the rain forest. A lot of ivory comes up from the forest on these trucks, and arms and ammunition, many AK-47’s, back down for the poachers to kill more elephants with. Here’s one of the many trucks, whose huge logs are barely visible through the dust it’s kicking up:
Bertoua is a sprawling, earthy frontier town, like Yellowknife in the Yukon or Altamira in the Brazilian Amazon, and a major ivory trading center. The ivory that comes here by now has changed hands and been marked up two or three times. Most of the buyers are Chinese, but some are native Cameroonians. From here the tusks go north to Nigeria or west to Douala. There was a big bust here not long ago. Some major kingpins were put away. In 2014 a gutsy freelance journalist named Damon Tabor interviewed a contract poacher in Bertoua, who had killed over 300 elephants in a 25-year career, and an ivory dealer who had been in the business for six years. Before that he dealt cocaine. In recent years Africa’s ivory trade has gone underground and is run by a handful of international crime syndicates who operate out of Nairobi and Mombassa, Dar es Salaam, Addis Ababa, Douala, and a number of air and sea ports in the southern Africa. They don’t only move tusks but anything else that is lucrative, like drugs and diamonds. A lot of diamonds are smuggled from the CAR to Bertoua, and there are Cameroonian diamonds too.
We head south. The good road ends, and we take a two-lane dirt road with deep potholes and washboards, made by innumerable logging trucks coming up from French and Cameroonian compagnies de bois that have government logging concessions and are laying waste to vast swaths of the forest and are eating whatever animals their hunters can shoot. It would be surprising if they weren’t also killing elephants.
In the afternoon we reach Batouri, where we pick up our cook, Michelle Mabielwou, who belongs to the Maka’a tribe, one of the main tribes in the southeast of Cameroon, who were brutally forced to collect latex from the abundant rubber trees in the forest by the Germans until they lost their colony in 1917, and fared not much better under the French until l960. Michelle was an unpaid intern at Lobeke for a year until last April and helped with the inventory of the park’s wildlife species, so she knows her animals, and has heard that some of the park and WWF staff are trafficking in ivory, but doesn’t know any details.
South of Batouri, in deep forest now, the first Baka start to appear, in roadside huts some of whose adobe walls are decorated with the same geometrical patterns Pygmies in the Ituri Forest paint on bark cloth (I have one on the wall of my study which I bartered with some Efe for.)
Here’s a Baka with a home-made guitar:
And some kids on the side of the road:
The Baka are mixed with the Bamango, a short Bantu people who farm and live in villages’ while the Baka hunt in the forest, but there is so much intermarriage and cultural fusion that the distinction is blurred. The Bamango regard themselves as superior and take our most beautiful women, I will hear from several Baka men, and both are exploited and looked down on by larger Bantu peoples like the Maka’a, the Bakmoli, Mbomam, Essel, Mbino and Mpong Mpong. There are around 30,000 to 40,000 Baka in Cameroon.
Darkness falls, and we enter a pocket of wetness in which a steady drizzle has been sifting down for hours, creating a quagmire of water-filled potholes for the next hundred kilometers, and don’t reach L’Hotel de L’Elephant in Yakadouma until 3:30 a.m, a brutal 22-hour work day for Eric, and we are on the road again at six. The sun is out, the road is better, and we make good time through narrow walls of red dust-covered foliage broken occasionally by the ruins of colonial buildings and factories. It’s like being in deep dark upstate New York, passing through mill towns that manufactured textiles and went under in the Depression or before, whose infrastructure has been crumbling and rusting for a century. Only this is deep in the heart of darkest Africa, and the ruins are all that remains of the German and French efforts to make their colony productive and to subjugate and evangelize the natives.
At three in the afternoon we reach the little trading centre of Mombele and the headquarters of Lobeke National Park. The WWF compound is like a palace of modernity, three clean white buildings with a big solar panel, and half a dozen spanking-white Land cruisers emblazoned with the panda and the word Sanga, for the trinational park complex that Lobeke is part of.
I find most of the WWF’s and the park’s managers sitting at laptops in the meeting room of the administration building, which has WI-Fi, the only Internet in many miles. One of them arranges for me to spend the night in a derelict bungalow at Camp Kembo, deep in the forest. The night sounds are incredible, a riotous, glorious biophony of countless insects, frogs, birds, and monkeys blending in a rhythmic, melodious continuum, punctuated by the occasional scream of a hyrax. There are also galagos, potos, bats, nightjars, civets and genets, gorillas, chimps, black colobus and many other kinds of monkey, leopards, duikers, bongos, and buffalo in these woods. In rain forests the sounds are far more important for location and identification, territorial defence and courtship, than what you can see. Standing on the porch of the bungalow, I turn on my little Olympus L-14 field recorder and record choice morsels of the full-throated night chorus, tutti speci, so random yet so in sync, which finally subsides and gives way to the rousing dawn chorus of the day shift taking over as the rising sun burns off the morning mist and gradually reveals the canopies, boles, and flaring buttresses of gigantic trees.
We drive south through the park. The road is good. The sun is out. The little dry season is beginning, Michelle explains. It lasts till September, when it rains beaucoup beaucoup, from September to December, then it is dry again in March, then the rains return. There are two rainy seasons and two dry seasons in Cameroon, whose duration varies with region and elevation and vegetation cover.
Petit Jean, my interpreter, who lives in the Baka community in the park and is sitting in the back seat, says yes, it has become un peu plus sec with all the deforestation going on around the park. He has a stammering, dreamy way of talking that sometimes trails off into nothing. He used to work for the park as a porter and tracker but doesn’t anymore. He is around thirty and has chipped teeth and his sister is married to a Bangando. “It’s forbidden for us to kill elephants now,” he tells me, “but we can guide trophy hunters. They kill the elephant and take its head and we get the meat.” Petit Jean knows nothing about Baka being beaten by ecoguards, “but we are arrested by them if we are hunting in park. But we can hunt bushmeat for our family in our community forest and outside of the park. The bushmeat hunters for the logging and gold-mining camps are not Baka.” He doesn’t know if they are killing elephants. I ask Petit Jean if the Baka believe in Umuntu, God, who made the world then took off and left us to our own devices, like the Babendjelle I visited in the CAR in 2011. He doesn’t know about Umuntu. “Our god is Jengi, the god of the forest,” he says. I know about Jengi. The Bayaka had a jengi dance when I was there, to give someone who had died a proper send-off. Jengi was portrayed by one of the men as a mop of whirling palm wisps the women and children would sidle up to then shrink back from in mock fear. Petit Jean knows a few old men who still play the forest harp, in forest camps from midnight till three in the morning, so their melodies will enter the dreams of everyone sleeping.
At noon we reach the Baka village of Banana, where a three-day Jengi is in progress. The thirteen-year-old boys are being initiated into adolescence. A lot of palm wine will be drunk, and everybody will dance for hours in the light of the full moon around the whirling straw Jengi, while special drums are beaten and the boys, with white-painted faces, sit motionless in a special hut.We stop at Yenga, a local cheferie, to talk to some Baka and Bamango sitting under a thatched arbor. The chief, one of the taller Bantu, comes out of his house and confirms that the Baka are chased out of the park by the ecoguards even if they are only looking for honey.
Banana is famous for its music-making. It was here that the enchanting must-see Youtube video, Yelli, was recorded and filmed.
“Welcome to our village,” one of the men, whose named is Palembi, tells us in better French than Petit Jean’s. “You are lucky we are here. In a few days we will all be going into the forest for several weeks to pick wild mangos.” I tell him that I have brought my guitar and recorder and want to record your music and jam with you and talk to you about the beatings and burning of your forest camps I am told you have suffered. I would like to stay for three days, but first, the chief of Yenga told me I have to go down to Moloundou and register with customs and immigration.
Moloundou is stiflingly hot and humid— 60 to 90% throughout the year— and sits on the Dja River, which is black and only 200 feet wide and full of crocodiles and giant tigerfish, the piranhas of the Congo basin, so taking a dip is not a good idea. The Dja flows into the Sangha, which comes down through the trinational park, and the Sangha flows into the Congo. It is the next big right bank tributary after the Ubangi. The Dja comes down from Nki National Park, which is much bigger than Lobeke and has more forest elephants, or had. Between 2005 and 2015 Nki’s elephant population dropped from roughly 3000 to 500. Now the poachers in Cameroon are going over the river to the RC and Gabon, where 25,000 forest elephants were slaughtered in Minkebe National Park alone between 2004 and 2014.
Moloundou is a big ivory collection center. What does not go up to Bertoua comes down here. 29 tusks were seized in Moloundou in 2013. Congolese poachers come over the Dja with guns which they give to the local Bantu to bring them ivory, and the Bantu who do their own poaching hire Baka to be their porters and elephant trackers.
The douanier is nowhere to be found, so we go to the gendarmerie and the commandant de la brigade de Moloundou comes out of his house in spanking white shorts and a Hawaiian shirt and long pointed white slippers. He must be the best-dressed man in town. His counterpart in Libongo, north of here, on the CAR border, was recently busted for trafficking in ivory. It would be surprising if he was clean. “My job is to catch traffickers in protected species, not only elephant but gorilla, pangolin, panther, and leopard,” he tells me. “We have a way of surveying both sides of the border. We have a collaboration with RC gendarmes but they are malhonettes.” The commandant goes through documents, looking for some way to extort $ from me. But I’m just a tourist who is visiting the Baka. No permit is required. Outside the gendarmerie, as we wait listlessly for the commandant to enter our names and particulars in his logbook, a road-kill dog is decomposing in the sun and being picked apart by crows and devoured by maggots.
We return to Banana and I meet Loni, the remarkable-looking older woman who sings the lead in the Yelli video. The song is a call to the elephants: our young men are coming to kill you so they can prove their courage and marry their sweethearts. Loni starts it off, then other women join in, yodelling in blended descending and rising duplets, while children dressed in leaf-cone hats and skirts shake and shimmy deliciously. I record it, and Loni starts singing in A minor pentatonic. She has perfect pitch. Here’s Loni:
the band keeps playing and singing nonstop with new members replacing played out ones all day long.
They think the bioacoustician Bernie Krause’s characterization of their polyphonic yodelling as “karaoke with the sounds of the forest” is right on. Loni imitates one of the great local bird songsters singing in the minor pentatonic — the blues scale, and that of Russian and Celtic music, samba, even eighth- century Taoist zither meditation music. Every culture’s music has the pentatonic, and thrushes, nightingales, and bulbuls sing in it, because that is how the ears of birds and mammals organize sound, in the twelve-note octave, which gives rise to the cycle of fifths, which gives rise to the pentatonic scale. (But Krause points out that the Baka have thirteen-note scales, and it is a grotesque anthropomorphic oversimplification to reduce the birdsong they are imitating to Western musical notation.
But because the Baka are forbidden to kill elephants, and the younger generation is into makossa, the national tribal-punk dance music, and there are so few elephants, the women are losing their power to summon them, and the Yelli song is dying out.
Here are some recordings from Banana:
(INSERT RECORDINGS HERE)
One afternoon I decide to go for a walk in the forest past the little creek in back of the village where everybody bathes and washes their clothes. Its banks are swarming with shiny little blue lycenid butterflies called kobo (equal stress on both syllables). I am kobO, old man, elder, a term of respect and endearment like papa in Cuba or the Swahili mzei. KOmbo is the gigantic split- leaved emergent kapok tree Ceiba pentandra guyanense. GObo is the wild mango tree. The Baka’s language is tonal. Different stress on different syllables of same word has different meaning.
It many tribal societies it is absolutely unthinkable that someone be left alone, particularly a visitor. Word spreads that le blanc KobO has crossed the bridge and gone into the forest alone, and soon Mbe comes running up the path to be with me, followed by two others. I ask them about the plants that we are walking past, a prodigious bewilderment of species with different leaves, flowers, and bark, whose names and uses that the three of them are totally on top of. In the next twenty minutes as we walk slowly for 200 yards they identify dozens of different plants along the path, in arm’s reach, and explain what what each is good for. This begile leaf makes a good compress for knee pain. These dodO leaves are like spinach. You put them in a salad with arachides (peanuts) and ngimba, this onion of forest. Bathe in the leaves of this gObo (wild mango tree) and women will love you.The bark of this ma tree protects kids from having bloated stomachs and gives you power. Mbeh slices a few slivers of the ma’s much-scarred bark and wraps it in a leaf with some vine and hands it to me. Wear it around your neck as a fetish and with the proper incantations of a sorcier, a sorcerer, it will make you invisible, he assures me. There are both black and white sorciers in the village, Mbeh tells me.
Such a wealth of knowledge that I am glad to see is still here, but for how much longer, and it is not being made use of or properly recorded. The Baka have so much to offer the ecotourism industry in the parks, so much is going to waste. A lot of lip service has been paid to the idea that the Baka should be incorporated and consulted in the park management plan since Lobeke was created in 2000, but it isn’t happening. Somebody has to get it going.
“Yes we were mistreated by ecoguards,” Palembi tells me back on the porch of the guest cabin where I have slung my Hennessy hammock. “We were on the edge of park, which had just been created [so this was after 2001. Palembi says it was l997. The Baka’s grasp of the Christian calendar, of numbers and dates, is shakey. The past flows into the present. It’s a big mistake for Western researchers to think tribal people think like us, have the same time of time and ability to count]. A lot of us were camped in the forest living off its meat and fruits and the ecoguards destroyed our huts. They beat a few of us and said get out so we went ten kilometres deeper. They said you can’t kill elephants, gorillas, or bongos any more. I was in prison in the north. The Moundang, the Bantu up there, put me in a cage for two years. We were collecting wild mango as is our custom, in June 2004. They took down our camp and beat us. My son was in prison last year. He got out in May. It’s hard for us to eat meat because every time we are in the forest someone shows up to kill us before we kill an elephant. We used to kill one or two a year and we fed whole village.” I later learn that Palembi’s eighteen-year old Renault killed himself in 2012. There is a lot of cultural demoralization, a lot of drinking, in this village, like the Indian reservations in North America. Many of the men are smashed not only on palm wine, but plastic packets of whiskey sold in Moloundou, twenty for 1200 francs, two bucks and change.
“My cousin, who is from the village of Ntembi,” Palembi goes on, “was out in the forest tapping rubber trees and building a trap for duikers when was attacked by a gorilla très méchant. He killed it with a spear, and the ecoguards heard about it and put him in prison for two years. This was also in 2004. I don’t think it was right. He was defending himself. The gorilla could have killed him.” A seventeen-year-old man named Lionel, who is listening to all, this begs to differ with Palembi. “I think prison was justified for your cousin,” he says. “He killed a gorilla, and that is illegal.” Lionel is Mangando and is married to a woman from here and works in the village’s cacao plantations. He doesn’t drink or smoke ndaku, cannabis, which is illegal in Cameroon but which most of the musicians are passing around spliffs of. Pretty much all the Pygmies I have met over the years were potheads. They are believed to have acquired the habit from Arab slavers and ivory hunters centuries ago.
Lionel confesses that he used to be an elephant poacher. “I was working in a champ for the doctor who runs the centre de santé in Moloundou. There were four of us. This was a year ago. Four ecoguards from Lobeke came looking for guns. They said you are the Baka bracconiers, the poachers we have been given information about, and took us to Salapoumbe and beat us. He shows me the scars. We said we don’t have any guns. They beat us some more and finally let us go. But I had killed elephants twice before. The ecoguards must have known we were doing this job. People from Congo come and give us guns and tell us to kill elephants and bring us the tusks. They pay 1500 francs ($2.50) for both (which will go for $1500 a pound in China). I have done it twice before I was beaten. I shot them out of the park. But I will never kill another elephant, for any price. I have a wife and son now and I don’t want to go to prison. Je ne peux plus.”
Lionel tells me about a friend of his called Manga who died in prison up in Yokadouma in May. Manga was from the nearby village of Macuca. We go there and talk to his mother, brother, and widow. They say he was a porter for some Bantu braconniers and some gendarmes came and found their AL-47 in his hut. “He wasn’t a poacher himself, so he shouldn’t have gone to prison. We haven’t even seen his body or found out if he was buried or where,” Manga’s widow tells me. “We were only told he died. We don’t have the means to get to Yokadouma. Someone betrayed him. We don’t know who. We don’t who gave him the arms.” “Come on,” her brother-in-law says.” “Okay,” she says, “Des Congolais.” Manga was 28 and had three kids. It was a real tragedy, but Lionel says no Baka are beaten or thrown into prison any more unless they are involved in poaching or hunting in the park.
Manga’s family members:
Back in Banana, Palembi tells me, “The ecoguards won’t let us set traps in their zone, but we need to set traps to pay our children’s school fees. This could create war. An American named Jonathan who was with the organization to protect indigenous people took me to South Africa to testify what was being done to us.” This was, near as I can determine, in 2004.
Lognia Safari Camp and the Questionable Place of Trophy Hunting in Wildlife Conservation
July 4. We leave Banana and head back north up to the park, but at the crossroads at Ngilili we veer right to stop at the trophy-hunting safari camp where Peter Flack shot the forest elephant. The camp is in one of the zones de chases south of the park. The expose by Survival that one of its South African trustees had shot a forest elephant was so embarrassing that Flack was dismissed within the month, despite his protests. But Flack isn’t the first big-game hunter to serve on one of its boards. King Juan Carlos, then president of WWF Spain, was caught trophy-hunting in Zimbabwe in 2012, and had to resign, and in the late nineties I visited Frances Kellogg, the president of WWF USA from l969 to l971 at his study in Bedford, New York. Its walls were adorned with the heads of trophy animals he had shot in Africa; some of them were world records. (Kellogg also worked for the CIA. He tried to recruit a friend of mine who had just graduated from Williams, offered him a job as a field reseacher for WWF that he said was actually a cover, he would be gathering intelligence for the CIA. But I found no evidence of CIA involvement in WWF Cameroon, all of whose employees are
Cameroonian.) And the president emeritus of WWF International is the Duke of Edinburgh, who shoots birds and stags on Balmurol, the Windsors’ country estate in Scotland, but not African big game. Peter Flack is a passionate member of the school that believes hunters make the best conservationists. Here is his blog about his expulsion from the board of WWF South Africa following Survival’s revelation that he had shot a forest elephant. And here is his sensitively-written account of the hunt.
Flack has produced twelve books, including five on “hunting the spiral horns,” seven films, hundreds of magazine articles about his hunts in some 15 African countries. The trip to Cameroon took place in 2005. Not in 2016, as Survival made it seem.
In fact the American conservation movement started with the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1880 by Theodore Roosevelt, an avid big game hunter. It did not have any compassion for the local native Americans, who were evicted from their sacred hunting grounds and classified as poachers, and that’s the way it went in colonial Africa, with the creation of South Africa’s Kruger Park, Albert Park in the Belgian Congo, and the others that followed. A section of these protected areas was designated for big game hunters from Europe and America, and so it was with Lobeke. If an elephant in the park wanders into one of the zones de chases, he becomes fair game. And if Baka wander into one of them to collect honey or wild mangos, they are beaten badly.
Why are Cameroon’s national parks surrounded by these zones de chasse? It’s inhumane, bad zoning, a throwback to colonial days. If an animal is safe in Lobeke park but the minute he steps into one of the four zones de chasse, BLAM, how can this be considered wildlife conservation? And elephants are actually being killed in both, and there are these ill-defined conservation areas wedged in where the Baka are supposed to be allowed to do their traditional subsistence hunting and gathering, but if they wander into the park or one of the hunting zones, BLAM too. To the locals and the conservation professionals this set-up must seem ridiculous, and when you think a system is ridiculous, you either quit it or try to change it- good luck there— or milk it for everything it’s worth, which is what a lot of the folks are WWF Cameroon and Eaux et Forets seem to be doing.
Ngilili is where Lionel and his three friends were beaten by the egoguards. “Yes, Safari nous menacent when we go to collect wild mangos,” a Baka man there tells me. “It’s now meme the season, and they keep us from entering, and this is no longer the hunting season, which is from March to June and just ended. They are about to close up their lodge but their guards nous menacent. The trophy hunters pay 33 million francs to kill elephant, bongo, buffalo, sitatunga when they are protected, and none of us are guides. They kill the elephant and don’t give us the meat. None of our children have tasted a morceau of elephant.” The poacher is paid 1500 francs ($2.50) for a pair of tusks by the Bantu who sells them to Congolais who sells it to the Chinese and in China they fetch 60 million francs, I tell the assembled crowd. They are astonished.
Another man tells me “I was beaten in 2005 by soldiers because I was the porter for two Bantu poachers. We killed one elephant. Just so you know they haven’t paid me to this day, not a single franc. The soldiers came and beat me hard. The Bantu were arrested and they took the three of us to the brigade in Moloundou. They set me free after six hours and sent the Bantu to prison in Bertoua.”
Another man tells me, “My brother-in-law was beaten to death by the guards of Safari in August 2014 because he was in Safari’s forest picking mangos. If we go there now something will happen to us.” But Safari is 122 kilometres from here. Aren’t there any wild mangos closer? I ask. “Yes, mais pas beaucoup. There is no meat within fives miles. Only the Bantu have pigs, goats, sheep, cows, chickens. We work in their fields and they pay us almost nothing. We have cacao but all of it is sold and now we are suffering. WWF and Eaux et Forets are mélangé with Safari. A lot more animals are being killed than Safari is allowed to kill.”
We continue north and reach the turn-off for Lognia at 1:30. The road leads through the forest over a board bridge to half a dozen cabins and a mess hall. Half a dozen dogs— African barkless dogs bred to bark— run up to the truck barking viciously. The camp closed four days ago, the chief guard, Alain Lamedou, tells me. Pepo, the head guide who runs the camp, has gone to Douala. This is one of Oldivi Safari’s two hunting concessions totalling 186,000 square kilometers. “Every year we get a quota,” Lamedou tells me. One elephant, also bongo, sitatunga, buffalo and sambar deer. This season our quota was eight animals and we had eight clients. Most of them were from Texas. I am a taxidermist, and prepare the head to be shipped to them. We have a network of roads and drive them with our 4 by 4’s and when the Baka riding in back see tracks, we stop and the dogs follow the scent and the pygmies follow them and we follow them with the client and when the quarry is cornered by the baying dogs, the client comes and shoots it.” How sporting.
If Lognia is killing only one elephant a season, that I can live with, and so can the elephants. That is sustainable. But are they? Are more being killed, in collusion with Eau et Forets and the ecoguards and WFF staff at Lobeke, which I will be hearing allegations of? That’s the question. Also the Baka communities being allowed to kill one or two a year, for ritual and nutritional purposes, as Survival and several progressives at WWF would like to see happen, probably should be allowed. As long as it is monitored and enforced.
The 33,000-pound license fee for bagging an elephant goes to Eau et Forets, which is supposed to use it to improve health-care, education, and living conditions in the local communities, but this isn’t happening. Most of the money is going into the hunting guides’ pocket, I was told in Yaounde by Marius Talla, and to launder trophies that exceed the quota. “A few years ago I went to a conference where
Gilles Etoga [one of the alleged bad actors on Survival’s list] was singing the praises of trophy hunting, and we got into a huge shouting match. Etoga is still with the WWF. We are more civil with each other, but if anybody should be killing an elephant, it should be the Baka, for their rite of passage and nourishment.
“WWF is trying to do wildlife law enforcement,” Talla went on. It’s a la mode. The confiscated illegal tusks are sold at auction to anybody. They aren’t burned in huge bonfires like Kenya. Seized tusks, leopard and panther skins, and other illegal wildlife parts are kept under lock and key at Mvog-Betsi Zoo in Yaounde. One day LAGA went to the zoo to see the trophies and found they were back on the street. A big part of why conservation isn’t working in Cameroon, as in all the other sectors, is governance.”
Nothing here is bringing me any closer to the notion that trophy hunting is good for conservation. You can join Eric or Donald Jr. Trump on one of their big-game safaris to Zimbabwe if you contribute a million bucks to either of their foundations, but does the money from these hunts go to keep the parks going and the animals protected and to pay the rangers who are putting their lives on the line to combat the ivory poachers? Does it trickle down? Dream on. In fact, in 2013 disgruntled unpaid rangers poisoned a waterhole in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park with cyanide that wiped out the elephants and all the other animals that came to drink from it. Poachers and other rangers started doing it, in Zambia, too, and other countries. Cyanide is a cheap, silent, reliable way to get ivory. Poachers inured to killing elephants don’t feel guilty about the collateral carnage. Tanzania also allows big-game hunting and the proceeds are supposed to be used for conservation, but last year 11,000 elephants were killed, some by rangers on anti-poaching patrols. In South Africa there are private reserves where rare animals are raised and their herds are carefully managed.
Some are culled by trophy hunters, which helps defray the cost, some are butchered and sold to restaurants and meat markets. But that’s different. Peter Flack, in fact, is involved in one of these operations.
Lamedou is from Moloundou. He offers to take me on a private hunting safari around there in December, before the new season begins. Any animal I want, he can get it for me, for a lot cheaper.
Back in the park, next morning I take off from the WWF compound with an ecoguard named Lucien and a Baka porter for the Mirador, the observation tower at a clearing deep in the forest visited by elephants, gorillas, buffalo, bongos, and sitatungas. After 40 minutes we turn off on a slick track that goes four kilometres to a clearing where the sixkilometre trail to the Mirador begins. A gorilla not two hundred yards away barks, not a bloodcurdling roar but a greeting, more like who’s there? He is the scout of a family that a team of primatologists from WWF Japan have been trying to habituate since 2013, probably the subadult male. The clearing is swarming with big spectacular nymphalid butterflies. There are 11,000 known species of butterfly in Cameroon, and others waiting to be discovered. The highlands are a global hotspot for spectacular lepidoptera, including new species.
Birds are gurgling, burbling, whistling, chattering and laughing as we unload our stuff from the truck; one keeps letting out a weepy oui oui or more like the Rwandese ngwityi, come again? Eric is coming for us tomorrow at three. Lucien, in green uniform and rubber boots, cradling a green Colt M-5 submachine gun under his arm, leads us down the sixkilometer-long trail. The forest is full of majestic bois blanc and kapok trees with flaring buttresses going 40 feet up their trunks and another 60 feet into the ground. The watercourses are lined with Gilbertiodendon. These trees and the kapoks and wild rubber trees are close West African relatives of the ones in the Amazon. Africa and South America were joined until sixty million years ago, by which time the ancestors of these trees had evolved. The only animal we see, fleetingly, is the orange flash of a bongo, the largest forest antelope, disappearing into the underbrush. We make it to the overnight camp near the Mirador at dusk. As I sling my hammock and the others pitch their tents, there is a loud pop a mile or two away. What was that? I ask Lucien and he says, “The presumption is a carbine. The road is too far away for it to have been a blow-out. If we hear another shot, it is definitely a carbine.” We don’t. Lucien says, “The presumption is still a carbine.” WTF? Somebody is hunting deep in the park, right near the clearing. Somebody who works for the park, or somebody from the outside? Somebody who knows where the animals are, so probably the former, and it is probably condoned or not being investigated. Maybe even another ecoguard.
The sun sets and the crepuscular biophony reaches a crescendo, then the camp is lit up by gleaming lucioles, fireflies. At 3:30 a.m. it starts to rain cats and dogs and in the morning we slog to the Mirador and climb up to the observation deck. A family of gorillas— a dominant male and his consort, a subadult male, and three children— two hundred yards away, on the other side of the clearing immediately notices us and recedes into the thick jungle, leaving only a large royal eagle with snow-white head and shoulders up in a palm tree. They were western lowland gorillas, the most widespread and numerous of the four gorilla subspecies. According to the WWF. “No accurate estimates of their numbers are possible, as these elusive apes inhabit some of Africa’s densest and most remote rainforests. However, the total population is thought to number up to 100,000 individuals.” Cameroon also has the rarest subspecies, the Cross River gorilla, with fewer than 250 adults remaining.
A bongo appears, sees us and stays grazing and is joined by a sitatunga. No elephants, but there are fresh, water-filled tracks, the size of giant pizza pies, right below the Mirador, coming from another clearing, behind an impenetrable thirty- foot high wall of faux palmes, as high as the Mirador. I have already sliced a finger on one of their serrated fronds.
This may be a bust animal- wise— Lucien says the animals don’t always come to the bai after it rains— but the wildness is spectacular. Fastened to the boards of the cabin on the observation deck are dozens of needle-like nodules woven by sweat bees and packed with nectar and pollen and eggs that will hatch into their progeny. The bases of the nodules are swarming with little black ants.
Lucien is 38 and has been an ecoguard for 18 years. He is strong, intelligent, dependable, the kind of guy you want to have watching your back. He knew the ecoguard who was killed by poachers in 2011 and Dani, the one who was shot during a firefight with poachers last November, and he knows the story that Dani could have been shot by not by them, but by one of the other ecoguards on patrol with him, who had it in for him and took advantage of the situation to off him, which I have heard or will hear from several others could have some truth to it and is still being investigated. The poachers were two Bantu and one Baka. They had one AK-47 between them.
“There are many things still to do here,” Lucien tells me. “Many armes de guerre are coming over from the RC and the CAR. Most of the ivory poached in and around the park goes down to Moloundou. The young are not interested in agriculture so they hunt. The Baka can’t buy weapons, but the Bantu can, and the Baka accompany them. The thing about the Baka being intimidated by us is that there is no act of poaching in which Baka are not implicated. And the chain of custody is clear, from the poachers to the Bantu who commissioned them to the Chinese or Bantu or Congolais collectors. There is also braconnage blanc in the park administration. Elephants are being killed in the park [by his fellow ecoguards, Lucien fails to tell me], and the ivory is taken to the colles blancs [the managers I’m meeting with tomorrow; is he accusing some of them of being involved in ivory trafficking? I should have asked him, but didn’t], or the gendarmes and they sell it to higher-ups in the government, the police, or the military, and where it goes from there I don’t know.” Lucien makes 6000 francs, less than ten bucks a day, plus rations, but only when he is en mission. I can see why some ecoguards might be tempted to supplement their income by snagging a few tusks themselves. One of Lobeke’s was busted for doing so not long ago and is in prison. And the ecoguards would naturally bring the ivory to their bosses. A particularly reprehensible chain of custody.
Lucien says he wants to retire soon. The work is too dangerous and ill-paid, and the ecoguards don’t even have radiophones or GPS— standard equipment in WWF- supported parks around the world— which would enable him and his colleagues to track the movements of the poachers and their quarry, and to radio for help if they got into a firefight. Lucien takes the opportunity to ask me for five thousand bucks so he can retire and return to his family in Yokadouma and buy some land and grow cacao.
On the way back up to Mombele we pass the white truck of Safari, which has picked up a new client at a nearby air strip. Trophy hunting season is over, but if a client wants to kill an elephant, pas de proble me, he is accommodated.
Before heading to the Mirador, I struck up a friendship with Albert Kembou, who is here for three months, consulting for the WWF. He has been the conservateur of several parks and has been to the States and speaks pretty good English. I tell him that I am here investigating the allegations of abuse of the Baka and corruption in WWF Cameroon, and that I have had a productive relationship with WWF US going back to its early presidents Russell Train and Frances Kellogg, and that its first research scientist, Thomas Lovejoy, was a major mentor when I first started going to the Amazon in 1975— a brilliant man, Lovejoy coined the term biodiversity, one of the two cliches of conservation and environmentalism, the other being sustainability. And Kembou said— we were standing in front of the WWF guest house, where I was staying this time, waiting for the guy with the key to arrive — “there is no sustainability in biodiversity. There is only one constant now: global warming is affecting the ecosystems of the entire global village unilaterally, whether you like it or not.”
Kembou is totally in agreement that the Baka have so much to offer with their extraordinary knowledge of the fauna and flora, and need to be cut into the ecotourist action, which at this point is almost non- existent. They could take the tourists into their thousand-acre community forest right in the park, and the profits should go directly to them, he says.
I tell Kembou I would like to meet with all the park and WWF managers when I get back from the Mirador, and share my impressions with them, and I have many questions about the things Survival International has been putting out about WWF Cameroon.
At nine we gather around the big table in the meeting room: the conservateur of the park, Achilles Mengmenya; the local WWF director, Bernard Nyouman; the local coordinator between WWF and Eaux et Forets, Olivier Tegomo; the charge d’inconve nients, Simon Mpouop, whose job is to follow up on any poachers or ivory traffickers who have been arrested and to make sure they are brought to trial; and Albert Kembou.
I start off by saying, “Look I’m only a visitor, this is your country, I hope you will take my impressions and questions and suggestions in the spirit they are intended.” They nod appreciatively.
We talk about the need to incorporate the Baka into the conservation and ecotourism program. With their incredible knowledge of the forest, and their polyphonic music, which is like karaoke with the sounds of the forest, they could be a major draw. Including the Baka and allowing them to have do their traditional subsistence hunting is one of the original resolutions of the Sanga trinational park complex and of WWF Cameroon when it formed the partnership with Eaux et Forets to manage the park in 2006. The cutting-edge conservation strategy is to cut the local indigenous people into the ecotourist action. I tell them about Shompole Group Ranch, in the Great Rift valley, right on the Kenya/ Tanzania border. Anthony Russell, whose father was a great white hunter who shot 55,000 crocodiles in one lake in Tanzania, Ruzizi, was trying to make amends and with a Swiss partner designed and built a fantastic ecolodge at Shompole whose suites rent for up to $1500 a night, and is owned and completely managed by the Shompole, and they get a third of the profits. Now there is electricity and running water to every hut. Before the women had to walk four hours for water. The biggest former poacher now understands that a lion whose skin fetched $100 on the black market is worth $25,000 in tourist dollars over the course of its lifetime. He is now Shompole’s main wildlife guide. Also some ecolodges in the Masai Mara are run by the Masai and the profits are going to improve conditions in their communities.
The conservateur says, “The memorandum of the entente has been on the Minister of Eau et Fore t’s desk for three years, but he still hasn’t signed it. [The Minister, Elvis Ngolle Ngolle, according to LAGA, is a worthless donothing.] Last year the fore t communitaire of Mombele was deeded to the Baka and this new memorandum is about how to incorporate the Baka in and around the park to make it more operational, to help us expose and capture those who are illegally exploiting its resources. It starts by recognizing the Baka’s droit foncier, their legal rights as landowners of 43,840 hectares of the park and 217,820 hectares outside it. It even allows each community to kill elephant a year for their ceremonies and nutrition. WWF is financing the creation of these spaces.” But two months after this conversation, it will turn out, acccording to Survival (I’ll be getting to this at the end of this report), that WWF Cameroon is not okay with the Baka having a say in how these conservation areas — their own forest, the part that has not been taken for the park and the trophy hunters— are going to be managed.) The WWF director, who is at the table, says nothing.
What about getting radio or sat phones and gps for the ecoguards? They could be lifesaving if a patrol got into a firefight with poachers or was attacked by elephants or buffalo. This is essential equipment for rangers putting their lives on the line, and standard in parks all over the world. In Thailand, for instance, I tell them, I visited a national park where the rangers were WWF-supported, and they had gps so they could document the exact location of elephant or tiger dung and footprints of poachers, and motiontriggered infrared cameras on welltraveled corridors so they could track the movements of animals and their hunters twenty-four-seven.
“The solar communications tower for the radiophones is 80-90% done and will ready by the end of the year,” the conservateur assures me, and s.o.s., a German type of g.p.s. for the rangers, are on the way. Each radiophone and s.o.s. set costs $4000— he shows me one, and there are 46 rangers, half of whom are on patrol at any given time, so we are getting a dozen of them from GTZ, the German ngo. Once the tower is up and running, an s.o.s transmission from anywhere in the park will appear immediately on a screen, giving its exact location.”
How many elephants are there in the park? According to the last census, in 2016, about 1000.
The ecoguards, the conservateur explains, get technical, logistical, administrative and coordinating support, from the WWF, but the state supplies their guns [like Lucien’s Colt M-4 machine-gun. An Americanmade weapon. Who supplies the state with such arms?]. “Let’s be clear,” he continues, “there is hard protection and soft. Hard protection is the application of law, soft is sensibilization of the population, so they can participate in the sustainable exploitation of their resources.
Three partners, WWF Cameroon, Eaux et
Forets, and the Sanga people are collaborating on this initiative.”
I ask Simon Mpouop what exactly it is that he is doing. Previously he had told me he worked closely with LAGA, but nobody there now has heard of him; he did work with the head of LAGA’s legal section, who left in 2013. Now he says, “We see where LAGA publishes that someone in the ivory trafficking chain has been arrested and is going to trial and follow up.” He has to find out who has been arrested from them?
The conservateur describes the chain of braconnage. “The local Bantu who have been contracted to get ivory go into the forest with Baka porters and trackers, up to 15 hunt for two weeks, a month, as long as the forest is rich, abandon the carcasses and take tusks to their commandant, who takes them to the acheteur, who is Nigerian or maybe Chinese. The ivory is transported in what could be a government vehicle. Government officials are always involved because only they can facilitate transport. Or they could be hidden in military vehicles, gas tankers, or log trucks. How can they be found in a 20-ton truck? Only with la sorcerie. We have been asking for help, for WWF and or the U.S. embassy to give us a scanner. We have seen army colonels involved in trafficking,” he tells me.
I ask now: what about your own administration, any bad actors?” and the conservateur says, “We caught two ecoguards with ivory. They are in prison, so is one douanier from Djoum, south of here, and the commandant of the gendarmes brigade of Libongo was caught with tusks, as well as three magistrats- assessseurs in Yokaduma. One of them is in prison.”
Is any scientific research being done on the wildlife in the park? “None at the moment,” the conservator says, “except for primatologists from WWF Japan, who are habituating a gorilla family so tourists can experience them intimately like the mountain gorillas in Rwanda.” The Japanese have been working on this habituation since 2013 and are not here at the moment. And the IUCN has a program teaching the local people better agricultural practices, so they will not destroy so much forest habitat [the in- initiative in tropical-forest conservation these days; The Nature Conservancy has a project in Mexico’s Selva Maya]. Cacao is a good crop because you can plant the trees under the canopy.”
I say the tourist infrastructure isn’t there ( to keep this piece moving I have not mentioned the many fuck-ups that occurred concerning my lodging in Mombele and the overnight to the Miradorto), and if Lobeke is going to get Unesco World Heritage Site designation (which has been under evaluation since 2012), there is a lot that has to be done. It takes three days to get here, the road is e pouvontable, I didn’t see hardly any animals, and most the Baka in Banana were drunk. Honestly, I wouldn’t recommend this destination to ecotourists. There are plenty of better places in Africa, like the CAR, where you can experience both forest elephants and more traditional Pygmies.” (The road from Bangui, the capital of the CAR, to Bayanga, where the elephants and the Babendjele, a sub-group of Bayaka, are is too dangerous, so you go in from Cameroon, crossing the Sanga River at Libongo.)
They all take this in. Then we all take pictures of each other with our cellphones, and they think the meeting is over, but I say, one more thing, gentlemen, I have a list of alleged bad actors in the WWF and Eau de Forets that I’d like to go over with you, and the four of them sit back down nervously.
I go through the list I got from Survival, tweaked by LAGA and the former WWF Cameroon employee. LAGA was not sure about some of them, and added a couple more. Note here that these people are alleged bad actors, not confirmed ones. I don’t want anybody being tried and convicted by the media, especially me, with only a week in the field having to suss out people from very different cultures and sub-cultures I know nothing about. All this has to be thoroughly looked into by independent Cameroonian investigators and the few investigative journalists who I hope will get a copy of this report).
I start with the five former WWF employees:
As I go down the list, the four at the table profess astonishment, with theatrical eye rolls and o la las. Usongo was trafficking in grey parrots? C’est pas possible. He is now with WWF in Yaounde. Tchamba, the former head of WWF Cameroon? This is the first we have heard that he was trafficking in ivory. Vincent Anong? I can’t believe it. Laurent Some ? The head of all WWF programs for Africa and
Madagascar? You got to be joking. Milo? We don’t know. Ekodek? We know him but this is the first we have heard. Tegomo? Silence. “It’s me,” the park’s coordinator between WWF and Eaux et Forets, the hefty man at the end of the table who seems like a sweet guy, the last person you would think capable of such things, finally says. “I worked with Milo with ivory?” He is really dejected and hangs his head. Is there any truth to this allegation? I ask him and he remains silent. I had not realized he was one of the names on the list. He doesn’t deny it. He is acting more like they know. I’ve been found out. Even this white American journalist knows. Or maybe he is so down because he knows the damage has been done, his reputation and career are ruined.
Finally Albert Kembou breaks the silence. “As you know,” he tells me, ‘I was the conservateur at two parks, and I have been accused of trafficking in ivory and all kinds of other things. What do we do with naive people’s accusations?”
What do you do when one of you is accused? I ask, and WWF director Nyouman says, “There is an investigation, and it has to proceed according to the law. But this is LAGA’s list, and they are trying to establish a place in conservation here [LAGA is the only one who is doing anything, whose motives are pure, to stop the slaughter of Cameroon’s wildlife, as far as I can see, and the list came from Survival]. They’re getting money from the government [not any more] and doing this? First they were only concerned about great apes, now they’re telling us the conservation landscape needs someone to control its actions and vision?” Kembou adds, “In 2013 Ofir took the mike at a big conference we were all at and said, ‘We don’t need to put money into conservation and antipoaching, but into intelligence.’ Why ? He said, ‘because everything is corrupt.’ I asked him, remember when you came to me asking for money? Your work is important, but we also have to look at the ecological factors and improving the standard of living of the local people so they don’t have to kill elephants. This why I would like to see all factors on table.”
And Nyouman adds, “and this is why Ofir shouldn’t be allowed to talk to everybody.”
The meeting ends on a somber note. The conservateur tries to put the best face on it and tells me, “You have seen our values. I hope you will be our ambassador to sing the praises of Lobeke.”
Back to Yaounde
Boy that was a moment, I think as Eric and Michelle and I hit the road. One of the accused traffickers was right at the table. And I bushwhacked him. I didn’t mean to, and I almost feel sorry for him. He was totally blindsided. What if he’s innocent? The list said there wasn’t enough evidence to charge him. So he must have known he had been investigated. Is the investigation going to be reopened? I doubt it.
Back in Yaounde, I go to the eighty-story 251,707- square foot LED-certified WWF headquarters, one of the most imposing office buildings in central Africa, and fill out forms at the reception desk asking to interview Hansen Njifiorti, the head of WWF Cameroon; Laurent Some , the head of WWF programs for all of Africa and Madagascar, who allegedly “deliberately subverted investigations into kingpins behind the illegal wildlife trade;”and Alain Bernard Ononino, who heads WWF’s wildlife crimes division for Central Africa. Njifiorti, described to me as “worthless and part of the problem,” is vacationing in Switzerland, and Some , when I return the next day to meet with Ononino, doesn’t deign to even answer my request, although I can see him sitting in his glass-walled office behind his secretary. Maybe word has gotten to him that he is on the list of alleged bad actors.
Ononino, Eric Taba at LAGA tells me, “is one of the good ones, but maybe not as good as he was when he worked for us [he headed LAGA’s legal section until 2013]. He has to watch what he says if he wants to keep his job.”
Has WWF denied on the highest and Cameroon level Survival’s charges of human-rights abuses of the Baka? I ask Ononino. “We have shown proof that
WWF has been working to include the Baka since the establishment of the park. It is true some were evicted from the park, but we supported their inclusion in the park’s creation and management plan.”
“In the CAR’s part of the trinational park complex, as I saw in 2011, the Babendjelle have the run of their forest and can do traditional subsistence hunting except for elephants, so why isn’t it happening here?” I ask.
(The hunters, including local Sangha with shotguns, came back to Yandoumbe the afternoon I was there with duikers and pangolins slung over their shoulders and they gave one to the guy I was visiting. I don’t know if they got them in the communal forest, or out in the park’s forest , My impression is that if they go way back in the park’s forest and hunted there, nobody’s going to get on their case about it.)
Ononino replies, “I can’t provide any examples because my role is not directly linked to the collaborative management plan. Njifiorti will tell you, but Survival says it’s never happened. We have always called Survival to discuss new work together, but Survival has never agreed. They just sometimes put things out with no real facts or evidence.”
What about the proliferation of old ivory in Yaounde, which I have found openly available in traditional craft markets and old sculpture stores? “It is not legal without declaring it to Eaux et Forets” But nobody does, and nobody cares, it seems. There is also fresh ivory that is antiqued and sold as old ivory, like the pieces I saw in Addis Ababa.
I go over Survival’a list of bad actors, tweaked by LAGA, and Ononino says, “That Tegomo is allegedly trafficking in ivory is really serious. That kind of situation is sad and we want to sort it out as soon as we know about it. Tell Njifiorti and copy me. Tegomo is someone I knew when I worked for LAGA. Survival’s attacks have changed a lot of thing internally. An indication of how seriously this is now being considered, is that it is not just an issue of WWF Cameroon, but the whole of of WWF.”
I email the list of alleged bad actors to Njifiorti, and he replies on September 2. He has obviously had legal counsel.
I want to thank you very much for recognising that WWF is doing a good job in Cameroon. I also want to take this opportunity to address your enquiries on what we are doing to prevent corruption and ivory trafficking in WWF Cameroon. I want to assure you that WWF takes any allegations of fraud, corruption, wildlife trafficking and criminal activities seriously. We have a zero tolerance policy and require all employees to renew their commitment to this annually. WWF whistle-blowing policy is displayed in all our offices and field programme sites, giving local and international numbers to report any suspected cases of fraud or corruption by WWF staff.
While we cannot comment on the reasons for leaving for any former WWF staff, we would encourage you to share any details you may have regarding alleged wrongdoing by staff still with us to allow us to conduct the necessary internal investigations as per our stated policy. We look forward to your response.
Best regards, Hanson”
So I go back to Mike Hurran, who collected Survival’s dirt on WWF Cameroon, and ask him for more details on his accusations against Tegomo— LAGA says it has nothing on him— and Hurran replies, “I’m afraid I don’t have much more information about Tegomo other than what I’ve already sent: in one village I was told he had made enquiries about how he could commission elephant hunting, and then I heard from another person close to Milo that Tegomo was trafficking with him in 2011-2012 but that, when this came out, there wasn’t enough evidence to dismiss him, as there was for Milo.”
What about the ecoguards who are killing elephants and selling the tusks to their bosses? I ask Ononino, and he says, “They have no formal status and are very illequipped. They don’t have radio and or gps because it cuts into the conservateurs‘ budget, which is not being used to surveil or patrol but to finance their own comfortable accommodations and lifestyle. The only support the ecoguards get is from ngo’s, but their low salary is no justification for involvement with trafficking. On May 20, National Unity Day, the ecoguards were supposed to march with the soldiers, but they are not recognized and didn’t have uniforms. The person who was supposed to put uniforms at their disposal put the money into his pocket. So I don’t know what to take on first. Do we improve the ecoguards’ working conditions, or go after the ones who are poaching? In depends on the park. I’m not hearing anything about Lobeke’s ecoguards being involved in poaching. The last census of Cameroon’s wildlife, including the ones in Lobeke, was done in 2015 by a team of fifty scientists. We do not know how many elephants are left, maybe still in the thousands.” A World Wildlife aerial census in 2014-2016 estimated 9,000 elephants in Cameroon, the RD, DRC, and Gabon, a 66% decline since 2008.
I email Andrea Turkalo, the heroic
American woman who since 1990 had been watching over the bai, the Eden-like clearing in the CAR part of the trinational park complex, where some 4000 forest elephants that she could identify individually come in shifts of 100-200 to drink its minerals, which neutralize the alkaloids in the leaves they eat, and to socialize.
In 2013 Muslim rebels from Chad calling themselves the Seleka descended on the CAR and toppled the government in Bangui and took over the country and began to terrorize and even massacre the Christian population. Andrea had to flee. Her compound was looted and trashed. A contingent of Seleka went to the bai and slaughtered 49 elephants and took their tusks. One of the planet’s last and most magical Edens was violated. After the Seleka were driven out of the country, more or less, Andrea returned. I thought she was still there, but she explains in an August 1 email that she had problems with the new government in Bangui. They didn’t want her there, and it was time to go. She doesn’t think much of Survival, which is now accusing her former employer, the Wildlife Conservation Society, of “major human rights abuses.”
“We had also had a visit from the Survival International person and there was also another report that came out of northern Congo criticizing WCS. They tend to come for about two weeks, listen to people complain and then blame the NGOs for abuse. They never spoke to me and I have defended the rights of the Bayaka for years. The Bayaka in the Bayanga area [Bayanga is the trading center and park headquarters in the CAR’s part of the Sanga trinational complex] understand that if the conservation organizations weren’t active in the area there would be no wildlife left. It would have been poached out years ago. The NGO are stanching a worsening situation but at least they are there trying to conserve something for the indigenous people because the local governments are not going to do it on their own or in many cases don’t care.
Sure people are arrested for poaching, it is a criminal activity and there are laws in all countries regarding this.
If these organizations really want to be effective they should work on the ground along with the NGOs to affect [sic] change instead of their trips in and out to criticize the situation. That is the easy part, the difficult part is doing the real work on the ground. Enuff said.
… Looked at that Peter Flack story, such old news and hunting isn’t the demon people make it out to be. If managed it can provide employment for people and revenue for the government. I know a bit about professional hunting and there are good and bad people involved, just like the missionaries. Again the criticism is always greater from the outside than the inside.
I will send you the two papers, one on current forest elephant populations, a bit dated but the trend is there, as well as the demographic paper which shows (from the Dzanga [the CAR’s part of the trinational complex] population) that forest elephants are reproducing much slower than savannah elephants which means with poaching they are doomed.
Cameroon is a mess, very little management and corruption is bad. I have no idea of how many elephants there are in Cameroon but you could have a look at the African Elephant Specialist group publication on elephant numbers. I will send you the title. They have a chapter on each African country where elephants occur and numbers, the numbers are from protected areas so you could have a look at Lobeke, etc.”
Andrea’s next email, August 2, is even more bleak and scathing:
“WWF Cameroon is a bust, I have no idea of why they waste money there. They built a huge office in Yaounde in the ’90’s and set it up as a regional office. They have tried to address the corruption over the years and one of the most effective people was a woman who was eventually shown the door….. Unfortunately most of the people who work for them are powerless and overpaid.
“They have arrested Cameroonians in our area for elephant poaching so it is also a problem in CAR. With the game winding down in Cameroon people are going elsewhere. Most of the ivory in our area makes its way to Douala for the Asian markets. Did you hear about the tons of pangolin scales confiscated in Douala earlier this year ? I heard that there were Cameroonians in Bayanga looking for scales earlier this year.
The planet is being looted and it is only accelerating. I could go on forever…..”
THE LAST ELEPHANT census for Central Africa, including Cameroon and Gabon, in 2013 by CITES, the most scientific yet, its definite elephant figures based on actual dung samples, is broken down into:
definite probable possible and speculative
Central Africa 12,332 47,255 61,414 27,920
Cameroon 2,230 4,234 4,869 2,589
Gabon 1,975 9,147 47,362 20,628
These figures, Andrea cautions, are just guesstimates, plus the Cameroon figures don’t distinguish between the forest and savanna elephants, now recognized as separate species. No one knows how many forest elephants there are, and how many are being killed. The forest females don’t start reproducing until they are 23, much later than the savanna females, who start having calves at the age of eight. So the forest elephant population is critically endangered. It will take 60 years for it to recover from the slaughter that has already been done by poachers, and the poaching is accelerating, so Andrea is right, the forest elephants are basically doomed.
Andrea’s paper is about the slow intrinsic growth rate of forest elephants, which indicates recovery from poaching will take decades. The current forest elephant pop has 60-year doubling time. Recent census data show a 62% decrease in their numbers over the period 2002-2011, coupled with the loss of 30% of their geographic range. Potentially 10-18% of their population is being killed a year. They are being killed faster than the savanna elephants, and their numbers are far fewer. Another study found that in 2009, there were 13,000-15000 forest elephants in Cameroon but only 9% of them were in protected areas.
In 1813 there were an estimated 1.3 million forest elephants in central Africa, by l989 that was down to 172,000, by 2013 to 60,000.
Survival’s Veracity Quotient
I have only been able to collect stories from Baka about their being beaten and imprisoned for poaching elephants and having their forest camps burned and their being evicted from forest after the creation of the park and the zones de chasse. When I get back to Montreal I ask Michael
Hurran, Survival’s man in central Africa, when Peter Flack killed the forest elephant, and he says in 2005. The exposee on survival.com last November made it sound as if it had just happened. What about the horrible story he told me about uniformed men arriving in white WWF trucks and beating everybody in a group of Bayaka in the RC, including a ten-year-old girl to death? That, too, he now admits, was in 2005. Why did it happen (which he had also omitted)? “The historical evidence suggests because of ivory poaching.”
The Flack exposee also made it seem like he killed the elephant on a new trophy hunting concession north of the park called Faro Este, one of whose partners is Bernard de Rothschilde, of the famous banking family, which I guess made it sexier, something that the press would run with. Ecoguards from Lobeke, according to the exposee, were brutally evicting Baka from Faro Este. When I pressed
Hurran for details he said “just to clarify” the Flack hunt didn’t take place on Faro Este, and that according to his information, “local anti-poaching squads” that “sometimes include men in uniform,” were brutally evicting the Baka, but he couldn’t say if they were Lobeke ecoguards, Sanga trinational park complex ecoguards, or Faro Este’s own guards. But he also passed on a juicy tidbit: de Rothschilde himself was participating in the beatings, which I don’t find credible. That the evictions are happening is not surprising, because that is what happened in the zones de chasse south of the park. But what is this? A responsible tribal peoples’ advocacy group, or Fleet Street?
Hurran, it turns out, is a young guy with no experience as a reporter or an ethnographer. He is presenting accounts of human-rights abuse that happened long ago, or to Baka who were recently caught poaching or hunting in the park or collecting wild mangos in the zones de chasse, without including the when or why these incidents happened, if they did. When you are getting information from illiterate tribal people, you have to ask the same questions over and over to the same person, and to as many different people as you can. Each time the answers will be different as your informant adjusts them according to what he thinks you want to hear, or to what he wants you to think. Palembi, for instance, kept changing his story and his dates. He made assaults by ecoguards in 2004 sound like they had just happened. Pygmies are extremely cunning and don’t have the highest veracity quotient themselves for a variety reasons.
You have to be a total-immersion version journalist, as I started calling myself after my first trip to Africa, three months in Zaire in l983. You can’t believe everything everybody tells you, you have to be sceptical— rule one of responsible journalism and ethnography. And this is not the first time Survival has been accused of sensationalization:
The actual situation is bad enough. All over central Africa, the “Pygmies” are second-class citizens and are being treated like chattel by the local Bantu. I saw this myself in Banana, and in the CAR in 2011, and in Zaire in 1983, and on this trip, in Banana.
In Cameroon some Baka are poaching elephants, some are trackers for Bantu poachers, some for trophy hunters, some for ecoguards, some of whom are poaching themselves. As Lucien said, there is no act of poaching in which Baka are not implicated. It is not a black-andwhite situation.
So I was not surprised to hear from Hurran on September 9 that Survival had “abandoned” its official complaint to the O.E.C.D. against WWF Cameroon for human-rights abuse of the Baka. He said because after lengthy negotiations WWF Cameroon refused to include the Baka in the management plan of its own conservation areas, but I suspect the fact that none of its charges were provable, and maybe WWF’s lawyer were threatening Survival with a law suit, could have been in play. A judge would have thrown the accusation out of court as hearsay.
Hurran explained that the complaint against WWF Cameroon was the first salvo of Survival’s campaign against Big Conservation — the WWF, WCS,
Conservation International— called Stop the Con. “Our goal is that the huge sums spent on conservation are given to the cheapest solution: upholding tribal peoples’ land rights,” he told me.
Here is Stephen Corry, the director of Survival’s, explanation of the withdrawal of its complaint in The Ecologist.
Both the WFF and Survival are doing vitally important work. In 2013 I collaborated with the Brazilian photographer Sebastian Salgado on a Vanity Fair piece about the critical endangered uncontacted Awa people of easternmost Amazonia that pressured the Brazilian Ministry of Justice to finally (but for how long?) protect their terra indigena, which had been invaded by loggers and squatters— something Survival, which called the Awa “the world’s most endangered tribe”— had been trying to do for 22 years. If it wasn’t for Survival, there wouldn’t be any Awa. Survival’s information in that case was spot-on, so I had no reason to suspect that what it was putting out about Central Africa was misleading, to say the least.
Survival has 150,000 members and an annual operating budget of 1.65 million pounds. WWF has two and a half million members and pulls in two million dollars a day in donations from individuals and foundations, so Survival’s Stop the Con campaign is something of a David and Goliath story. I hope the two of them can learn to work together for the sake of all us sentient beings on Planet Earth, and that the bad actors at WWF Cameroon will be fingered and fired. The sins of Survival, in the end, are of a much lesser order than WWF Cameroon’s, but its information, like any informations these days, needs to be taken with a grain of salt. The important point, the takeaway of this lengthy Dispatch, is that Baka are being abused and forest elephants are being killed by poachers and trophy hunters and WWF-supported ecoguards who are selling the tusks to their bosses. This has to be investigated and put a stop to. – Montreal, November 27, 2017