It’s a surprisingly cool morning in Bangui. The Harmattan blows in dust from Chad and Sudan. United Nations MI-17 Hinds, World Food Program and Red Cross aircraft lay idle by the Antonov transport and Tiger Attack helicopters. There is no more room for the USAF C-17 on the airstrip. This short urban transit is a world away from our field site in Bayanga, in southwestern Central African Republic (CAR) where the Dzanga Sangha Protected Areas (DSPA) straddle borders with Cameroon and the Republic of Congo, making the Sangha Trinational Landscape. Yet, dust isn’t the only thing blowing in from Chad and Sudan.
DSPA is a jewel of the Congo Basin that WWF has chaperoned since its infancy back in the late 1980’s. It is one of the last bastions for forest elephants, western lowland gorillas and is lush with diamonds and gold in pristine primary rainforest. For this reason Bayanga – otherwise literally a dead end on the road to nowhere – is an asset in the power struggle and violence that has taken CAR by the throat since early 2013. Asian demand for wildlife products has put this isolated corner of the country on the map for armed militias, either directly or by proxy. An “ivory rush” so to speak, where in May 2013 Sudanese poachers came to collect.
How does one perform conservation in an environmentally and politically hostile context? As a WWF technical advisor to the DSPA, conservation is ‘conducted’ with a paramilitary mindset in the name of the CAR Ministry of Water and Forests. My job is less about research or biological monitoring than pushing the tempo of counter-poaching operations and investigating illegal natural resource exploitation, while living on the margin of a fluid national crisis. Both the human and wildlife plight are part of the same equation, illustrating the complexities of conservation and instability. When do you favor wildlife over civilians? When is the situation too tense to keep protecting either and when is it time to leave? These are questions WWF has had to answer in the past and they are interrogations we still deal with today.
Thankfully, both security and ivory trafficking are still more or less under control. That is not to say elephants are not killed, either for their meat, ivory or both, in a tacit agreement between greedy poachers and destitute villagers. My day-to-day struggle here is to help enforce CAR Wildlife and Environmental Law, inscribed in legal codes, but seldom respected and virtually impossible to implement.
The current socio-economic crisis, compounded by insecurity, is depleting small game at an alarming rate. Without a long-term national solution, DSPA will become a ‘silent forest.’ Gorillas and elephants may soon follow but still benefit from special treatment: one is more likely to serve hard time for poaching than murder. A comforting absurdity for conservationists. Stephane Crayne, WWF Technical Adviser, Dzanga Sangha Protected Areas (DSPA), MA Department of War Studies (2014).