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Central African Republic

to:

track the silverback

I struggle to be still. My pygmy guides crouch in silence. I dare not take a breath, fighting the sudden urge to jump up and run, then freeze, as with the distinct crack of a branch, a dark shape moves in the brush just ahead. A primal scent of musk hangs in the air, and all else drifts away as Makumba emerges. As all eyes are now riveted on the 400-pound silverback lowland gorilla, the hair on the back of my neck stands up and I pivot to find a pair of eyes watching us watch his father.

Deep in the heart of this Central African jungle, lowland gorillas dwell peacefully with other shadowy forest creatures. Chimpanzee and leopard, forest elephant and pygmy wander through one of the largest and least-explored expanses of tropical forest in the world. This is a place that has long conjured dark images of cannibalistic tribes, devastating plagues, and ferocious creatures, a forest known by Conrad as the Heart of Darkness, and by National Geographic as the Last Place on Earth—the Congo Basin.

 

The last place on earth is exactly where it seemed I was heading, as I gazed out the window of our bush plane, a Dornier 228. An endless sea of green had accompanied the two-and-a-half hour flight from Douala, Cameroon on the Gulf of Guinea.

Mesmerized by the sheer expanse and the droning twin props, my mind wandered to what lay below. Would I be taken hostage by armed guerrillas or devilish poachers? Or maybe contract some rare tropical disease and become a modern-day leper everyone shies from at a cocktail part. “Oh, she’s the one who got ebola in Africa….”

“This is your captain speaking. We are on final approach,” broke my spiraling thoughts. The captain sounded amused, probably because he knew the runway was nowhere in sight. “Please fasten your seatbelts, it may be a rough landing.”

I looked out the window and a wide, silvery snake came into view—The Sangha River, the border of Cameroon and the Central African Republic. Our destination lay on its banks, an old World Wildlife Fund (WWF) research station turned eco-lodge, next to a small logging town named Bayanga, the last outpost of human civilization for hundreds of miles.

Half of the village seemed to come out for our clumsy arrival. As we bumped and shook down the runway, small boys with model airplanes crafted from local materials ran next to the plane.  Village women watched cautiously, bundles on their heads, and porters hurried to unload the food and supplies we had to fly in for our small expedition. Our arrival was an event.

Despite being a wildlife enthusiast’s dream, the Dzanga Sangha Reserve receives less than 1,000 visitors a day. It is home to one of the continent’s largest populations of forest elephant, 16 of 20 primate species, and the only group of habituated lowland gorillas in the world that tourists can visit. Yet the region’s volatility and reputation for coup d’etât and civil wars often deters even the most seasoned traveler.

Tourism is needed to fund conservation efforts that preserve this 470 million acres of pristine rainforest in Cameroon, Central African Republic and Congo. And our group was here to assist.  Several European tour operators had joined African Travel Management (ATA), a tour company owned by a Cameroonian friend of mine, in hopes of finding a new destination to surprise and challenge their well-heeled clients. As a photojournalist, I was looking for stories in the region and jumped on the opportunity to join.

WWF runs the gorilla habituation project, as well as an anti-poaching campaign with two camps, a few ex-pats, and several Ba’Aka trekkers and guides. David Greer, a gentle redhead from Nebraska and unlikely head of the anti-poaching effort, escorted us out a long, wooden walkway to an open-air restaurant perched on stilts above the Sangha River.

 

Over a cool welcome drink and dinner of fresh fish, we watched a brilliant sunset, the river reflecting hues of pink and purple, as David informed us of the jungle’s plight. Poaching is a major problem in Central Africa, and all forest wildlife is threatened by the illegal bush meat (hunting forest animals for food) and ivory trades. Forest elephants in particular are targets, as their ivory is denser than that of their savannah relatives, thus more desirable to carvers.  Poachers range from villagers who hunt locally to professionals who cover larger territories and sell to foreign buyers. David has helped train park guards and works with the Ba’Aka to track hunters and their victims.

The generator shut off at 9:30 pm, sending us all to bed. I laid awake under my mosquito net, listening to nature’s philharmonic just outside my door. Some instruments are identifiable, others foreign to my ears. Chirping cicadas, croaking frogs, a bat, perhaps, or maybe a nocturnal bird, then a vibrating hum and lilting music caught in the wind from the village. I fell asleep wondering what motivates man to destroy his surroundings, and how long it would take before it was gone.

By 6 a.m. the next morning, a heavy mist had curled through the jungle, twisting and turning down tiny paths, reaching the river and pouring across the placid surface. Local villagers poled their pirogues, traditional dugout canoes, upstream in silence.  A snowy white egret skimmed the water. The only sound was my shutter.

The rest of the group joined JP and Neville, our two Cameroonian guides from ATA. JP, from the south of the country, is tall and thin, slightly uptight, and speaks French; Neville represents the Western Highlands, shorter, darker, and quick to smile, often accompanied by a wise thought in heavily accented English.

The foreigners are Christian, a Brit, a bit untucked with a dry sense of humor; Helga, a matter-of-fact German; and Rajid, an upper-crust Indian, born in Uganda, living in London. Our weeklong expedition would include all of Dzanga Sangha’s highlights—Dzanga Bai, a clearing in the forest where the forest elephants roam; sightings of Bai Hokou’s lowland gorillas and mangabeys; and a special outing of hunting with the Ba’Aka pygmies. We were eager to get started.

Soon enough, I found myself immersed in the jungle that would be my home for the next several days. The forest was different than I expected; dry, red clay floor padded by soft fallen leaves of mahoganies and sandy patches covered with clear pools of cool water. The upper canopy towering above, almost invisible through the dense underbrush, with greens, reds, grays, and browns. Sounds and scents became familiar, with absence of sight. My awareness transferred to the insects whirring, monkeys chattering, and occasional grunt of an elusive forest elephant.

I padded along the path to the Dzanga Bai, barefoot, avoiding intruding upon my surroundings or spooking the wildlife. The clay was cool and surprisingly soft beneath my feet. I followed my Ba’Aka tracker, who walked swiftly with flat feet and splayed toes, pausing frequently for us to catch up. He looked uncomfortable in the T-shirt and shorts he wore, yet at home in the forest and his engaging grin. David, his English name, has worked with the WWF since the inception of its program, five years prior. As a Ba’Aka , David is one of the so-called “pygmies” of the forest. Smaller in stature, they rarely reach more than five feet, allowing them to maneuver dense forests and dissipate heat more efficiently than taller peoples. Unfortunately, because they still live as hunter/gatherers, these joyous and almost innocent people are seen as primitive and treated as animals. David only speaks a couple of words of broken English, but is the first one to jump in front of the angry elephant in our path, slapping his machete on the water, shouting at the creature 100 times his size. This tiny man is our fearless leader.

We walked an hour and a half before reaching a wooden observation platform, hidden in the trees. As I tiptoed up the staircase, my adrenaline started pumping. There were at least 50 elephants in the clearing! Females, juveniles, infants, and regal bulls with mighty tusks so long they dragged on the ground.

Andrea Turkelo awaited us on the platform. She smiled and pointed, “That is Backwards, she is here with her new baby.” The mother elephant’s tusks were short, but pointed distinctly backwards. Andrea has lived in Dzanga Sangha for 10 years studying the forest elephants. She is the foremost expert on the subject and has counted and named over 3,000 distinct elephants in this bai. “And there is Big Red, he always visits from another pool with bright red clay.” A sense of calm washed over me as I spent my day watching elephants interact. A sitatunga antelope came to the bai, and then a group of forest buffalo. A Garden of Eden in the Heart of Darkness.

Then, David motioned for us to leave. The elephants become more active in the evenings, moving to and from the bai. Sadly, due to poaching, they fear humans and are dangerous in the forest. They will charge and they will trample.

 

We drove to our net hunt site through tiny villages of handmade huts of branches and leaves. Word had spread that we were going hunting, and the Ba’Aka surrounded the trucks, excited like children on a field trip. One by one they piled into the flatbeds, laughing and grinning, then their voices grew together in an ethereal song. Only the female Ba’Aka sing, and it is a privilege, given to those with superior voices, chosen by the village at an early age. The energy rose with their jubilant song and soon we all joined in, clapping, ready to embark once more into the jungle.

I would catch the Ba’Aka looking at me peculiarly from time to time, as I would look at them. Most are women, and their faces are scarred and teeth sharpened for beauty, yet as I photograph them, I realize how ridiculous I must look in their eyes. Too tall to fit through their neatly cut paths, catching spider webs in my face. Long hair that sticks to my neck, clumsy hiking boots, and noisy long pants and sleeves. A giantess who is more of an oddity than anything else.

The Ba’Aka moved quickly through the jungle, women fanning out effortlessly despite the heavy hand-woven nets on their backs. The men were in front of the group with machetes, clearing a path for us foreigners, who stumble behind them. Two women, the elder medicine women of the village, accompanied us, showing us leaves and roots they use from the forest. A leaf that cures a headache when made into a tea, a piece of root that when dried and powdered treats malaria, and a huge liana vine that, when cut, contains clean water to drink. A few of the plants sent the other women into fits of giggles. These are the sex enhancers, promised to improve their husbands’ performance.

The nets were finally laid out in a semicircle around what seemed to be a random area of bush.  Half the group rushed the opening, beating the bushes and yelling, the other half clapped and stomped until a tiny dik-dik got caught in the net. It was gutted and cleaned on the spot, while the others sat, whittling sticks, repairing rope and telling stories. In the end, half of the meat went to the owner of the net, and the rest was divided equally amongst all who had participated in the hunt. The morsel was shockingly small, no bigger than half a McDonald’s hamburger patty, yet neatly folded in a leaf package, and carefully guarded to feed the family.

Our final day was the adventure we had all been waiting for: the gorillas.

We started out early on the now-familiar red dirt road rutted with washouts, puddles, and eroded grooves from rainstorms. WWF’s Bai Hokou Camp is located a little over 20 miles from Doli Lodge, yet the drive took an hour and a half. I rode in the back of the pickup, ducking low hanging branches and bumping along in the cool morning air as my anticipation grew with jolt in the road.

A barbed-wire fence adorned with rusty old tin cans to warn that there were elephants marked the entrance. Chloe, an Italian WWF researcher, greeted us enthusiastically, radioing the Ba’Aka pygmy guides. “We made contact with the group,” she smiled. “The gorillas are quite far away. We better get going.”

Two Ba’Aka trackers, including David, appeared from the forest and we set off. I adjusted the weight on my back and fell in step. They paused at the first clearing—two bull elephants stood in the bai, only a few hundred meters away. They lifted their heads and we froze. Elephants look very different from ground level, especially on foot. Even at this distance, their sheer mass was intimidating. My mind whirled with statistics: a full-grown male forest elephant weighs up to three tons, runs 15 miles per hour, and, despite their poor eyesight, can sense motion and hear the beating of a terrified tourist’s heart for miles.

Chloe whispered a story of one of her researchers, who was charged and gored in this very forest six months prior. She lost her glasses while running from the elephant’s charge, then stumbled and fell. The elephant pinned her, and pierced her hamstring with its tusk before Chloe whacked it on the ear, scaring it away. My heart pounded louder.

We moved forward as they resumed drinking, holding close to the forest edge through a swampy area of deep muddy elephant footprints, piles of grassy feces, and a small river. No one took their eyes off the elephants, even for a moment.

After two hours of hiking through tangles of low limbs and ankle-twisting vines, the forest became darker and we were exhausted, the canopy thick overhead and the forest floor dark.  Stray shafts of light penetrated, shooting white beams to contrast the soft shades of brown and green. The air grew still, and we found two researchers crouched in the brush.

A heavy scent hung in the air, forest garlic and then a pungent musk, almost like animal urine, the distinct heavy smell of a silverback male. David made a series of clicks, letting the silverback know we were approaching. We crept forward to where the other Ba’Akas waited. They pointed through the underbrush and whispered, “He is there.”

In the shadows, I made out the shape of a large figure, one that moved very slowly. I caught the gleam of an eye, one that watched me very carefully. His very being and intelligence was shockingly obvious in his eyes. His gaze held mine and I lost my breath. I was eye-to-eye with a 400-pound silverback lowland gorilla, no more than 25 feet away.

“It’s overwhelming,” Chloe responded to my awe.

Makumba grunted and rose with her voice. “Sorry Makumba,” Chloe responded to his scolding. He trudged deeper into the brush. We got too close.

But we were determined to follow Makumba, who is part of a group that consists of 13; himself, four females, seven juveniles, and one infant. He’s around 20 years old, strong, youthful…a silverback in the early prime of his life. We trekked through the forest, Makumba’s silver hair at times gleamed through the foliage. For the most part, his enormous body blended in seamlessly. Without the Ba’Aka, I could have walked by him without a second glance.

We came upon the others in his clan, who were a bit more obvious, the juveniles playing, climbing up trees to eat, and descending with a cry and a practice chest beat. Yet each time we drew closer, Makumba moved on, refusing us a closer look and chance to photograph. I couldn’t help but be frustrated by the lack of a clear photograph. This was much more difficult than photographing the mountain gorillas, who sat still and looked right at the camera almost as if they were zoo animals. Yet, the experience felt much more real. I was truly here by Makumba’s grace and good nature.

Another move and the Ba’Aka found Makumba again, sitting near a large tree, his back to the trunk. He looked over his shoulder at us and scratched his head thoughtfully, then looked away and munched on a piece of grass before looking our direction again. His movements and gestures are undeniably human. Makumba then walked over to a deciduous tree and as we watched in amazement as he scampered up as if he didn’t weigh an ounce and collapsed amid leaves of bright red and yellow. With a seemingly practiced casual air, he lay back, faced the sunny sky, and began pulling branches toward him, picking off the choice leaves pretending not to notice all five of us gawking from below.

After almost a half hour, Makumba suddenly stood up, his entire body visible and stared down at us for maybe 30 seconds before lumbering down the tree and disappearing into the bush. The show was over.

“Thank you, Makumba,” whispered Chloe. “Thank you.” As we turned to leave, I felt humbled, knowing that I was one of a mere few hundred visitors who had ever seen this majestic animal in the wild.

 

As I gazed down from my seat in the Dornier, the forest below looked different. The sea of monotonous green now had varying shades, with flowering orange trees and bright green clearings. I could imagine the elephants in those clearings, challenging each other over mineral-rich sinkholes and ambling through the forest. I could see the mother gorilla cuddling her infant watching the juveniles play. And hear the soulful chanting of Ba’Aka pygmies as they move into the forest on a hunt. As the engines droned, I could hear the jungles speak. I still do. All of the earth needs our protection and preservation…and surely this place more than most.