More Than Just a Pretty Picture: Conservation and Narrative in the Dzanga Bai
The rain had not let up all morning. Rain is typical during a wet season in the Dzanga-Sangha Protected Areas, Central African Republic. It was getting a bit late to be leaving for a trip to the famous Dzanga Bai to observe the elephants but the weather had delayed our departure. Because of the rain, it was unlikely that we would see the usual number of 50-200 elephants. However, we only had two-and-half months to complete our research, leaving little time for excursions to our favorite forest locations.
Although I had visited the clearing during my doctoral fieldwork, this trip held special significance for me. I was hesitant to pass it up. It was to be my third time to Dzanga Bai since I started conducting research there in 2008. While my work studying hunters and conducting nocturnal census estimates of forest antelope had allowed me a fair share of elephant encounters, I knew nothing could compare to the wet trek ahead of us. It is the famous Dzanga Bai, after all. This time, I would be making the trek with my mentor, Dr. Melissa Remis, who has been studying the role of human-wildlife relationships in the region with colleague Rebecca Hardin for over twenty years. With us were several generations of our local BaAka trackers with whom we had shared countless hours in the forest tracking, discussing and imagining wildlife.
When talking about landscapes across the Congo Basin it is difficult for even the most seasoned researcher to avoid accidentally evoking tropes of the exotic. Such imagery can stir up simultaneous feelings of fear and anticipation commonly associated with what we envision as "the wildness of Africa." While such evocative imagery has served to spark interest in this region of the world, it is important not overlook the multitude of layers woven into every image of Africa's wild places, exotic wildlife and enchanting faces.
No image is more laden with narrative than that of the Dzanga Bai (translation: Village of Elephants). The bai, also called a saline, is an elephant created landscape. Each day upwards of 200 forest elephants (Loxodanta cyclotis) convene here from across the region to drink mineral salts. Similar areas are dotted throughout Congo Basin forests, but none are as famous or as active as the one at Dzanga. Researchers, tourists, photographers and journalist travel thousands of miles by air, truck and foot to make the journey to the clearing where they are guaranteed to see elephants, African grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus) and forest buffalo (Syncerus caffer nanus)--among other wildlife. It was this location that led to the official inception of the Dzanga Sangha Protected Areas (APDS) multiple use reserve in 1990. The RDS region is also one of the last remaining strongholds of the critically endangered western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla). RDS, part of the Sangha River Tri-national Protected Area (TNS) was recently identified as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is jointly managed by the Central African government and World Wildlife Fund.
When you look at a photo image of Dzanga Bai, you are not just viewing a snapshot of a protected area, tourist destination or research site. Places like Dzanga represent shared spaces where human and animal, global and local, indigenous and expatriate meet. This is the ultimate convergence of wildlife, human communities, conservation, research and eco-tourism. Unfortunately, it is has now attracted the attention of illegal international trades in wildlife.
Due to its geographical location in the southwest corner of the Central African Republic as well as support by World Wildlife Fund and Wildlife Conservation Society, this particular protected area has been buffered from decades of political upheaval.
In the wake of the most recent coup d'etat, which overturned the former government of Francois Bozize, Sundanese poachers, presenting themselves as part of transitional government forces, successfully capitalized on the political upset. These poachers entered the Dzanga-Sangha Protected Areas for the purposes of obtaining large quantities of ivory from Dzanga Bai.
On May 6, 2013 at least 26 elephants were massacred in the "Village of Elephants," after 17 heavily armed suspected poachers entered the bai. As townspeople, research assistants, park staff and expatriate researchers watched with heavy hearts, the demand for ivory took its toll on a place that had managed to survive relatively unscathed for centuries. Local park staff courageously maintained a presence within RDS throughout the difficult weeks prior to and following the attack on Dzanga. Although the elephants are reported to have slowly made their return to the saline, we cannot yet discern the impact this will have for an area reliant on conservation, research and ecotourism.
This first known large scale ivory poaching event at Dzanga may have the potential to open a heretofore-protected area to an unchecked global trade centered on wildlife trafficking. Since 2005 the flow of firearms into this corner of the country has already taken its toll on other wildlife species that are targeted for meat rather than ornamental or medicinal items (Jost Robinson et al. 2011). In APDS, the ivory trade operates separately from what is commonly referred to as the bushmeat trade. The bushmeat trade or "bushmeat crisis," defined as the commercial hunting and sale of wildlife, has been one of the most influential factors in the decline of mammal populations. The loss of biodiversity will also have outcomes for human communities who depend upon wildlife for protein and cash income. Swift and persistent support of conservation and research organizations, as well as local human communities, are likely the best hope for remote locations such as Dzanga.
While in the images of Dzanga Bai the elephants occupy the main-stage, APDS is rich in other biodiversity and home to human communities representing more then 34 lingual and 11 ethnic groups. The periodic presence of an active logging industry has drawn thousands of migrants to the region. The result has been a boom and bust economy in the main town of Bayanga.
The human inhabitants of APDS are locally recognized as BaAka and Bilo. The BaAka of this region are a small subset of Congo Basin hunter-gatherers that have long been referred to in literature as "pygmies" given their short stature. BaAka foragers have inhabited the region with their agriculturalist counterparts since before colonization. The term Bilo is a colloquial term, which refers to all other human inhabitants (including horticulturalists, fishers, migrants and non migrants) and represents an incredible diversity of ethnic and lingual backgrounds.
If we delve in the migration and environmental histories of the human communities of APDS, once again we observe the emergence of multiple narratives that emerge from the presence of Dzanga Bai. Elephants are targeted to fuel ivory trades and international political conflict, but the global and local trade in wildlife weaves new threads pertaining to biodiversity conservation, food security, human rights and environmental justice. The local people of this region who seek both material and cultural sustenance from the newly threatened forest will face challenges in the years to come. We have already begun to observe the erosion of traditional Aka hunting practices and oral storytelling as a result of overhunting. The continued presence of wildlife, human livelihoods and cultural traditions in landscapes like Dzanga hinges upon our ability to understand their mutually dependent relationships (Remis and Hardin 2009).
By the time we arrived at the guard station, which marks the beginning of the trail leading to Dzanga Bai, the rain had let up. Dr. Remis and I chatted with old friends who were employed as guards and trackers at the research station of Andrea Turkalo (Turkalo, a research scientist with WCS, has been studying the elephants of Dzanga since 1990). They mentioned we should be back from the mirador (research platform that overlooks the clearing) before 1600h, as in recent weeks a bull was often found "guarding the river" at that time. I smiled as I listened to the trackers describe his behavior in very animated terms. It reminded me how often people take for granted not only the individuality of self-aware species, like elephants and apes, but they also assume that local inhabitants see these species as dollar signs rather than integral aspects of daily life.
As we had anticipated, it was wet, mist was rising off the mud and there were few elephants in the bai that day. Nonetheless, we sat and watched in wonder. When you are watching the wildlife as they congregate and interact at the saline, it is hard not to feel nostalgic for those images of Africa as an unspoiled enviroscape, full of exotic wildness.
But there in the bai, a clearing created by elephants, frequented by all walks of wildlife, and protected by expatriates and local peoples, you cannot deny the multifarious ties and that bind humans and the environment. Walking back to the truck, it was impossible to predict that none of us would ever experience the elephants, and the narratives woven into that single panorama, with the same unblemished peace as we did that day. While news of the elephants' slow but steady return to the bai reminds us of the resilience of ecological systems, we must not take for granted the fragility of these shared landscapes and the lives they represent.
Authors Note: Since May 26 there have been no further attacks on the Dzanga Bai. Continued support of conservation and indigenous organizations, wildlife research and local tourism efforts coupled with an increased awareness of wildlife trafficking will be critical to the futures of the wildlife and people of APDS.
CAROLYN A. JOST ROBINSON, LESLEY L. DASPIT and MELISSA J. REMIS, Multi-faceted approaches to understanding changes in wildlife and livelihoods in a protected area: a conservation case study from the Central African Republic. Environmental Conservation / Volume 38 / Issue 02 / June 2011, pp 247-255. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0376892910000949 (About DOI), Published online: 07 March 2011