Update: Conflict in the Central African Republic

Categories: Tourism, Journal no. 49, War, Other countries, Other protected areas, Western Lowland Gorilla, Gorilla Journal

Seleka leader in Bayanga village addressing the population during a collaboration meeting organized by WWF and APDS (© Christian Bassoum)

The Dzanga-Sangha Protected Areas (DSPA), located in the southwestern Central African Republic (CAR) and the northern edge of the Congo basin, is managed by the CAR government, with significant financial and technical support from WWF, the global conservation organization. The 4,579 km² complex of protected areas called the Sangha Tri-National complex (known by its French acronym TNS). In addition to DSPA, the TNS also includes Lobéké National Park in Cameroon and Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park in the Republic of Congo. The Regional Action Plan for the Conservation of Chimpanzees and Gorillas in Western Equatorial Africa (IUCN 2005) selected the TNS as an exceptional priority area for their conservation and will remain a priority area in the revised action plan (IUCN, in prep.). In recognition of its conservation importance, TNS was designated a transboundary World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2012. Since the early 1990s, DSPA has run an ecotourism programme to promote the value of its exceptional biodiversity and natural resources as well as showcase the traditional cultures and customs of the local people.

As part of the DSPA Ecotourism Programme, a Primate Habituation Programme (PHP) was launched in 1997 with the main aim of habituating western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) for tourism and research. To date, the PHP has successfully habituated 3 western lowland gorilla groups, while 2 additional groups are presently undergoing habituation. The PHP employs 60 local people as trackers (the Ba'Aka) and guides, and these employees are based in PHP's two forest camps: Bai Hokou and Mongambe. Apart from being a source of employment for the local people the programme plays a vital role in DSPA's management strategy by generating significant revenue and strengthening the vital link with the community, hence acting as an important conservation tool.

Between 2007 and 2011 the PHP received about 550-650 gorilla visiting tourists (i.e., many additional tourists participated in non-PHP related activities during this period) annually, and from 2009 to 2011 alone, 15 film teams visited the gorillas alongside scores of international journalists and researchers. Additionally, extensive research has been carried out from the PHP site, resulting in numerous scientific publications. By 2012, gorilla tracking fees covered about 75% of the direct operational costs of the PHP (i.e., local salaries, subsistence, materials, vehicle maintenance and fuel), and projections showed that the programme could potentially become self-sustaining by 2016. Gorilla tourism at Dzanga-Sangha thus can be considered one of the most successful western lowland gorilla tourism and research programmes in Central Africa. Unfortunately, despite the seemingly suitable conditions for a perennially flourishing and financially profitable ecotourism programme, instability has overwhelmed the CAR for nearly 2 decades with multiple coup d'état attempts and, over the last 2 years, the worst violence ever witnessed by this generation of CAR citizens.

The March 2013 Coup d'Etat

From December 2012, CAR has been undergoing persistent political crisis which culminated in a violent coup d’état in March 2013. The president was ousted by a Muslim rebel coalition force known as "Seleka" who then extended their violent movement to all regions of the country including DSPA. At least three different splinter Seleka groups, all reporting to different leaders, visited DSPA over a period of 11 months during which time the DSPA headquarters were looted twice, and Seleka troops caused total panic in the nearby villages in their aggressive efforts to locate associates from the previous regime. Among the DSPA material looted was PHP’s indispensable pickup truck, used to transport team members from their villages to and from the camps, in addition to providing them with critical subsistence supplies. Moreover, previously operational HF/VHF radios, project computers, cameras and many other important equipment items were taken by the Seleka troops.

In April 2013, about 40 Seleka elements were stationed in Bayanga village, where the DSPA HQ is based, with constant visits by support troops from a larger base in the neighbouring town of Nola, just 120 km north of Bayanga. In early May, a 17-man Sudanese Seleka group, purportedly seeking a missing colleague, then drove into the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park, proceeding to the mineral rich Dzanga Bai where, armed with AK-47s, they killed 26 elephants, including 4 infants. They then hacked off all the dead elephants' tusks, loaded them into their pick-up, and drove away.

For many years, the CAR has been invaded by marauding, heavily armed bands of poachers mounted on horseback, targeting the country's northern protected areas, where some of the most significant populations of elephants once roamed. Once these populations were virtually depleted, the armed groups then targeted the elephant rich DSPA. With rampant corruption throughout the entire country, even armed groups carrying automatic weapons are able to purchase their way through government controlled areas. Until recently, despite previous attempts to infiltrate DSPA and locate its substantial elephant populations, the DSPA had remained relatively untouched until the current state of political and military chaos provided the armed groups with the opportunity to eventually access this virtually unspoiled location. The crisis was exacerbated by the fact that there were different factions of Seleka forces operating in the region working independently of one another. In times of political instability, both people and wildlife may suffer greatly, as law and order breaks down, violence and corruption prevail, and turmoil reigns. In their targeted search for elephants and their ivory, the rebels also arrived at one of the gorilla camps; but the camps were quickly evacuated and, once the intruders saw that there was nothing of value to seize, they quickly left the camp and never accessed or harmed the nearby gorilla groups.

When the Seleka troops finally departed Bayanga and DSPA in February 2014, a Christian militia group known as the "Anti-Balaka" began to confront the various Seleka factions throughout the country. Having suffered at the hands of the aggressive and brutal Seleka forces, the Anti-Balaka militias then went on a terror mission of their own, targeting not only Seleka troops and supporters, but also innocent Muslim civilians. They eventually arrived at Bayanga where they overcame the local authorities and forcibly disarmed the DSPA government para-military trained rangers.

Major Challenges of the Coup d'Etat

One major challenge of the coup d'état was assuring the security of all DSPA staff members. Local PHP staff courageously continued following the gorillas, only evacuating the PHP camps from April 4th to 7th and May 6th to 13th when 2 different factions of Seleka rebels arrived, one of which looted the DSPA HQ, while the other entered the field camps, committing the elephant massacre and looting the PHP-Mongambe camp. Ensuring adequate security for the local staff to continue working was clearly a significant challenge because, even though the team members may have felt safer to remain in the camps and in the process protect their livelihoods, they also had family in Bayanga that needed their protection as well.

During this tumultuous period, and due to urgent security concerns, tourist numbers in DSPA dwindled to zero, and the suspension of tourism activities was inevitable. Consequently, the PHP, which largely depends on gorilla tracking fees, was unable to fully cover its operational costs. It was of course vital that the two gorilla camps maintain at least a minimal level of functioning in order to ensure continuous follows of the gorillas, thereby avoiding an abrupt cessation to critical gorilla surveillance activities. There was therefore the need to seek emergency funding to ensure the continuous running of the program. Unfortunately, with no tourism revenue for over 1.5 years, and due to the travel restrictions throughout the country, projections for programme self-sustainability have required recalibrating, and thus the project will continue to seek external funding support until political stability in CAR is reached and tourist numbers begin to recover.

Another major challenge during the instability was procuring essential supplies from Bangui, the capital, given that the high rate of insecurity throughout the country made travelling by road a significant risk. Moreover, the Seleka forces had confiscated the PHP vehicle, which greatly hindered the transport of important subsistence and equipment items to the PHP camps located up to 32 km from Bayanga, thus negatively impacting the day-to-day operations of the PHP.

The presence of Seleka in the region also caused many inhabitants of villages surrounding DSPA, especially the Ba'Aka, who are traditionally hunters and gatherers, to relocate to the park and pre-park for their safety. As a result there was an increase in the number of hunting camps, guns and snares throughout the protected areas. There was thus a compounded need for augmented anti-poaching patrols, leaving the conservation division completely stretched.

Ways Around the Crisis

Putting in place appropriate security measures was one major way of responding to the crisis. Prior to the arrival of the Seleka troops in Bayanga, all foreign staff were evacuated by pirogue along the Sangha River to the Bomassa headquarters of the Wildlife Conservation Society in neighbouring Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, Re­public of Congo. The local staff that remained thus needed adequate se­curity assurance. With support from the WWF regional office in Yaoundé, the emergency evacuation protocol was strengthened; one full-fuelled car and driver was always available at the park headquarters at all times, a full-fuelled pirogue and driver were ready to disembark at any moment, and an urgent evacuation aircraft could be quickly called-on, runway security permitting.

Security experts were also hired to install surveillance cameras at strategic locations, conduct training courses for the park rangers (navigation, crisis response, first aid etc.), and develop information networks to support an early warning system and subsequent contingency plans in case of approaching rebels. A WWF anti-poaching expert was brought in to work closely with the DSPA staff to boost the effectiveness of the eco-guards and their surveillance strategy. Moreover, in response to an increased need for constant anti-poaching patrols, more park rangers were recruited to reinforce patrol teams and more informants were carefully engaged and dispersed within nearby villages in order to record and report illegal activities.

In November 2013, with the support of the WWF National Office, an agreement of collaboration was signed between the DSPA administration and the Seleka Military Region of Sangha Mbaere prefecture to reinforce the protection of DSPA and permit recommencement of previously planned conservation activities and free circulation of people in the region. The Seleka agreed to transfer its Bayanga stationed troops to the Nola military base, only to return to the area if the DSPA administration solicited their assistance for mixed patrols against incoming armed poachers.

Although the stolen PHP pickup was eventually replaced, as long as Seleka troops were still present in Bayanga, there was a great need to secure the vehicle, which was consequently parked deep in the forest and was limited to traveling a maximum of 4 km outside the village of Bayanga. Subsistence therefore had to be transported manually to a hidden location, 4 km into the park, transferred to the pickup truck and only then transferred to the field camps. Other project cars were hidden 50 km inside the park with only two old cars used for basic operations by anti-poaching units, until the complete departure of Seleka troops. All Seleka troops finally departed the region in February 2014.

During such unstable and unpredictable times, a functioning communication system is imperative. A reliable system of HF radios was thus secured between all gorilla camps and the park headquarters and systematic status updates between them were scheduled. All camps and even some trusted informants were equipped with satellite phones to use in cases where HF radios were unavailable or when communication by radio may have compromised security. Informants were positioned at strategic points to alert the project site whenever there was an incoming group of Seleka and Anti-Balaka rebels, or any other group which might threaten to infiltrate DSPA.

All the above intervention measures could not have been achieved without the necessary emergency funding. These funds were sought through, and provided by, the greater WWF Network, assuring the continuation of critical anti-poaching and PHP activities in DSPA.

Way Forward

The government of CAR in its effort to lend support to the protection of DSPA has stationed 15 elements of the Central African Army (Force Armée Centrafricain, FACA) in Bayanga to strengthen the rule of law in the region. These FACA elements work in shifts and are replaced every month by new troops from the FACA regional base in Nola. The FACA have succeeded in completely dissolving all Anti-Balaka units in the region and have successfully reinstalled law and order.

Tourism activities have been reopened in DSPA but, due to continuing media reports of chaos in other parts of CAR, tourist turnout is still very low. WWF and the Ministry of Tourism are working together to communicate to the international community the most accurate and realistic details of the improving situation on the ground in an effort to revive the tourism programme.

With the above challenges it might be debated as to whether or not it is worth struggling to assure the continuous functioning of the PHP under such difficult circumstances, but there are numerous arguments for supporting the project’s continuation. PHP’s contribution to increasing the scientific knowledge of western lowland gorillas has been significant (1998-2013: 35 published articles, 8 submitted, 3 PhDs, 4 Masters Theses and one Bachelor’s thesis), despite the fact that the programme originated not to support research, but with the primary goal of promoting conscientious ecotourism. The programme has already demonstrated that, with regional stability, it can eventually become self-sustaining, not only supporting the local community through employment, but also through revenue sharing schemes and assistance to the health and education sector. Notably, it also endeavours to help preserve the traditional forest skills of the increasingly urbanized Ba'Aka community and has provided the opportunity for over 3,000 tourists and media representatives to view these amazing gorillas. Most importantly it has increased their overall protection in the area: while poaching for great apes in the region is common, PHP focal gorilla groups have yet to suffer any casualties at the hands of a poacher. Indeed it can thus also be argued that the PHP is a treasure to be jealously guarded, even through the most difficult periods imaginable.

Terence Fuh Neba and David Greer

We would like to express our gratitude to our principal donors US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Arcus Foundation, KFW, and the greater WWF network for providing financial support throughout this crisis period and who continue to support the programme. We would also like to give tremendous thanks to the staff of the PHP, DSPA and above all the brave rangers that courageously continued working throughout the crisis.