In CAR, the BaAka community (re)turns to their traditional forests to avoid COVID-19

I have a fear of flying. Even big planes make me nervous, let alone a light aircraft like the one I had to take to reach Bayanga in the southernmost tip of the Central African Republic at the end of February 2020. But for this extraordinary trip I braved my fears. After having worked remotely with WWF colleagues in this tropical forest paradise for three years, the opportunity had finally come for me to visit CAR’s Dzanga Sangha protected area complex and learn more about WWF’s intricate and dedicated conservation efforts in this biodiversity hotspot. Little did I know that this would be my last trip for an indefinite period of time and that in the coming months of lockdown, closing my eyes and traveling through time and space back to the spectacular rainforest of Bayanga would give me new energy.

© Martina Lippuner

Bayanga is an extraordinary place in the northern edge of the Congo Basin forest — it is extremely isolated (hence the need to fly there) which is certainly one of the reasons why the forest there still harbours exceptional biodiversity. In the Dzanga Sangha protected area complex, you can observe over 100 forest elephants at the same time, stare into the eyes of a majestic silverback gorilla and get lost in an ancient rainforest as if you were in aDavid Attenborough film. Aside from enjoying nature, you can spend an afternoon with the indigenous BaAka people in the forest, experiencing their traditional hunting and gathering activities first hand.

© Martina Lippuner, © Miguel Bellosta

Unfortunately, this amazing biodiversity is at risk. Poaching — the Congo Basin has lost two thirds of its forest elephants in the last decade — and illicit bushmeat trade, illegal logging and recurring political instability are threatening nature and the surrounding population, who depend heavily on intact ecosystems, food and medicine from the forest and an income through ecotourism.

WWF is one of the most active NGOs in Bayanga and beyond protecting its forest and animals, we also promote and train people in agricultural alternatives and have helped build hospitals, a radio station, schools, a campus and a research station in the middle of the rainforest where a whole team of researchers and trackers are observing 3 gorilla families and helping habituatehabituate them to tourists. WWF has also rebuilt an eco-tourism lodge, helped set up a human rights center and provides about 700 school stipends to BaAka students every year. We also run a mobile health clinic which provides free treatment to up to 10,000 people a year.

It is clear that with rampant poverty — the Gross National Income per capita of $663 in the Central African Republic makes it the poorest country in the world — only a holistic conservation approach can succeed in protecting nature and people in a place like Bayanga.

One initiative going well beyond ‘traditional’ conservation in Bayanga impressed me in particular. Ndima Kali is a BaAka and Sangha-Sangha youth group — think of it as the equivalent of the Boy and Girl scouts in the villages around Dzanga Sangha — that WWF helped create. All the young people in the group are here to keep their ancestral traditions alive. For a fee they bring tourists to their hunting grounds and offer them an authentic experience observing some of the activities that the BaAka have been conducting for millenia.

I will forever treasure the hours I spent with Doyenne Henriette Memba and her students in the forest. Experiencing their traditional bond with the forest showed me clearly why they are called custodians of the forests and that my fellow colleagues consider them the real conservation leaders in their territories.

An afternoon in the forest with the youth of Ndima Kali: They try to hunt small mammals under the guidance of their doyenne and symbolically bury the bad luck when they don’t catch anything. They later gather medicinal plants and build a hut in the forest. ©Martina Lippuner

Fast forward three weeks, and, back in Kenya, I am in partial lockdown with my family and a strict curfew, like many other parts of the world, and I cannot help but worry a lot about my new friends in the Central African Republic, and the local people we work with. The first case of Covid-19 has just been detected in the capital Bangui and it seems obvious that the war torn country is ill-prepared for what might come. Around half of all health facilities are non-functional and there are only three ventilators in the whole country — for almost 6 million people. Washing hands can also be a challenge for 95% of the population who don’t have access to clean water, as can social distancing in densely packed neighbourhoods. A loss of tourist revenue could also have potentially devastating effects on the local economy.

When the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a pandemic in mid-March, WWF in Bayanga had to immediately bring all field programmes to a halt. The Dzanga Sangha Protected Areas closed their doors to tourists as did WWF’s “Doli Lodge”. The gorilla habituation programme also had to take important measures as primates are susceptible to human respiratory diseases. The daily tracking strategy had to be adapted and the gorilla families are now being followed at a minimum distance of 15m by a small number of staff, except once a week when they are approached at 10m for visual health observations. Right now there is no telling what would happen if the gorillas got infected with Covid-19.

© David Santiago

At least one infected person already travelled through Bayanga to Cameroon in early April. All his 13 direct contacts self-isolated and tested negative, a big relief for the whole team on the ground. The gorilla veterinarian in Bayanga is now one of the people in the Central African Republic who can conduct Covid-19 tests thanks to kits that the gorilla programme received from Germany.

© Luis Arranz

My colleagues in Bayanga are raising awareness of the disease via the community radio and by visiting the villages ‘corona-style’. Usually when going to the villages the whole population gathers in the shade of a big tree, but this time the community liaison officers are using megaphones to spread their message to make sure people don’t actually come together. They have also installed 200 hand-washing stations in the villages around the park and transformed one of their offices into a tailoring workshop. By June local tailors had produced 4000 facemasks that my colleagues in Bayanga have distributed.

© Luis Arranz

But the most unconventional measure is being taken by the BaAka, the indigenous people of the forest, themselves. Because enforcing social distancing rules in family clans is almost impossible, they have returned to the forest and are currently confining themselves in their hunting camps until the worst is over.

In order to ensure that this confinement in the forest is efficient, WWF in Bayanga has committed to providing over 3,000 people with food and essential supplies for at least three months and is working with 68 representatives of those family clans who will be the only points of contact with the “outside world” — not an easy task and not really our core competency as a conservation NGO! But again, in a place like Bayanga, an inclusive approach to conservation is the only way to be successful. It means making sure that the basic needs of the local population are met and to support them in the decisions they take over their lives and their forest.

© Luis Arranz, © Martina Lippuner

Will the return to nature work? Will the BaAka population be able to resist the devastating impact of Covid-19? We don’t know but we are trying our best. While WWF globally is asking decision makers to take measures to prevent further pandemics, my colleagues in Bayanga are focusing on an adapted Covid-19 response on a local level: support the BaAka, the local population in general and protect the gorillas in the forest.

Today, as most WWF staff work from home to fight the virus, a small, dedicated field team do all they can to weather the storm and make sure Dzanga Sangha sees better days ahead. My thoughts are with them.

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