Dzanga Sangha: New Hope in the Heart of Africa
By Alexandre Brecher, WWF-GHoA
In the midst of the ravaging armed conflict which tore Central African Republic apart, elephants, gorillas, leopards and chimpanzees found safety in an extraordinary place: Dzanga Sangha, a true natural sanctuary for the emblematic species of the Congo Basin. Hidden in the middle of the tropical forest, this World Heritage Site endured and prevailed, thanks in great part to the continuous technical and financial support WWF provided to the eco-guards protecting the park. This is the story of those who made it possible for Dzanga Sangha to triumph and recently – on July 1, 2014 - reopen for tourists.
May 6, 2013. Daybreak. A group of heavily armed poachers enter the Parc, heading for Dzanga Baï – a forest clearing, whose extremely rich soil in mineral salts attracts hundreds of forest elephants at any time of day or night. The rare clearings are the only places where we can easily observe these majestic animals, otherwise very difficult to spot in the tangled jungles of the Congo Basin. Unfortunately, such Bais are also the places where elephants are most vulnerable to poachers. Across Africa, their populations have dropped by a dramatic 60% over the past decade.
This fatal May day is no different. The country is already in chaos: since the end of 2012, unprecedented violence waged by the Seleka militias erupted in the north, then gripped capital city Bangui. The WWF offices in Bangui are raided; staff are scrambling for alternative ways to be able to continue their work: makeshift offices and storage places at their homes. They know one thing: they cannot give up, all the more as the Seleka advance towards Bayanga, a town bordering Dzanga Sangha. Protecting these areas is paramount to the conservation mandate of WWF in Central Africa Republic. The amazing biodiversity here on the one hand, and the vulnerability of wildlife to poaching on the other hand, make it enough of a reason to stand the course, even during times of deep distress. Even during a full-blown war.
It does not take long for the Seleka to reach Bayanga : they occupy the city in the beginning of April 2013. On April 7, then again on April 19, they violently attack the WWF offices here.
“I must confess I was terrified,” recalls Jean-Bernard Yarissem, the WWF program coordinator, “The Seleka were specifically targeting me, as the programme coordinator. I had to hide in the forest for a full day, without water or food. My colleagues thought I was dead. ”
Despite having to suspend most of its operations, WWF maintained its financial and technical assistance to the eco-guards at Dzanga-Sangha, allowing them to continue their patrols, especially at the Bai.
« We were fully conscious of our immense responsibility, » says Yarissem. “The Bai is a precious gift to the entire humanity. It was our job to do whatever we could to make sure it is protected.”
It is on May 6 that everything dramatically changes. Taking advantage of the extreme volatility of the region, 17 poachers arrive from Sudan and enter the Parc.
“There was nothing we could do,” recalls Yarissem. “They were armed through their teeth, with AK-47s and rocket launchers. The eco-guards were not a match. It was their life or the life of the elephants. They had to be evacuated.”
For 48 hours straight, the poachers perpetrate a gruesome massacre, killing 26 elephants and snatching their tusks. They load everything on their pickup trucks and then leave undisturbed.
When the eco-guards return to the Bai, they find it bleeding. It is a ghastly sight, but one that only motivates them to pursue their work.
“My wife didn’t want me to go back, she thought it was too dangerous” recalls Flavien Pany, one of the first guards to return on the job. “But I explained to her that we have a task to fulfill. We had to make the sure the Bai stays safe.”
Meanwhile, in Bangui, Yarissem lobbies everyone, from NGOs to UNESCO to the government, to rally their support for Dzanga Sangha. He also engages with various rebel groups for the cause of the Park.
“We had to explain to all these armed militias that we were not part of the conflict, that our mission was simply that of protecting the natural heritage of their own children,” says Yarissem.
In September 2013, interim authorities declare Bayanga as a military region. This new legal status allowed negociations with the local and central authorities asking for a clear commitment for protection of Dzanga Sangha. An agreement between the Park, the military region and WWF is signed at the end of November and ratified by the new authorities after the Seleka militias leave the area, on December 5, 2013. Despite the loss of 26 elephants, the Bai is now saved.
Six months later, the Parc reopens for tourism. For now visitors are scarce, but these timid first steps are already huge. When we visit, in September, it is Flavien who guides us towards the Bai – his clearing. We are instantly overwhelmed : a hundred, maybe more elephants, break the morning mist. Mothers teach their young ones to drink the salted waters, with gestures of infinite tenderness. Males in the distance majestically spot the brinks of the forest, sending the echoes of their deep voices far into the bush.
The ultimate beauty of the world is here, in front of our teary eyes, miraculously protected from the worst this world came to know.
“After the massacre, nature reclaimed its rights,” says Flavien. “The elephants came back. Now that you see the Bai, do you understand why we gave all we had to protect it?”
Situated in the Northern part of the Congo basin, the Dzanga Sangha Protected Areas (APDS) are internationally known for their beautiful rainforests, host to a remarkable diversity of wildlife, comprising western lowland gorillas, forest elephants, bongo antelopes, forest buffalos and a multitude of bird species. Furthermore, a rich local culture, comprising the Sangha Sangha fishermen as well as hunting and gathering BaAka, are present in the area. Apart from conservation and local development efforts, Dzanga Sangha operates as an eco-tourism and research centre. A variety of well developed tourism activities and a beautiful hotel complex, overlooking the Sangha River, are at your disposal.
Sharing borders with Cameroun and Congo, the Dzanga Sangha Protected Areas are part of the Trinational Sangha (TNS) complex, currently in the process to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Roundtrips to the other National Parks (Lobéké in Cameroun and Nouabalé Ndoki in Congo) can be organized with ease.
Dzanga Sangha has a long tradition in research. In the right hand section you’ll find all information related to past and ongoing research. The primate habituation program has its own section where a manifold of information is at your disposal. In case you are interested in volunteering please refer to this section before sending your application.