Adapting to loss of a way of life


Change: Pygmies in Central Africa are being encouraged and forced to limit their hunting and try new ways.

April 15, 2000|By Ann M. Simmons | Ann M. Simmons,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAYANGA, Central African Republic -- The menacing mimicry of animal cries echoes through tangled rain forest from a band of diminutive human predators.

Suddenly, frantic squeals ring out as a scrawny, wide-eyed antelope gets tangled in a net trap. A woman clobbers it with a stick. Two other antelopes meet the same fate this morning, a modest take compared to those of yesteryear.

As they have done for more generations than anyone can remember, the Pygmies of the BaAka tribe are on the hunt.

Legendary people who rarely grow to more than 5 feet tall, several million Pygmies once roamed the rain forests of Africa, hunting wherever and whatever they pleased.

That began to change when taller and more powerful Bantu warriors and farmers forced them farther into the woodlands. Then poachers using guns and deadly wire snares depleted the herds, and loggers attracted by mahogany reduced the forests.

`Pulled out from under them'

An estimated 250,000 Pygmies from various tribes remain, with about 3,000 BaAka eking out an existence in shabby camps around Bayanga in the southwestern corner of the Central African Republic.

"The forest was being basically pulled out from under them like a rug," says Richard Carroll, director for West and Central Africa and Madagascar at the Washington-based World Wildlife Fund. "Once the forest is depleted, then who cares about the Pygmies? They are left marginalized in roadside camps with no means of support."

Slowly, and with mixed feelings, the BaAka Pygmies are abandoning their age-old ways of hunting and foraging.

The instrument of change is the Dzanga-Sangha Project, an initiative to promote wildlife conservation, rural development and tourism. It offers the Pygmies a chance to save a substantial amount of the natural resources on which they've always depended.

Predatory nature denied

Dzanga-Ndoki National Park was a prime hunting ground for the BaAka Pygmies. It now is off limits to any pursuit of game. Hunting is confined to a forest reserve, where Pygmies are encouraged to use only traditional weapons such as nets and spears.

As the park project, which is sponsored by the World Wildlife Federation and the German Technical Cooperation, marks its 10-year anniversary, the Pygmies are still trying to come to terms with its impact. Their lifestyle has become more settled, and many Pygmies cultivate small plots. But there are constant requests for the boundaries of the national park to be altered to allow hunting.

"It's not easy to work with forest dwellers because they are naturally predators," says Georges N'gasse, a local environmentalist. "They believe natural resources are for their use. That is why the strategy for conservation needs time."

Encouragement, benefits

In an effort to win over the Pygmies, the project recruits them as trackers, seed experts and guides for tourists who want to try net-hunting or search for medicinal plants.

The amount of tourism is minuscule. Reaching parts of this most inaccessible of regions may require an awkward waddle waist-deep through water turgid with elephant dung and rife with snakes and leeches, followed by a trek through masses of twisted undergrowth.

Salaries paid to project staff members, who work as guides and trackers, typically are much higher than those for any of the few other jobs available in Bayanga. As a reward for adhering to good conservation practices, Pygmies are offered health and education programs. Many can neither read nor count, and few know their age.

"In the long term, you can't protect wildlife if you have an opposing population in the area," says Allard Blom, a conservationist with the WWF who was previously based in Bayanga. "You have to convince the majority of people in the area that it is to their benefit."

Guards take weapons, meat

Many Pygmies pine for the days when they could hunt gorillas, leopards, elephants and giant pangolin, a scaly anteater. Not all have accepted the need for conservation. Project guards have confiscated and destroyed almost 50,000 cable snares over the past 10 years, and several large-caliber elephant guns and illegal shotguns.

Preventing illegal hunting has been an uphill battle because the trade in bush meat and ivory is lucrative. Project guards have confiscated more than 17,000 pounds of bush meat since 1990.

`King of the Pygmies'

One man who is not trying to change the Pygmies is Louis Sarno, a 6-foot-tall white American and a self-described lousy hunter. For 14 years, the New Jersey native has lived among the BaAka, documenting their customs, studying their language and recording their music. Friends affectionately call him "King of the Pygmies," though he bridles at the title.

Although some academics dismiss Sarno as an amateur and social misfit, others consider him an unrivaled authority on the life and ways of the BaAka. Miles away from modernity, Sarno, 45, has found his niche in a roadside camp called Batali.

`It's his passion'

"I feel more at home here than I do when I go to the States," he says.

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