Greer risks his life virtually every day to protect some of Africa’s most significant animals, including western lowland gorillas and forest elephants. He is based in the Dzanga- Sangha Dense Forest Special Reserve, home to one of the richest and most diverse assemblies of animals, birds, fish and insects on earth. The 1,220-square-mile sanctuary in the CAR connects with protected forestlands in Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, forming a 4,000- square-mile wilderness reserve overseen by the three governments with financial help from the WWF and the German Development Agency. Greer is employed by the WWF as a park adviser and empowered by the CAR government to enforce anti-poaching laws. Aprimatologist who had previously never wielded anything more lethal than a ballpoint pen, he’s one of a new breed of eco-warrior who carries a gun in the fight against the slaughter of forest animals.
To reach this embattled tropical treasure, I fly from Paris to Bangui, the capital of the CAR, a landlocked country of about 240,000 square miles—slightly smaller than Texas—tagged by the World Bank as one of the world’s poorest nations. Bangui is a tragic and frightened city, its residents cowed by decades of violent coups d’état by officers of a ruthless national army. Nestled against the Oubangui River, Bangui is a hot and humid relic of French colonialism littered with run-down buildings, potholed roads and crumbling monuments to former dictators. Surly police carrying clubs prowl the streets. Soldiers toting assault rifles and manning antiaircraft guns tear through the city in trucks escorting the country’s military ruler. Foreign visitors mostly stay in one of several hotels that look as if they belong in a Graham Greene novel, their lobbies the haunt of shady characters whispering in Sango, the local language, and French. The hotel swimming pools are thronged by frolicking prostitutes, some as young as 12.
In the city’s central, open-air market, Bantu women clad in colorful robes sell piles of smoked bushmeat—mostly duiker, Greer says, but occasionally great apes and elephants. To local residents, one of the main appeals of bushmeat is low cost; Greer says he has seen smoked gorilla meat selling for as little as 25 cents a pound in a village market. People who have traditionally lived off the rain forest view hunting and trapping as their prerogative, especially in the poorest areas. "Because they are very poor and have a difficult time finding jobs, they feel they should have the right to utilize the forest," says Pascal Dangino, a former poacher who now works for Greer as a guard. "Conservation is a difficult concept for them to understand."
I leave Bangui by SUV to get to the Dzanga-Sangha forest reserve about 300 miles to the southwest along a bone-shaking dirt road. I am accompanied by Angelique Todd, an English wildlife biologist who studies gorillas, and along the way we pass a handful of impoverished towns brimming with men and women playing cards, sitting by the road chatting and dozing in the sun. Nearing the reserve, I spy the igloo-shaped huts of the Bayaka Pygmy clans, who have inhabited the Congo Basin for more than a millennium. Masters of the rain forest, the Pygmies are among Greer’s most valued allies.
Greer, wearing shorts and going shirtless and barefooted, greets me at his spartan wood bungalow in Bayanga, a village on the Sangha River at the republic’s southernmost
tip. We had met seven years earlier in Rwanda, where he was studying mountain gorillas with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. "Hop in," he says, opening the door of a mud-splattered SUV. "Let’s go see some gorillas."
As we drive through Bayanga, men and women wave, and smiling children run alongside the truck calling out, "Darveed." He returns their greetings in Sango. In the seven years he has lived here, he has clearly made an effort to blend in. "They know I like to live with them and eat their food, enjoy their culture and play basketball with them," he says.
On Bayanga’s outskirts we enter a dense rain-soaked jungle, and a sign featuring a painted gorilla shows that we have reached the reserve’s crown jewel, the 470-square-mile Dzanga-Ndoki National Park. Greer tells me the park is inhabited by 88 species of mammals and 379 species of birds, including many rare creatures hunted by poachers. "All fishing, gathering, hunting, mineral and forest exploitation are prohibited in the park, which is a vital reservoir for endangered species," he says. Native Africans, he adds, are allowed to hunt, fish and gather plants outside the national park, in the Dzanga-Sangha Dense Forest Special Reserve.
The farther Greer goes into the park, the wider he smiles, but then, he believes he was born to a life in the wilderness, despite his city roots. Raised in Kansas City, he says he was something of a street fighter as a youth. His father, a lineman for Southwestern Bell Telephone Company, took him fishing, hunting and camping. Greer won a baseball scholarship to Baker University in Baldwin City, Kansas, where he studied psychology; after college, he worked briefly as a psychologist in a mental health clinic in Kansas City. But in 1994 he abandoned psychology to work with chimpanzees at the Jane Goodall Institute for Wildlife Research, Education and Conservation in Tanzania. Refused a resident’s visa, he moved to Karisoke in Rwanda, the mountain gorilla research center founded in 1967 by Dian Fossey.
Greer well remembers the first mountain gorillas he ever saw, a silverback that Fossey had named Pablo and six females with their young, chomping on nettles and other plants on the slope of a volcano in Rwanda. "I felt like the luckiest human being on earth. I felt I was meant to be here, this was my calling," he says. "Every time I saw the mountain gorillas after that, my stomach would tighten with emotion. They’re so big and beautiful, and yet so peaceful."
Greer had arrived in Rwanda after the Interahamwe— gangs of extremist Hutus—had shocked the world by killing up to nearly a million rival Tutsis and moderate Hutus. He often came across the marauders’ fresh trails along the mountain slopes and saw armed Interahamwe in the distance. "There were bodies all over the place," he remembers. Once, while he was observing foraging gorillas, the animals came across a dead Hutu riddled with bullets. "The gorillas glanced at the body, then stepped around it," he says.