Stop the Carnage

A pistol-packing American scientist puts his life on the line to reduce “the most serious threat to African wildlife”—the illegal hunting of animals for food—and to STOP THE CARNAGE

Greer's efforts have led to the arrest of 20 poachers (rangers apprehend a suspect in Dzanga-Ndoki National Park). Still, hunters continue to slaughter western lowland gorillas in the Congo basin. (Martin Harvey)
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Ngbanda points at a giant tree. About 50 yards above us, almost hidden by the foliage, a potbellied female feasts on fruit, while below her an infant nestles on another branch chewing leaves. Moments later we hear, somewhere in the thicket, the thock-thock-thock of a silverback pounding his barrel chest in warning. Ngbanda spies him about 15 yards ahead and drops to the ground, followed by Greer and then me. "Makumba," Greer whispers, identifying the animal by name. We crouch to mollify the huge ape, a primate gesture of humility and respect that silverbacks understand, indeed expect.

Moments later, Makumba disappears. Listening to gorilla sounds that Greer and I cannot distinguish, Ngbanda plots the path of the silverback, and we follow through the undergrowth and down an elephant track. Suddenly, Makumba leaps onto the track about ten yards ahead, his huge furry face scowling. With a forearm as big as a man’s thigh, he slams a bunch of saplings repeatedly against the ground. "He’s displaying his authority over us," Greer says, "warning us not to come closer." We steer clear of him and don’t see him again.

That night, back at Bai Hokou, I use the camp’s "shower"— a spring-fed waterfall that feels delightfully cold—and then rejoin Greer and Cipolletta. I ask him what made him take up arms against the poachers a year ago. He says he and Cipolletta had been hearing gunshots for days on end and knew from the Pygmies that poachers were slaughtering large numbers of elephants, gorillas and other animals. The couple had also seen lots of bushmeat in the Bayanga market. And they knew that the leader of the anti-poaching patrols had quit and that the guards had become "demotivated," as he puts it, "and had a sense of helplessness with the barrage of poaching."

So last October, Greer accepted the challenge. With the help of his deputy, Josue Nambama, a well-connected Bantu, he concentrated on building a network of sources to provide information on the poachers. (I saw several men approach him at the village soccer field or at his home to provide information, sometimes for a small reward.) He also hired new guards, putting one team on alert 24 hours a day and assigning another to find and destroy snares. In addition, guards set up roadblocks to catch bushmeat traders and patrol animal- rich areas in the reserve, up to ten days in the field at a time. It is dangerous work. On one snare patrol, guards and poachers stumbled on each other, and in the confusion, a poacher who shot at the guards missed and killed one of his own porters. Because the anti-poaching effort is short on funds, guards are heavily outgunned by poachers, having just four AK-47s and seven old Russian bolt-action rifles. Many guards go on patrol armed with only their bare fists. Greer and Nambama’s efforts have led to the arrest and imprisonment of 20 poachers and discouraged dozens more. A CAR forestry and sustainable development official, Jean- Bernard Yarissem, says bushmeat has become noticeably less available in the Bayanga marketplace since Greer took over the anti-poaching effort. Jean-Rene Sangha, once the reserve’s most notorious elephant killer, says, "Before, there were many poachers, but with David’s arrival poaching decreased very much."

When I first met Sangha, whose parents named him after the nearby river and who now works with Greer as a guard, the wiry 26-year-old stared at me and said he’d begun to learn the poacher’s bloody trade at age 10 from his older brothers. He said he has slaughtered many gorillas—silverbacks, females and young—for bushmeat. He also admits to having killed "more than 100 elephants." Flaunting a devil’s courage, Sangha shot the elephants at point-blank range, then smuggled the tusks across the border into Cameroon. "Before, the price of one kilo of tusk was 8,000 CFA [about $15], but now one kilo costs 12,000 CFA [about $22]," he says, the market having inflated due to scarcity. With a pair of exceptionally big tusks weighing about 60 kilos, the 720,000 CFA (about $1,400) would keep a family in Bayanga for more than a year. Selling the elephants’ meat was a bonus.

Sangha, who says he lost two brothers in poaching acci dents, approached Greer about working with him on the patrols. Greer offered him a guard job at about 90,000 CFA a month, or more than twice a laborer’s wage. Sangha accepted. "I’ll help the other guards because the forest is very large and I know how the poachers work," he says. "I was a poacher, I know how to struggle against poachers." after poaching, the threat to the Congo Basin’s gorillas that most concerns Greer is Ebola, the highly infectious hemorrhagic fever virus that was first recognized in human beings, in central Africa, in 1976. The virus is passed on by direct contact with victims’ tissues or body fluids, and kills up to 90 percent of people infected. No cure for the disease exists, and many sufferers die quickly and horribly with massive internal and external bleeding. Ebola virus infects gorillas and other nonhuman primates with similarly lethal effects. Arecent Ebola outbreak in the Republic of the Congo killed up to 90 percent of the gorillas in some areas; at Lossi Gorilla Sanctuary, 139 out of 145 gorillas died from Ebola, Greer says.

The disease poses a threat to the Dzanga-Sangha gorillas. "It’s now been reported at the Congo’s Odzala National Park, which has Africa’s highest density of gorillas," Greer explains. "That’s less than a few hundred miles away in a contiguous forest with some barriers, but nothing too extreme to be able to block it." Not long ago, he and Cipolletta arranged a meeting of local health officials and village chiefs, and urged them to warn their people not to slaughter or eat monkeys, gorillas or chimps. "That’s how it spread in the [Republic of the] Congo," he says, meaning that people acquired the disease from handling an infected primate and passed the virus to others.

Some experts are concerned that bushmeat tainted with Ebola virus or other infectious agents might be smuggled into the United States. "Thousands of west and central Africans live in Florida, California, New York, as well as Atlanta and many other cities, and when they celebrate weddings, birthdays or other occasions, [many] want to eat bushmeat from their homeland," says Richard Ruggiero, an Africa program officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "Because its entry is illegal, it’s smuggled in as other meat or is brought in undeclared by travelers." Most of the smuggled bushmeat confiscated so far, says Ruggiero, has been cane rat, a two-foot-long field rodent weighing up to ten pounds, but other wild meat has also turned up.

In 2002, customs officials at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport found a smoked primate carcass in the suitcase of a passenger from Cameroon; the passenger was reportedly carrying the bushmeat to a traditional wedding celebration. Inspectors at other U.S. airports have also reported a recent rise in seizures of African bushmeat, including a 600-pound shipment in 2003 of duiker, squirrels, bats and rats hidden beneath dried fish at New York City’s JFK International Airport. The same year, a shipment of 2,000 baboon snouts bound for the United States was seized at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. "We have only 100 inspectors across the United States, and so it’s scary because we’re certainly only seeing the tip of the iceberg with bushmeat," says Mike Elkins, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent in Atlanta.

Trish Reed, a Wildlife Conservation Society field veterinarian who has done research at Bomassa in the Republic of the Congo, is arranging to test primate carcasses for Ebola virus at a lab in Libreville, Gabon. She says the danger of Ebola getting into the United States by means of infected bushmeat is currently low. "Smoking the meat almost certainly kills any Ebola it might have," she says, "but we are not 100 percent certain." Indeed, in 2003 the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned of the dangers of prepared bushmeat, saying that "smoking, salting, or brining may slow down bushmeat’s decay, but may not render bushmeat free of infectious agents." The Ebola threat, whether to primates directly or to people exposed to the infected animals, has added urgency to conservation efforts: saving gorillas could also mean saving human lives. Nearing dusk one day, Greer strides barefoot through the jungle heading for Dzanga Bai, the reserve’s most spectacular forest opening. He is carrying a pack of red wine, cheese and baguettes for a monthly ritual. At the bai, a sandy salt lick the size of three football fields, 75 forest elephants have gathered, part of a recent resurgence that some attribute to Greer’s efforts. Researchers have identified more than 3,300 elephants using the bai.


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