Central Africa’s Rangers Are as Threatened as the Animals They Guard
Park staff struggle to protect the animals—and themselves—against poachers and militias.
BAMINGUI-BANGORAN NATIONAL PARK, Central African Republic—The rebels entered the wildlife reserve by motorbike, brandishing assault rifles and demanding what was theirs.
“That’s when you decide whether you’re going to fight or not,” said Andrea Ghiurghi, who, until recently, was the coordinator of Bamingui-Bangoran National Park in the Central African Republic. “If you kill one of them, you know that 50 more are going to come back and destroy everything.”
It was March 2018. Three days earlier, rangers had caught a poacher and confiscated his AK-47 assault rifle. Now around 20 rebels, belonging to an armed group whose members regularly lend their high-powered firearms to bushmeat hunters, wanted the weapon back.
“It was tense,” said Ghiurghi, a genial conservationist from southern Italy. “I tried to calm the situation, but after an hour of talking, we had no option but to hand back the gun.”
In one of the world’s most hostile areas for conservation, environmentalists like Ghiurghi are forced to be conflict negotiators as much as wildlife managers. Violence has gripped the Central African Republic (CAR) for years; armed groups control much of the country. In 2013, rebels from a predominantly Muslim alliance called the Seleka took power in a coup, sparking a backlash from mostly Christian militias known as the anti-balaka, followed by tit-for-tat reprisals. The ensuing civil war has displaced more than a million people, led to a multitude of atrocities against civilians, and fueled one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
Amid such chaos, conservationists are also battling to save endangered species from poachers linked to heavily armed rebel groups. The 50 rangers and scouts working at Bamingui-Bangoran are tasked with protecting the last remaining animals across some 4,000 square miles of wooded savannah dotted with salt licks, open grasslands, and lush gallery forests that wind along watercourses. Bamingui-Bangoran is also split between two militias from CAR’s alphabet soup of insurgencies: the Popular Front for the Renaissance of the Central African Republic and the Central African Patriotic Movement, known by the French acronyms FPRC and MPC, respectively—among the country’s main armed groups.
Bamingui-Bangoran and its twin reserve, the UNESCO-listed Manovo-Gounda St. Floris, are the oldest national parks in the country. They date back to the 1930s and have been managed by various consultancies and European Union-funded initiatives since the 1980s. This is the home of the country’s last protected giraffe, belonging to the critically endangered Kordofan subspecies. There are big cats, too, such as lions and the occasional leopard. Antelopes include giant elands—the world’s largest—as well as bongo, bushbuck, hartebeest, and Buffon’s kob. The latter, while hardly a household name, is a big deal for conservationists and was once one of the most abundant antelopes in the region. Given the kob’s vulnerability to poaching and its capacity to bounce back quickly when protected, the presence or absence of the species indicates a habitat’s health. If they’re still there, then there’s hope.
But commercial poaching, wildlife trafficking, cattle herding, a catastrophic rebellion, and sporadic conservation funding have pushed this once teeming wilderness to the brink, wiping out virtually its entire community of 35,000 elephants and sending other species into a downward spiral. The area’s treasure-trove of wildlife offers a valuable resource over which many have competed. For European conservationists, the animals are priceless specimens to be protected at all costs. For local malnourished communities desperate for food in a war-wracked region, they offer good meat on the hoof. And for transnational poachers and Western trophy hunters, the creatures are nothing but commodities that promise wealth and status.
The plight of this park—a far-flung wilderness in a war-torn backwater—may seem unimportant. But it represents an extreme version of the challenges facing conservation programs worldwide: protecting animal populations from extinction, outmaneuvering vested interests, and safeguarding local communities from a sort of so-called green colonialism. Faced by rebel groups bristling with weapons, a small ranger force armed with old assault rifles that often jam is not enough to secure the park. Bold backroom diplomacy and meetings with militia chiefs have become key to staving off destruction.
The isolation of northern CAR stumped the French, who, in a secret military assessment written at the end of colonial rule, described the untamable bush as “an eater of men” and “the perfect terrain for the guerrilla.” Nowadays, almost 60 years since the country won independence, more than 300 miles of unpaved roads controlled by rebel militias separate Bamingui-Bangoran from the government-held capital, often requiring staff and supplies to be airlifted either by chartered planes to the park’s forest airstrip or by United Nations humanitarian flights that land twice weekly in Ndele, a dusty cattle-trading town and stronghold for FPRC rebels.
It was there one morning in May that Ghiurghi and several rangers collected me from a runway ringed by razor wire and watched over by Pakistani soldiers working as U.N. peacekeepers. Before his return to the park, Ghiurghi had business in town. In this volatile region, a good working relationship with the ruling rebels is essential, even those whose rank and file are fueling the poaching epidemic. The FPRC is the most powerful armed group to splinter from the Seleka rebel coalition, born from factions that fought in the country’s Bush War, which broke out in 2004.
According to Human Rights Watch, FPRC militants have committed war crimes, including rape and executions, and retain strong ties with former janjaweed soldiers across the Sudanese border in Darfur. Ghiughi’s meeting took place in a small, sparsely-furnished home belonging to Djafar Adoum, a former mechanic with a laid-back charm and easy grin, now a senior member of the FPRC’s political wing. His advisor, a tall, sinewy man named Fator Sinine, sat in silence throughout. Adoum certainly talked the talk—“The bushmeat trade is causing the destruction of our heritage,” he said—even if his apparent zeal for conservation had not trickled down to the foot soldiers.
From there, the park’s headquarters lies around four hours along a dirt road rutted with potholes—the main highway in this long-marginalized, mainly Muslim region—passing small, impoverished villages and checkpoints guarded by bored FPRC militants lounging in the shade.
The following morning, the park’s personnel gathered at 7 a.m. at a forest clearing for the flag-raising ceremony, a daily activity designed to instill discipline and routine within this sprawling, anarchic space. Four rangers then set off in the back of a pickup to spend a week living under tarpaulin at Camp Kristel, an advance post named after the young giraffe living in the area. She is among the last of her kind in CAR. Rangers carry out numerous patrols a day to keep her safe.
However, irregular funding, insecurity, and a nationwide arms embargo that has impeded the delivery of any military-style equipment have meant that some rangers are underequipped. Some wear torn uniforms; others don cheap, uncomfortable sneakers—even on 20-mile hikes in intense, tropical heat—as their boots have worn out. Regardless, most rangers stick with the job. In this, one of the poorest and most unstable countries in the world, a decent income and free on-site accommodation for dependents are big draws.
Kristel, like the rest of the park’s wildlife, is under threat from the bushmeat trade. The region’s undeveloped agriculture has made bushmeat—that is, the meat of African wild animals used as food—a cheap, readily available source of protein. Small-scale, well-managed subsistence hunting in remote areas does not pose a particularly great threat to the ability of wildlife populations to sustain themselves. But as soon as the bushmeat trade becomes commercialized, feeding urban and even overseas markets, the impact is massive and fuels the indiscriminate slaughter of threatened species, as is the case in northern CAR, which Chadian and Sudanese poachers have targeted for decades. The March 2018 standoff over the confiscated AK-47 was not an isolated one.
When the rebels themselves aren’t using assault rifles to hunt game, they’re loaning the firearms to friends and relatives to do the hunting for them, often agreeing to split the bushmeat 50-50. On Dec. 18, 2018, rangers clashed with four rebels out hunting. A fierce firefight ensued, during which one poacher was killed and the other three fled. FPRC militants later came to the park’s headquarters to demand the return of their dead counterpart’s gun. In January this year, rangers caught several poachers and confiscated an AK-47, a bolt-action rifle, and a homemade gun. Again, rebels later showed up for their weapons. “Here, there are always compromises,” Ghiurghi said.
In this lawless land, encounters can be surreal. During a patrol last July, a unit of rangers was ambushed by a poaching gang, including one of their former colleagues who had been recently fired for ill-discipline and hunting game. During the attack, old and faulty ammunition caused the rangers’ weapons to jam. As gunfire pinned them down, the group’s commander, Yusuf Ousman, was hit in the upper arm by an extra-large bullet that had been fashioned from lead shot melted into a heftier slug. “I was in so much pain,” Ousman, 54, recalled. “It felt as if my skin was being ripped apart.”
The poachers fled into the bush, one of them injured. Ousman was rushed to a nearby U.N. peacekeeping base, given emergency treatment, and then driven to the regional hospital in Ndele as night fell. Disconcertingly, during his three-week recuperation, he learned that one of the hunters—the teenage son of the former ranger-turned-poacher—was in the next room, recovering from a shattered knee sustained during the gunfight.
“It was a little bizarre,” Ousman said. “One of his relatives could have come to kill me with a knife in revenge.”
Eventually the father of the wounded poacher broke his cover and came to visit his son. Following a request from the park, the FPRC’s police force arrested him for Ousman’s attempted murder. But with no functioning judicial system in this rebel-held region and prosecutors in the capital unwilling to get involved, the father was released from FPRC detention after just a few weeks.
The park’s wildlife has always been a tempting target for hunters—including Europeans. Four decades ago, in the late 1970s, an aerial survey recorded breathtaking levels of wildlife in the area: more than 35,000 elephants, 30,000 buffaloes, 1,200 giraffes, and 88,000 antelopes of various species. It was a paradise for high-rolling trophy hunters, including former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who would fly in for shooting safaris with CAR’s then-ruler, a megalomaniac named Jean-Bédel Bokassa. But by 1985, the growing frenzy for ivory, spearheaded by Sudanese gunmen on horseback, had left just 4,800 elephants—a sustained bloodbath in which some 30,000 of these awe-inspiring creatures had been massacred in the area within a decade. Black rhinos disappeared there a year later. Buffalo and antelope numbers continued to drop.
An EU-backed conservation program launched in 1987 helped counter the carnage and lasted until 2000. There were further EU-funded initiatives, but each one lasted just a few years at a time, followed by regular gaps of inactivity. These dormant periods allowed poachers to run amok, repeatedly looting the reserve’s headquarters and robbing its offices. The rebellion that began in late 2012 appeared to sound the death knell for Bamingui-Bangoran, although its administrator managed to keep it on limited life support by securing some funding during the height of the crisis until later EU-backed programs could begin the reserve’s tentative rehabilitation.
Even still, the worst of the war years had pushed the park into another shutdown, leaving rangers without pay. One of them was Adoum Rounga, who faced press gangs of rebels trying to force him and his counterparts into their ranks. He fled with his family and 20 other rangers to a peacekeeping base in Ndele and camped out there for two months. “I didn’t agree with the Seleka,” said Rounga, now 36. “I didn’t want to join them. I wanted to work for myself and for my country.” Other rangers, however, did abandon their posts, swapping conservation for an insurgency.
Six years on, Rounga is committed to the job yet aware of the tensions that counterpoaching operations can cause in this weakly governed space. “When we arrest someone from the village, they probably think we’re the bad guys,” he said. “They need to eat, and they need to work. I know that. But it’s our job, and we need to do it, too. We have to protect the wildlife here, too.”
The potential clash between conservation and communities was highlighted this year by allegations that the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) had funded counterpoaching units in Africa and Asia complicit in torture, sexual assault, and murder. In a reserve in southwestern CAR, staff working for the charity had reportedly embroiled themselves in a botched arms deal to buy assault rifles from the country’s infamous army, which, at the time in 2009, was under fire for a litany of human rights abuses.
Lax oversight within a wider culture of violence has caused similar scandals around Bamingui-Bangoran. In 1994, three members of the French Foreign Legion went on trial for the 1988 murder of a poacher in northern CAR’s presidential hunting reserve. In the words of one witness called to the stand: “Our mission was to track down poachers, nab them, and kill off the wounded.” A decade later, during one of several funding gaps, a private outfit took over counterpoaching efforts, allegedly employing “mercenaries with weapons procurement connections in Russia,” said Louisa Lombard, an anthropologist at Yale University. “Their units became known for terror tactics, such as ambushes and desecrating bodies.”
Paul Elkan, a veteran conservationist now working to restore Bamingui-Bangoran, pointed to the pressures that rangers face in this unforgiving environment—“Sudanese killer poachers shoot on sight. They won’t warn you”—but said these serious risks do not warrant abuses during law enforcement operations. “Our rangers have rules of engagement, [and] we have formal components in our training on human rights,” he said. “If you have radical anti-poaching outfits working in a poorly managed regime in an extreme situation, that will result in violence and human rights violations.”
For Elkan, it is not enough for conservation charities simply to donate funds and then wash their hands of scandal later on. They must assume full oversight or refuse involvement from the outset. “WWF got their asses exposed in the wind,” he adds. “They’re dumping money into a government ranger force, which they don’t manage, and even if they know something bad is happening, they can’t do anything about it because they don’t have the mandate.”
Park staff have set up various programs to help develop the local economy, empower marginalized groups, and wean communities off their unsustainable reliance on bushmeat. These initiatives include a guinea fowl farm, an all-women-staffed bakery, shea butter production, and courses in drying and salting beef. But immense challenges remain.
The disintegration of authority over Bamingui-Bangoran’s borders has allowed large herds of cattle to swarm through much of the park—numbering more than 220,000 cows, according to a 2010 survey. Armed nomads on these seasonal, transnational migrations from Chad and Sudan poach game along the way and clash with settled farming communities, lighting uncontrollable fires to clear dense brush and encourage new grass growth for their voracious droves.
In contrast to this proliferation in cattle, elephants have continued their inexorable decline. Aerial surveys recorded 929 in 2005 and just 68 in 2010. Two years ago, Elkan boarded a Cessna plane to lead a new aerial survey, the most recent one after the civil war. Hunting camps were a common sight, as were motorcycle trails used for transporting commercial bushmeat and accessing small mining sites. But not one elephant was spotted across his survey site of more than 24,500 square miles.
Despite this tragic trend, a subsequent ground survey has prompted fresh hopes. Elephant tracks were discovered, suggesting that a remnant population is clinging on and could even grow as security improves.
Animals are not the only ones here in the firing line. These have been deadly years for rangers, too. Boris Ndourou, the park’s head of operations and a ranger since 2008, told me that in the year after he joined, Sudanese poachers killed five of his colleagues. Two more were shot dead by herders the following year. He once cheated death himself when a poacher’s bullet missed him by an inch, piercing his water canteen instead. “Even with this little team, we are making a difference,” he said. “But most of the park is totally uncontrolled. Right now, it’s an open door for anyone to enter and do whatever they want.”
This year, though, has brought new hope to Bamingui-Bangoran and the wider country. A peace deal signed between CAR’s government and 14 rebel groups in February has already cooled the conflict—crucial for the work of both conservationists and humanitarians. However, a massacre in May in CAR’s northwestern villages as well as fresh fighting in September between the FPRC and another armed group in the northeast have raised doubts about the sustainability of these accords.
Against this tumultuous backdrop, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), a U.S.-based environmental group, has launched a 25-year partnership with the CAR government to manage an almost 20,000-square-mile mosaic of reserves in this northern, rebel-held region, including Bamingui-Bangoran, nearby Manovo-Gounda St. Floris, and surrounding blocks of former hunting concessions. Despite the decimation of wildlife populations, this vast habitat of forests, rivers, and savannah remains largely intact, presenting a pristine space in which animals can bounce back as long as it is properly policed.
To gain control over these wild areas, WCS is employing a staged approach, focusing first on securing three, smaller core areas and then fanning out from there. Aware of the importance of accommodating local needs alongside conservation activities, the organization could allow sustainable subsistence hunting of small game in specific areas, with no export allowed. Recruitment is underway to double the ranger force, and, as part of wider disarmament programs down the line to disband rebel groups, the park may even hire former militants. “Some of the FPRC are former employees of the EU-funded program in Bamingui-Bangoran, and they regret going to the group,” Elkan said. “Some of them want to come back and have jobs with us.”
WCS’s new, quarter-century commitment will help avoid the funding gaps and fallow years that have previously proved so disastrous for the region’s wildlife, with the aim of squaring conservation operations with the rights and traditions of local people. The key to the park’s long-term success does not lie in strong-arm tactics that transform a beguiling wilderness into a militarized fortress. Education and sustained engagement with surrounding communities are the answer.
“A change of attitudes among the local people has already begun. We must keep this going,” said Blaise Mandaba, the 53-year-old manager of the park’s social projects who spends months away from his family to carry out his duties. “Look at Kristel, our giraffe—she is still alive because people here are beginning to understand what an animal like this represents. We must focus on the next generation. By the end of this 25-year partnership, they will be adults. It is through them that we will be able to measure if we have made a difference here.”
Jack Losh is a journalist, photographer and filmmaker covering conservation, humanitarian issues and traditional cultures, often in areas of conflict and crisis. Twitter: @jacklosh