- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 30, 2002

BAYANGA, Central African Republic A basket dangling from her head and a machete in hand, Bayanga's bare-breasted traditional doctor raids the forest for the day's medical and psychological needs.

"This is to help one girl find a husband," says Tamara, 42, picking a bunch of strong-smelling leaves and throwing them into her basket.

"Another woman is having problems desiring her husband, this is for her," she adds, scraping bark off a tree.

Distracted from her search for bees for cures, she marks a tree so she can later return to collect the honey.

Tamara is a member of the Ba'Aka people, a group of hunters and gatherers also known as "pygmies" because of their short stature (the word is derived from classical Greek and means dwarflike).

There are around 20,000 Ba'Aka inhabiting the rain forests of the Dzanga Sangha national park (on the Internet, see the American Museum of Natural History site at https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/hall_tour/rainforest.html). The park is inside a reserve that comprises parts of the Central African Republic, Cameroon and the Republic of Congo.

Until now, they have resisted exploitation by other Central Africans, but an influx of loggers and poachers is threatening their centuries-old way of life.

"The people are seeing their natural habitat diminished by logging companies, which is leading to a decline in animal populations but it's the will of the government to log and conserve at the same time," said the park director, Etienne Bemba.

The Bayanga Wood Co. responsible for most of the logging in the area is only permitted to remove selected trees, but often destroys large amounts of vegetation to build roads in order to retrieve the wood.

The Ba'Aka hunters now get lost in the forest because of a new network of roads.

Although the company builds schools and employs more than 500 people in a region with few job opportunities, the enterprise also attracts immigrants from the Republic of Congo and Cameroon.

When the newcomers fail to find work, they turn to poaching, supplying bush-meat markets in Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic, with gorilla, elephant, gazelles and antelopes, which are thought to have special powers.

"Some of the loggers themselves have guns, and poach when out cutting down the trees. Loggers without guns hunt with the wire they use in felling," added Mr. Bemba.

Other groups illegally remove timber transported via unmapped roads to Cameroon to avoid taxation which further reduces the Ba'Aka's habitat.

Living without money, the Ba'Aka spend most of the year hunting game in the forest with nets.

Inhabiting easily dismantled houses made of leaves and branches, they move on when animal stocks dwindle, but now there are few places to go because of deforestation.

Western environmentalists have arrived in huge numbers to study and conserve the area.

An estimated 6,000 elephants and 10,000 gorillas still inhabit the park. The animals can be easy targets when they gather to drink salt water in the forest clearings. But pilots remember delaying landings at Bangui's international airport because of the elephants strolling across the runway.

The poaching of thousands of elephants for their tusks to supply the flourishing illegal ivory trade means few Central Africans have ever seen a wild animal.

"We've seen the systematic destruction of our wildlife over the past two decades, a trend we're trying to reverse," says Jean Yamindou of the Worldwide Fund for Nature.

Seeking to prevent the further killing of the animals, the organization is teaching the Ba'Aka and the local Bantu people to breed fish and poultry so they will be less inclined to poach wildlife to eat or to sell.

A gorilla-tracking program, modeled on similar successful projects in Rwanda, has been established to attract tourists and preserve the park's great-ape population.

But although the environmentalists pay armed guards to patrol the park, poaching is still a regular occurrence.

"It's an uphill struggle. These people aren't used to cultivating things. For centuries, they've been used to getting up in the morning and killing an animal for that day's requirements," said Mr. Yamindou. There have even been cases of poaching by guards and civil servants, say residents.

"The first thing a person buys here is a gun Conservation is a Western value and we expect them to embrace it . It doesn't always work," said Andrea Turkalo, an American scientist from the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, who is studying the region's elephants.

The Ba'Aka resent being told they can no longer hunt elephants, which they kill to eat, and some hunting still occurs. "At least the logging company doesn't tell us what to do," said one Ba'Aka man.

But they have welcomed the decrease in poaching by outsiders and social benefits that the environmentalists' presence have brought.

"We now have a school with a metal roof. Before, we had a bamboo school. We now hold meetings with the local authorities to discuss our needs," said Mark Mkoko, chief of Yandoube village.

Some of the Ba'Aka work for the environmentalists and also for the logging company.

Since the area opened up, representatives from Western pharmaceutical companies have come to study the Ba'Aka's use of plants and trees in medicines.

But Bayanga has changed from a village of just 200 residents in the 1980s to a boomtown of 6,000, with Lebanese shopkeepers, Western missionaries and discotheques.

Loan sharks have moved in, preying on Ba'Aka employees of the environmentalists and loggers some of whom, not used to having money, fall easily into debt.

"When the Ba'Aka get money, they go out and spend it on alcohol . Sometimes in shops, they don't even know how much change to expect. We have set up a banking system for them," said one Western employer.

Economic growth is bringing cultural transformation. Ba'Aka men have started taking several wives a common practice among Central African men, but not previously among the Ba'Aka. There has been intermarriage between the Ba'Aka and newcomers.

Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), which is the leading cause of death among Central Africans, is now thought to be epidemic in some Ba'Aka communities.

Missionaries have also arrived, and now some Ba'Aka are going to church.

"The missionaries have told them their traditional music is tantamount to worshipping the devil," said a Bayanga resident.

"Some of the young Ba'Aka don't know how to collect honey . Some are listening to pop music and drinking alcohol. Not all change is for the better," he added.

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