By André Crous
Silesian student spends 15 months in Central Africa to investigate ivory trade and help with anti-poaching efforts “Africa is not for sissies,” ring the words of the late South African singer-songwriter Syd Kitchen. Kitchen would scratch his head about — and probably be very proud of — a smiling and seemingly carefree 25-year-old from Silesia, Czech Republic, who spent 15 months traveling nearly 6,000 km through Central Africa by bicycle, motorcycle and kayak while investigating elephant poaching.
After arriving in Cameroon toward the end of 2012, Arthur F. Sniegon — a student originally from Třinec, just southeast of Ostrava in Silesia, on the border with Poland — headed south to Gabon, then to the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville), on through the Central African Republic (around the same time the country’s government was crumbling) and into Chad. Within less than a year, he would return to Cameroon, making a 1,000 kilometer detour through the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on the way back, all the while gathering enough stories to fill a lifetime. But according to him, this was just the first step.
The reason for all of this traveling is not merely youthful adventurousness. Sniegon had first visited the region two years earlier, and he says he fell in love with what he saw.
“Even though every country in the Central African region is completely different, in general the people are very welcoming and hospitable. But I realized that the wildlife problem — [particularly\ in the case of the elephant population, their loss of habitat and the poaching — was much greater than I had known before.”
Sniegon set out to focus on elephant conservation, and over the course of his stay he would go on to visit and work with some of the national parks in the region, from Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the Republic of Congo to Zakouma National Park in Chad. He joined the anti-poaching guards in the field, assisted in the investigation of the illegal ivory trade, and in Chad he counted the elephant population and put GPS collars on some of the country's elephants.
Although the situation for most of the elephants alive in Central Africa today is very fragile — especially in the Central African Republic, where conservation efforts are nearly nonexistent — he says there are glimmers of hope in the Congo (Brazzaville), Chad and Gabon, although many of these countries allow the uncontrolled exploitation of their forests and very often of their wildlife, too. The DRC also has very few nature conservation efforts to speak of.
Cameroon, where he started and finished his journey, is a country that is “something in the middle,” he says. “Sometimes, they make great gestures. They promise to burn the ivory piles, to send the army to protect some national parks, but everything is too late; they have to be forced by the NGOs. In Cameroon, there are some great NGOs working on [conservation\, but the government itself is not doing enough.”
As far as the investigations are concerned, Sniegon says it helps to look like just another white tourist in these parts of Africa, because the poachers and other ivory traders assume he would have money and be interested in acquiring the items made from elephant tusks. He says he learned a lot from the staff at the national parks, who were very generous with their support and allowed him to take part in activities such as elephant counting, at first, and then reaching out to local communities and finding volunteers for the anti-poaching programs. He spent a great deal of time on his bicycle traveling between small villages and ultimately carried out investigations into the ivory trade with the support and assistance of the NGOs focused on combating elephant poaching.
While hesitant about revealing too much about his approach, for obvious reasons, he says he did manage to record evidence of ivory sales, and some of this footage, along with shots that show his journey through the forest and the countryside, will be included in a documentary he is currently working on to show the Czech Republic, and the rest of the world, how dire the situation in Africa is.
"All the documentaries about African wildlife come from half of 1 percent of the African surface, and it looks like paradise. The goal of my movie is to show the reality, because I was working in the paradise pockets, but also, most of the time, outside of them. And then I got involved in the ivory trade investigations, and then in some arrests, so I know the other side of the problem, which isn't usually shown in these movies," he says.
But the film won't only present the gloomy conditions of elephant protection in Central Africa. Sniegon says wherever he went, he could stay with villagers in their houses, and whether he stayed in the home of some local chief or of people who clearly had very little money, he wasn't asked to pay. Occasionally, he left tea or coffee as a way to say thank you, but nobody ever asked him for anything in return for their hospitality, and he says this kindness and generosity is typical for Central Africa. In towns or even in big cities, he would leave his bicycle unattended on the street, sometimes for hours. It was never stolen. Nobody even touched it.
However, this is Africa, after all, and a 15-month trip in the tropics was bound to affect the equipment he had with him. His computer broke, and his two cameras and cellphone were damaged in the process of moving between countries, through rivers, forests, savannah and dusty plains. But he says the only frustration he had on his trip was not being able to spend more time in certain places.
Sniegon is now back in the Czech Republic to make the public aware of the anti-poaching work being carried out in Africa and to inform people about the need to help protect the elephants. He and his friends have founded an NGO, Save-Elephants.org, and the organization's website provides a complete overview of his work in Africa, with details on how to assist their efforts.
"The problem with elephant [poaching\ was not well known in the Czech Republic, and there was no NGO or institution focusing on them. There are some zoos or other groups focusing on other animals, like the lowland gorillas, the eland in Senegal or the rhinoceros in Kenya — each of species has a supporter, but not the elephants, which was surprising, because everybody knows elephants!"
He is also in touch with the Czech police, army and customs, as well as the Brno University of Technology, which is developing a device that can be put on an elephant and would send a signal to the relevant authorities or conservationists if it detects that the animal has been shot. His NGO has made contact with some companies that could provide material support to the conservation efforts, for example by providing bicycles to the anti-poaching guards or GPS devices and satellite phones to the conservationists who cannot always rely on a stable mobile network, despite the advances made in recent years to connect Africans via cellphone technology.
Clearly, a lot remains to be done, and the countries themselves sometimes pose problems, as the possibility of genocide currently hangs over the lives of civilians in Central African Republic, and other countries in the region simply allow logging companies to exploit the forests and the land closer and closer to the national parks.
But when asked whether he would like to go back to Africa, Sniegon answers with visible enthusiasm, "As soon as possible."