By Asha Tann
Brice Mouapele is the latest addition to the team of eco-guards patrolling Congo-Brazzaville's Odzala-Kokoua national park.
The speed at which Brice Mouapele moves through the dense tropical undergrowth is impressive. The humidity is stifling, but Mouapele appears unaffected as his small frame, clad in camouflage fatigues, brushes past jungle vines while he clutches his rifle. The 39-year-old pygmy is the latest addition to the team of eco-guards patrolling Congo-Brazzaville's Odzala-Kokoua national park. He is also the first pygmy to turn from elephant poacher to protector.
"Before becoming an eco-guard when I saw elephants I wanted to kill them bare-handed. For us pygmies killing elephants is not a difficult job because we grew up hunting. I used to be a major poacher and I learnt this skill from my father, over time I grew up with the spirit of a hunter," he says.
"When I used to go into the forest with my father, he would first injure the elephant and then he would send me to finish the job. Later we would remove the tusks with an axe or machete and the whole village would come to take a part of the animal. Piece by piece – we'd end up smoking the meat. But since being integrated as an eco-guard I consider the elephants like my children. I don't even have the appetite to eat elephant meat anymore."
Last year the first firearms amnesty in Congo run by the non-profit organisation African Parks offered poachers training and work to become eco-guards in return for information and guns. It led Mouapele to hand in his weapons and sign up immediately for the prospect of job security. He now works 22 days a month patrolling the park. The role has given him status both in and outside his community, something he is immensely proud of.
"Mouapele name means brave man, I am happy to be an eco-guard, I am not afraid. Poaching is a job with too much risk. Not only are you in permanent danger from animals – my brother died after an elephant charged him – but you are also in danger from prison," he says.
But crossing over to the other side increases the threat of repercussions from former poachers he once hunted alongside. Although he has not yet started a family, he accepts that his loved ones could also be at risk of revenge attacks. African Parks say relocation is offered to those families who are most vulnerable – especially if ex-hunters have given testimonies that have secured convictions for well-connected ivory dealers.
"All jobs have their risks. I ask those who have weapons to hand in those weapons in exchange for employment. Others who don't want to co-operate are scared of me and flee thinking that I'm going to arrest them without motive. Now I am a guard I have become friends with my enemies [eco-guards\."
Odzala-Kokoua national park stretches over more than 13,000 square kilometres and is made up of mostly lush equatorial forest. It is home to an estimated 9,600 endangered forest elephants. The threat of poaching has increased over the years as the demand for ivory in south-east Asia continues to grow. Conservationists estimate that raw ivory can sell for as much as £1,000 a kilogram on the Asian black market.
Mouapele said: "When I used to poach there were lots of ivory buyers. We had west African buyers even Chinese buyers who bought from us without weighing the ivory – they were very good clients. I had no remorse killing elephants … I could get a lot of money for poaching but often we were duped."
Pygmy communities are among the poorest in Congo and the majority of them can be found in the east bordering the park. Western influences such as alcohol and cigarettes are now permeating these ostracised communities and it is impacting on their traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
Conservationists working alongside pygmies say these communities view natural resources as their larder. Under the cover of the canopy they efficient harvest honey and local game. Their population levels have never been high enough to impact negatively on wildlife and their nomadic life has meant areas have time to regenerate when they move on. But this attitude is changing as pygmies are now seeing that ivory is more valuable than the forests in which they live.
Mouapele is probably no taller than 1.5m. But he holds his head high, his job gives him focus and the conservation message is something he firmly believes in. "All I wish for is a better future for Odzala park and its biodiversity," he says. Photos.