By David Wallechinsky
Two summers ago I visited the Ba'Aka Pygmies in the deep south of the Central African Republic (CAR), along with my two adult sons, Elijah and Aaron, British filmmaker Richard Gayer and Dr. Martin Kollmann, a Nairobi-based German ophthalmologist who also specializes in neglected tropical diseases. Our mission was to evaluate the possibility of establishing a health clinic for the Ba'Aka, who live part of the time as hunter-gatherers in the jungle and part of the time in their small village of Yandoumbé, a couple miles from the larger non-Pygmy village of Bayanga (population: about 4,500).
While we were in the area, we had the magical experience of hiking into the jungle and visiting gorillas and elephants who were being studied--and protected--by scientists supported by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). The elephants could be observed from a platform in a clearing called Dzanga Bai.
When I returned from the CAR and tried to tell friends about my experiences in the Central African Republic, many of them asked, "Central African Republic? Which country did you visit?" In fact the Central African Republic is a country, albeit one of the world's poorest and most corrupt.
On March 24 of this year, a coalition of rebel forces known as Séléka overran the CAR capital of Bangui and seized control of the nation's government. It took a while for Séléka soldiers to make their way down to Bayanga and Yandoumbé, but when they did, they looted, killed at least one person and threatened death to everyone else. They also partnered with local poachers to begin slaughtering elephant in the jungle.
Now word has filtered out of the area that seventeen Sudanese poachers, in search of ivory, have swooped into the area, driven out the researchers and, as of last night, begun slaughtering the elephants at Dzanga Bai.
This is a sickening development. Not only are wild elephants one of the earth's treasures, but the sort of people who would shoot them to death are just one step away from turning their weapons on the Pygmies and others who either stand in their way or own anything that can be stolen and sold.
The new Séléka rulers of the CAR are hardly a legitimate force, but it is worth appealing to them anyway to do what they to stop the tragedy unfolding at Dzanga Bai and Bayanga.