National Geographic Adventure magazine
A onetime "wildlife paradise" four times the size of the Serengeti, the eastern CAR is what ecologists call an ecotonea zone where two major natural habitats (in this case forest and savanna) meet, resulting in exceptional biodiversity.
"This is one of the wildest areas left in Africa," said Richard Carroll, the World Wildlife Fund's director of West and Central Africa programs.
The CAR itself is a failing, nearly forgotten country still scarred by the ravages of Sudanese slave traders, cannibal dictators, and the French colonial era. Occupied by recurring political unrest around the capital, Bangui, the government has been unable to control its eastern border with Sudan.
Each year, columns of up to 200 well-armed Sudanese poachers cross the border along old slave-raiding routes, in pursuit of game animals long since hunted out in Sudan. After dividing into smaller groups, the poachers set fires to flush out animals, then shoot them and smoke the meat. Populations of elephants, giraffes, crocodiles, and lions have been reduced by more than 95 percent in the area, which was once known as the Serengeti of Central Africa.
The situation is a component in Africa's growing bush-meat crisis. Bush meat is a billion-dollar industry that has surpassed deforestation as the most immediate threat to endangered African wildlife. In the Congo Basin alone, more than a million metric tons of bush meat (an amount equal to four million cattle) are harvested from the shrinking forests every year, more than six times the maximum sustainable rate, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society's Elizabeth Bennett.
Beyond the threat to wildlife, the bush-meat crisis has the potential to be a human tragedy of immense proportions, since rural Africans get as much as 60 percent of their protein from wild animals. Once overhunting leads to empty forests, the people will have few nutritional alternatives.
Poachers had already emptied the forests of much of the wildlife around the village of Rafai when Bruce Hayse rafted in, after an unprecedented descent down the Chinko River in 1999. After hearing villagers' tales of being robbed, raped, murdered, and abducted at the hands of the Sudanese poachers, Hayse made what he calls "a very difficult decision" to help.
"It's fine to float down an unexplored river, doing a first descent and having a great time," said Hayse, "but we came to believe we had an obligation at that point to do something more. A whole ecosystem was going to be lost, just so a few hundred outsiders could make money.
"Unfortunately, the poachers weren't going to leave just because we told them to. If we were going to save this place, people would have to be killed."
Hayse, long active in environmental causes in the western United States, has contributed about U.S. $130,000 and recruited volunteers to his nonprofit group, Africa Rainforest and River Conservation (ARRC). The group has hired a South African former mercenary to recruit and train an anti-poaching force of 400 local men, who will protect the 60,000 square miles (155,000 square kilometers) of wilderness, equivalent to the size of Florida. Also planned are scientific studies, road repair, school and medical dispensary construction, and ecological education. Hayse estimates that the project will need about $600,000 per year to keep it going.
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