National Geographic Channel
The Chinko River Basin is 37,000 square miles (95,000 square kilometers) of forest threaded by rivers in the northeast corner of the Central African Republic (CAR). Elephants used to thunder across the clearings by the thousands. Hippos were thick on the ground.
Thirty years ago Sudanese nationals on horseback, using military weapons, began raiding a shared border with CAR to poach animals for profit. They arrived in columns numbering up to 200 people. They were after ivory and bush meat for the markets of northern Africa.
The poachers hunted rhinos into local extinction by the late 1980s. Elephants nearly vanished there. Next, smaller game became increasingly scarce. Then, poachers turned to robbing and terrorizing local people. But the CAR government was too chaotic to protect such an isolated area.
Instead, as of this year, they are authorizing American Joe Blatz, a co-founder of the Central African Wildlife Trust (CAWT), based in Millwood, Virginia, to arm and train Chinko's local population to defend both themselves and their natural resources.
"Poachers have faced no real opposition. With the prospect of getting killed, the risk/reward ratio will change," Blatz explained. "A reasonably well armed and equipped antipoaching force of capable men could stop this horrific problem in fairly short order."
There may be just enough remnant populations of animals to seed a rebirth if the pressure of poaching relents. Conservationists say the colossal forests of Chinkonow a rarity in Africawould easily rival the Serengeti if poaching relented. For now the great forests are eerily empty.
"The habitat is absolutely fantastic. It's well-watered, forage-rich topography with a low human population: ideal for wildlife," explained Richard Ruggiero, the African conservation specialist in the Division of International Conservation at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Arlington, Virginia. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Central Africa Republic in the early 1980s.
"This place should be one of the last great wildlife refuges of Africa. Instead it is mile upon mile of empty savanna, because Sudanese poachers have been so efficient at butchering all of the wildlife and terrorizing local people, and they've had a free hand for decades," Ruggiero said.
A Dark History
This area of CAR was part of the traditional slaving routes of central Africa, which emptied these forests of people. The population never rebounded. It's an area full of dangerous diseases in a lawless corner of an impoverished African republic.
"It also doesn't have a significant amount of minerals or resources that multinational companies would want to tear up the country to get to," said Mike Casey, another co-founder of the CAWT and the executive director of TigerComm, a Washington, D.C., public relations firm on environmental and education issues. "But it's a place that works for a number of large animalslowland gorillas, lions, leopards, hippos. They all used to live here. The Chinko River Basin is one of the last vast habitats for large animals left on Earth. That's why the CAWT was created."
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