There was something about the scene that reminded me of an old Western movie. We stood twenty paces apart, staring each other down. The air was hot and humid, flies buzzing languidly around our heads. Somewhere in the distance thunder cracked and rumbled across the sky.
My instructions kept obsessively repeating over and over in my head. Whatever happens I must stand my ground. Don’t flinch. Don’t move. If it gets really hairy, then don’t look at him directly in the eye, look down and gently turn your shoulders sideways; but don’t step back. Before I had managed to properly digest all this advice, it was happening. In a blizzard of silver hair and black skin he charged forward, thumped his chest and let out a mighty roar. I could see the shine of his teeth and the wrinkles around his eyes. The rainforest felt like it shook with the force. I was convinced this was all happening inches from my face.
In reality we were a safe four or five metres away, though that less-than-soothing fact was not stopping the adrenaline from pumping. We stood stock still, and as he turned to walk away, with a dangerous glance over his shoulder to check that we hadn’t moved, I heard Terrence beside me say very quietly, “Mata is angry today”.
Mata is a semi-habituated, 200 kg Silverback Gorilla, who was not overly pleased to see us. Terrence is the scientist who knows him best and who has been working with him for the last five years.
“Habituation of the Lowland Gorilla should take between five and six years. We are behind schedule by over a year now, so we are having to push him hard”, Terrence said. “In normal circumstances Mata would be fully habituated already, but then the circumstances in the Central African Republic have been anything but normal”, he added.
In the world of primate research, there are only a handful of field sites that are in the major league. With a strong claim to be in the top three, Dzanga-Sangha National Park in the Central African Republic is home to both Mata and Terrence.
Located at the Northern edge of the Congo Basin, the park is a huge stretch of lowland rainforest habitat that spans the borders of three countries. Protected areas in The Republic of Congo, Cameroon and The Central African Republic combine to make up the Sangha River Tri-national Protected Area. This is the second largest area of protected rainforest anywhere in the world with one of the highest density of forest mammalian life on the planet. Dzanga is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been described by many as one of the natural wonders of the world. There are populations of Lowland Gorillas throughout the forest, but the highest numbers are in the Central African Republic. In recent years the Congo and Cameroon have been relatively stable, but sadly the same cannot be said for the CAR.
A bloody conflict, a cross between a civil war, sectarian violence and genocide, blighted the CAR for most of the last two years. Locals refer to the period as simply “the crisis”. This simple phrase dramatically understates brutality of what happened. There are echoes of 1994 in Rwanda here. The Christian majority, fed a diet of fear and propaganda, believe that the Muslim minority are the source of all of their woes. In 2013 this hatred boiled over and rival militias led a country-wide slaughter of the opposite faith. Thousands of people are thought to have died, almost all of them in horrific circumstances. Almost a million people are now either refugees or are internally displaced. No family or village in the country was left untouched.
In addition to the terrible human cost, this level of instability in a country would normally spell disaster for any nature conservation efforts. It becomes nearly impossible to retain staff, maintain scientific programmes or protect the habitat with the normal patrols. In a kind of tropical version of the looting that is occasionally seen in big cities during riots, militias and local people take advantage of the absence of any protection measures and raid the forests. They seize the opportunity to cut down protected trees and shoot the animals, carrying them away, mainly to eat as bush-meat but also to sell on the black market.
When human societies collapse, nature tends to suffer.
The population of Elephants in West Africa collapsed during the Sierra Leone civil war. In the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2007, four Mountain Gorillas were shot, sold and eaten during a period of instability. During the crisis in CAR 2013, 27 forest elephants from Dzanga-Sangha were killed in one day.
However, the animal death toll in Dzanga was significantly lower than it should have been. Arguably, this was down to the actions of one man.
“As soon as I heard what was happening, I put everything on hold and came back to Dzanga” said Terrence.
Like the man running into a burning building, Terrence was returning to CAR just as everyone else was leaving. Expats had fled down the river into the Congo and most of the locals were hiding from the militias in the forest.
Running on a skeleton staff, Terrence worked to keep funding trickling into the project. Just enough was found to pay the salaries of a handful of researchers and trackers. Everyone was fed and equipped with basic supplies.
Even though the camp in the forest is remote, they were routinely visited by militia groups. “It was a difficult year. I had a gun held to my head many times. But the priority was just to keep the programme running. If we had left at that moment, everything that has been achieved here would have been lost. Someone had to make a stand and hold out.”
Without any conservation activity in Dzanga, undoubtedly whole populations would have been poached and wiped out. While the militia took some animals, Terrence’s presence was probably enough to tip the balance in the wildlife’s favour. Habituated populations were maintained, data was taken, the project survived.
By this point, Mata is considerably less angry, though he is still stood where we left him, watching us closely. We’ve retreated to a distance of around 20m where Terrence and I have been able to talk. He is taking it easy this week, having only just arrived back in camp from a trip to the US where he was collecting an award. In recognition of his actions in Dzanga during the crisis the World Wildlife Fund had awarded him with their prestigious Award for African Conservation.
“It has been great to receive some international recognition of what we had to go through here”, he said. “I only wish that I could get generate the same awareness of what happened from my fellow Central Africans.”
There are still battles to be won, local hearts and minds to win over. A complex web of solutions will need to be implemented if wild places like Dzanga will ever be permanently safe. But it is heartening to know that in the middle of a hopeless human crisis, that so often also means disaster for wild animal populations, it was a simple, steadfast act of defiance by one man that made all the difference.
The future is still uncertain for this corner of the Congo Basin, but for the meantime, stability has returned to CAR, new funding is flowing into the park and with a strong culture of holding out against the odds, there are reasons that Dzanga can be hopeful.
As we make to return to camp, I turn and take a final look at Mata. He is exactly where we left him, but now, threat dispatched, he is sat contently at the base of a tree, munching on fruit, surrounded by his family.