Silence descends on Africa's forests

In the steamy twilight of the jungle, Gilles Bokande hunkered beside a mossy stump and pinched his nose between his index and middle fingers. Blowing air through the back of his throat, he bleated like a duiker, a tiny forest antelope.

Nothing happened.Trudging a mile deeper into Africa's largest remaining rain forest, Bokande crouched and tried again. Still no response.

The animals don't come anymore when Bokande, a Baka Pygmy, calls them. A fresh logging road snakes nearby--a muddy funnel that siphons away not only the forest's primeval hardwoods but also thousands of wild animals poached for the dinner tables of urbanites in the burgeoning cities of Cameroon.

"It's harder to find antelope, gorillas, chimpanzees and elephants," said Bokande, a pleasant, wiry man whose teeth are filed to sharp little points. "The forest is getting quieter now."

Across Africa, a remorseless silence is falling over the far untamed corners of a continent that long has symbolized wild nature to a jaded, overindustrialized world.

In places such as the famed gorilla reserves of Uganda, where conservationists are desperately trying to link the needs of dwindling wildlife with those of land-hungry farmers, it is the silence of nature drowned out by the babble of human overpopulation. In countries such as Kenya and South Africa--which grimly lead the continent with 59 and 141 endangered species--it is the quiet absence of wild animals outside of zoolike national parks. And in hot spots like Angola and Congo, it is the pitiable hush that comes after the massacres of wild animals amid terrible civil wars.

But here, deep in the lush rain forests of central Africa, that deadened stillness is even more ominous because it heralds the outside world's final assault on the last true wilderness left on the continent. In a rain forest second only to the Amazon in size, environmentalists are girding themselves for one of the defining conservation battles of the 21st Century: saving an African frontier so wild that its animals don't run away because they have never seen humans before.

"This is the holy of holies," said World Wildlife Fund biologist Paul Noupa, one of the conservationists scrambling to set up wildlife sanctuaries so remote that they probably won't have visitors for years. "If we fail to preserve this place, we can only blame ourselves. All over Africa, you have a long history of conservation. Not here. Here we are starting from scratch, and the clock is ticking."

Until recently, time was of little consequence in the vast rain forest that stretches from Nigeria east to Rwanda.

About a third as big as the continental United States, it was a forgotten refuge for Africa's densest concentrations of animals and for the Pygmies who hunted them with arrows and spears. But since the early 1990s, a timber rush spearheaded by European logging companies has kicked off a classic story of greed and exploitation--a tale that includes an unprecedented slaughter of monkeys, an unseemly turf battle among conservation groups, and a cynical developed world that wants to have its rain forest and eat it too.

Logging and hunting have gone hand in sweaty hand in the Congo Basin for as long as anyone can remember. But both activities have exploded for reasons few could have foreseen.

The depletion of west Africa's forests, where Europe traditionally bought its tropical hardwoods, has launched a stampede of French, German and Middle Eastern logging companies into the more inaccessible jungles of central Africa. At the same time, a regional economic crisis has only accelerated the timber boom: Local currency devaluations in the mid-1990s effectively halved the cost of hauling 800-year-old trees through hundreds of miles of forest to the parquet-flooring and furniture-making markets of Europe and Japan.

In Cameroon, wood production soared 50 percent between 1992 and 1997, the last years for which figures are available.

Strapped for cash because of slumping cacao exports, the government has gratefully seized the $60 million-a-year lifeline created by logging revenues. The story is the same in neighboring Gabon, where declining oil production is stoking the logging trade and where the president, Omar Bongo, owns 500,000 acres of prime timber concessions.

But just as Mercedes-Benz logging trucks have begun rumbling in earnest along the Congo Basin's new mud highways, the public's appetite for wild animal meat surged in the teeming cities of Cameroon, Gabon, Congo and the Central African Republic.

Elephants, antelopes and monkeys have been a staple of local villagers' diets for millenniums, of course. But Africa's swelling urban populations, nostalgic for village foods and flush with money, have turned a subsistence activity into a burgeoning, multimillion-dollar industry.

Newly extended logging roads have become bush meat pipelines plied by poachers who snare and shoot anything in sight. Many logging companies encourage the hunting because it also saves on the cost of shipping beef into the remote jungle towns where their workers live.

"We know it's a problem, and we are even planning to raise a herd of cows for workers to eat," said Thibaut Fuchs, the sawmill manager of the Forestry Association of Cameroon, a French-Cameroonian logging company that selectively harvests mahogany, sapeli and ebony from 200,000 acres of jungle. "But it's an uphill battle. People here say, `You've got to be kidding! Why raise cows? The forest is ours, and the wild animals are everywhere!' "

In hundreds of town markets like the one in Yokadouma, a logging center set like a grubby island in the middle of southeastern Cameroon's oceanic canopy of trees, about a dozen vendors specialize in selling wild animal carcasses. Antelopes, skinned and trussed, look like small greyhounds frozen in mid-stride. Elephant meat is hacked into 2-pound cubes. And smoked sections of an animal's large intestine--possibly from a forest buffalo--look like a charred fire hose.

"The bush meat trade is the No. 1 threat to biodiversity in the Congo Basin," said Conrad Aveling, director of ECOFAC, a European-funded environmental group based in Gabon. "A logging road goes in, and five years later there isn't a single large animal left in the forests. Thousands of square kilometers have been hunted clean. We're talking about tons and tons of animal meat, including organized shipments that go across the borders of Gabon and Cameroon."

Hit especially hard, environmentalists say, is the Congo Basin's rich diversity of primates. Monkey meat is prized as a status food among urban elites. Endangered gorillas can bring $100 on the wild-meat market. A chimpanzee nets almost as much. Experts warn that only about 120,000 common chimpanzees are left in central Africa's rain forests, and thousands are shot every year.

"It's not much of a sport, because parts of this forest are so remote that the animals just sit there when they see you--they don't know to be afraid," said Henk Hoefsloot, a WWF biologist based in Yokadouma. "Not even the Pygmies go into some parts of the jungle. This is the Africa not of a hundred years ago, but before the presence of human beings."

That extraordinary isolation is what ultimately lies on the chopping block of the loggers and poachers, experts say. In the utterly remote rain forest where the borders of Cameroon, Gabon, the Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic converge, enormously diverse animal and plant populations have been buffered from outside disturbance since before the last Ice Age.

And unlike the more famous Amazon, the Congo Basin bustles with large animals. Elephant populations are far higher here than in Africa's celebrated savannas. Moreover, a unique system of jungle clearings, called bais, functions as a remarkable magnet for wildlife.

"These are the animals' gardens, where they all come to eat," said biologist Noupa, who has done surveys for the WWF in Cameroon's southeastern hinterland. "You look at them, and they seem like uniform little patches of grassland. But we've counted 110 species of grass in one."

The conservation community's campaigns to save this pristine, wild heart of Africa have been intense--and illuminate the enormous power that global environmentalism wields at the turn of the millennium, but also its uglier iniquities.

Prodded by global conservation groups, the European Union and World Bank in August convened a meeting with Cameroonian officials to read them the riot act. Unless Cameroon got serious about cracking down on the devastating bush meat trade, the foreigners warned, further development funds would be frozen. Specifically at stake was $52 million in EU money for road maintenance, a substantial sum in a country with a per capita annual income of $2,000.

Cameroon's nationalistic newspapers were not alone in seeing the irony in the threat.

"Here you have the developed world telling this poor country to shape up, while its own logging companies are the very ones opening up the forests to poaching," said Jaap Schoorl, the Cameroon field coordinator for the WWF, the world's largest environmental organization. "It seems we still haven't outgrown the old double standard."

Cynical or not, the fear of sanctions has stamped out the most blatant signs of the bush meat trade in Cameroon, where the problem is rampant. A huge bush meat market near the presidential palace in Yaounde, the capital, has been shut down. And the sale of endangered species, such as gorillas and chimps, has been forced underground.

Even so, the resources and the will to stop the hunting do not exist, especially in a country recently rated the most corrupt in the world by Transparency International, an organization that promotes economic accountability.

A recent anti-poaching patrol by Cameroon's Ministry of Environment and Forestry in Yokadouma, the logging town, drove home that point.

Chief ranger Mboh Dandjouma, a grave man clad in khakis and red penny loafers, had to borrow a truck from a German development organization to set up his surprise roadblocks on a logging road outside town. Within minutes, he stopped a bush taxi and confiscated a set of pathetically small elephant tusks, a pile of duiker antelopes and a bloody burlap sack filled with gut-shot monkeys: two mustached guenons, a spot-nosed guenon and a cloaked mangabey. The woman who carried the monkeys turned out to be the wife of a provincial member of parliament.

The next bust, of a rickety bus, bagged more dead antelopes and monkeys. The passengers, clearly shocked at the novelty of having their bush meat confiscated, screamed abuse at Dandjouma and his rangers.

"They threatened to kill us," Dandjouma said with a sigh afterward, beads of sweat bulging on his forehead.

He later explained that he and his 22 men are responsible for patrolling 12,000 square miles of forest, an area about the size of Maryland. Dead monkeys, their long tails tied around their necks to make convenient handles, hang for sale along all the roads around Yokadouma.

If the stick of international sanctions is failing to stanch the slaughter in the Congo Basin, conservationists are using carrots as well: With promises of World Bank biodiversity funding and the distant lure of ecotourism profits, conservation groups have triggered the biggest parkmaking rush Africa has seen since colonial times.

In Cameroon, the WWF is proposing three huge reserves that encompass 3,200 square miles of virgin rain forest, a region almost as big as Yellowstone National Park. Across the border in the Republic of Congo, the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society has spearheaded the creation of the 1,500-square-mile Nouabale-Ndoki National Park. And ECOFAC and others are either announcing new parks or reviving old ones in Congo, Gabon and the Central African Republic.

Privately, some of the wildlife biologists involved admit that a fierce game of public-relations one-upmanship--rooted in competition for donor funding--has marred the race to conserve Africa's last true wilderness.

"There's a lot of talk that goes into thin air," said a foreign park planner in Cameroon. "We don't cooperate, we don't even talk to each other, and a lot of effort gets duplicated."

Others have criticized the proliferation of "paper parks" as detrimental to the conservation effort in the Congo Basin. Such "protected areas," announced with fanfare, get no institutional backing, slip into oblivion and end up eroding the credibility of all parks in the region. In a recent internal memo, the WWF even concedes as much: "There is presently no viable institution in place to manage the newly created Forest Parks. . . . the human and financial resources that the Government of Cameroon will be able to avail for their management is factually non-existent."

Nevertheless, many conservationists, gazing out over the primeval rain forests where animals still do not fear human beings, see no other choice.

"If these areas don't have legal status--pfft!--10 years from now, with a new government, you'll have a logging concession," said the WWF's Schoorl. "This is humbling work. The truth is, we will never keep it all pristine. Not even a sizable fraction. Not unless we all go back to being Pygmies."

Which in today's Africa, even Pygmies cannot do.

On the side of a logging road churned into the consistency and color of orange pudding, Basile Simba said his people can no longer find elephants nearby. This is a problem because Jengi, the forest spirit that protects the Baka Pygmies, must be placated with elephant kills.

"Without kills, we cannot dance, and Jengi has gone away," said Simba, whose clan has turned into one of the tendrils of the great, branching pipeline of bush meat feeding Cameroon's cities.

Simba said he wanted more logging roads, so he and his hunters could find elephants. The thing he wants most in the world, he said, is a shotgun.