A heritage at risk in the hearth of Africa
Dzanga Sangha Protected Areas, Shanga Trinational Park, Central African Republic

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The Dzanga Ndoki National Park is situated on the border between the Central African Republic, Congo and Cameroon. It is one of the most extensive and best preserved areas of tropical rainforest in Africa, part of the large international conservation project "The green heart of Africa", yet far from the international tourist circuits. The large clearing of Dzanga has a population of African elephant forest of over one thousand individuals, one of the largest of the entire African continent.

The year 2013 was supposed to be another good year for Dzanga Bai, after the 2012 when, in July, all the Sangha Trinational Park was joined UNESCO world heritage sites, obtaining an important recognition that would have ensured international visibility and protection

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But the CAR is not a place where there are many good years and the 2013 is not. The 26 of March, with the deposition of the President and the conquest of the capital Bangui by the rebels, the situation of the park has become more and more precarious.

The political instability of the country is not a news and many coups have taken place since independence from France in 1960. Until now, the remote region of Dzanga Ndoki, which is located southwest of the country, had remained on the edge of the dramatic consequences of the troubled history of this nation. But this time things take a different direction. A group of 17 poachers have illegally entered the reserve on May 6th, killing at least 26 individuals of the rare forest elephant.

Today, things seem are slowly going back towards normality, at least in Dzanga Bai area, but for how much longer?

The demand for ivory, which comes mainly from China, has increased exponentially the poaching issue and this episode proves that without a true global conservation strategy, no area is actually at safe.

Interview to Angelique Todd Angelique Todd is a WWF researcher that has been working in Dzanga shanga for many years she was there last spring. We asked her what happened that time and what consequences this facts can have for this fragile land, essential for the preservation of keys species of the entire African fauna like forest elephants and lowland gorillas (of which Angelique is one the maximum experts worldwide).

Can you tell us briefly what happen the 24th of march 2013 in Dzangha Shanga?

"The rebels took over the capital, and the ex-president left the morning of the 24th. By the afternoon we had news that military were on their way to Bayanga and were evacuated as a precaution. We left by boat, travelling by the light of the moon and arrived at WCS's base camp at Bomassa, Congo 5 hours later. Shortly after we left the ex-presidential guard arrived and looted the presidential residence just north of the reserve. Since then the HQ has been looted on a number of occasions and heavily-armed poachers infiltrated the Park and slaughtered 26 elephants in May".

What is the status now? Do you have constant news from the field? Who is still there? How much is at risk?

"We are in daily contact with DSPA (Dzanga Sangha Protected Areas) staff, there are several WWF staff on the ground including at the gorilla camp. We continue to support minimal operations, paying salaries for staff to carry out anti-poaching, monitoring elephants at Dzanga bai, and following the gorillas. There is also is also a security team that are giving technical support to the anti-poaching guards. There are Seleka based in Bayanga and in Nola. Sudanese are still in the country and there were recent reports of other elephants killed at Ngotto to the NE of DSPA thus the threat of elephant poaching continues".

Do you plan to come back?

"As soon as the area is more secure and the country starts to stabilize, the full complement of staff will return. Although Bayanga is calm for the moment, recent events in Bangui demonstrate that the situation is still volatile. It is thus very difficult to predict when we can return and indeed this issue is further complicated for me because I have a young daughter".

Could you explain us shortly what your studies consist of?

"The Primate Habituation Programme aims to habituate gorillas for research and tourism. We monitor the gorillas daily and thus hold the most extensive long-term data on habituated western lowland gorillas in existence. We have a constant flow of researchers whose subjects range from ecology, to disease, and tourism impacts. My own research has concentrated on developing more efficient methods for censuring gorillas, in addition to the factors that influence their distribution such as food and habitat availability and interactions with sympatric animals in particular forest elephants".

Why Dzanga Shanga need a special protection? What makes it so special for you and all of us?

"Dzanga-Ndoki National Park alongside the neighboring Parks in Congo and Cameroon and likewise including their buffer zones, was denoted a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012. The protection of the area is vital for the high biodiversity it harbours including a number of key species such as endangered western lowland gorillas, forest elephants, chimpanzees and numerous others. For me the forest is magical, there is no place in the world like Dzanga bai, we've learnt an enormous amount of information about western lowland gorillas, not to mention the BaAka hunter gatherers whose amazing forest skills and knowledge we are dependent upon for our safe-keeping in the forest and learning about and following the animals".

How do you feel about the future of Dangha shanga?

"Despite the reigning chaos, I remain hopeful, WWF has been active for over 30 years in the area and is certainly not about to withdraw now. Without their presence and that of partners such as WCS, they would likely be no animals left".

(Translation of the interview published by National Geographic on Italian website march 2014)

We took this reportage not only for the beauty of the images and the charisma of species like the forest Elephant and the Lowland Gorilla or the importance of, endangered but not often remembered, Bongo and African Grey Parrot, but also because we really think that light must be turned on the entire area, capital for the conservation of the green heart of Africa.

Most of the Picture of this submission are from an Expedition of few years ago and show the peaceful and relaxed atmosphere of the inhabitants of Dzanga Bay (human and not human).

They included also Researcher activities, camp-base and every-day life of BaAka village images the urgent interrogative that they evoke Is this lost forever?