Hunting with pygmies in the Central African Republic

by STUART BUTLER·
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I’d always been under the impression that when stalking animals, silence, caution and patience were virtues. So I was confounded to see my hunting party race around screaming, singing and generally having a right old jolly after laying nets through the undergrowth. It was only later that day that I found out that there was logic to the mayhem. The animals my hunting partners were after went to ground when scared; the animals they didn’t want to encounter – elephants, buffalo and gorillas – scattered at the first raised voice.

A BaAka woman prepares a net during a hunt for small antelope in the forest. They are hunting on the edge of the Dzanga-Sangha Reserve – a massive tri-nation forest park. On the CAR side of the border where this picture was taken the reserve is managed by WWF who actively encourage the regions few visitors to partake in hunting trips with the BaAka as a way of allowing these frequently marginalised people to earn money through the reserve and its wildlife.A BaAka woman prepares a net during a hunt for small antelope in the forest. They are hunting on the edge of the Dzanga-Sangha Reserve – a massive tri-nation forest park. On the CAR side of the border where this picture was taken the reserve is managed by WWF who actively encourage the regions few visitors to partake in hunting trips with the BaAka as a way of allowing these frequently marginalised people to earn money through the reserve and its wildlife. Image by Stuart Butler / Lonely Planet.

I was in the Central African Republic’s (commonly shortened to CAR) Dzanga-Sangha Reserve and my hosts for the day were a group of BaAka.  The BaAka are a people so exotic and so unlikely that most of us assume they are a figment of a fertile imagination, but the BaAka are real and they have another, more common, name. The BaAka are pygmies.

A BaAka man prepares a poison arrow at the start of a monkey hunt in southwest CAR. The arrows are used in the crossbow seen in the foreground of this picture. Image by Stuartt Butler / Lonely Planet.A BaAka man prepares a poison arrow at the start of a monkey hunt in southwest CAR. The arrows are used in the crossbow seen in the foreground of this picture. Image by Stuart Butler / Lonely Planet.

Dzanga-Sangha is a vast and near pristine chunk of the Congolese basin rainforests and it forms a part of the newly inscribed Unesco World Heritage-listed Sangha River Trinational protected area. Also encompassing the Parc National Nouabalé-Ndoki in Congo and the Parc National de la Lobéké in Cameroon, the Sangha trinational protected area has healthy populations of western lowland gorillas, forest elephants and chimpanzees. But there’s more to these forests than the chance to ogle mega-fauna. In CAR’s Dzanga-Sangha the park authorities, realising the importance of getting locals involved in any conservation effort, have established a series of cultural programmes that allows visitors a glimpse into the traditional pygmy lifestyle.

This pangolin (a type of scaly anteater) was caught at the very start of the hunt. It was not however caught in a net but rather just pounced on when it crossed in-front of us. Image by Stuart Butler / Lonely Planet.This pangolin (a type of scaly anteater) was caught at the very start of the hunt. It was not however caught in a net but rather just pounced on when it crossed in-front of us. Image by Stuart Butler / Lonely Planet.

The opportunity to experience something of the lifestyle of these near-mythical peoples had brought me here, and looking back over the past few days I had to stop and shake my head in disbelief at the thought of all I had seen and done. There had been the star-spangled nights when pygmies and forest spirits known as jengi had blended into one and other as they danced around the embers of a fire; the loading of poison-tipped arrows into bows as our monkey prey cowered in the canopy; the awe of following pygmy trackers for a close encounter with a group of habituated gorillas; and the sheer sense of adventure from paddling down jungle fringed rivers during mighty thunder storms.

Portrait of a BaAka woman with facial tattoos after a net hunt. Image by Stuart Butler / Lonely Planet.Portrait of a BaAka woman with facial tattoos after a net hunt. Image by Stuart Butler / Lonely Planet.

Now I found myself net hunting, probably the best experience of all. Net hunting could be described as ‘dry land trawler fishing’. Working as a team, the BaAka stretched a low net out and then, with great excitement, charged through the forest shouting at the top of their lungs. The idea was that any duiker (a type of small antelope) hiding in the undergrowth would bolt and flee towards the net where, like a struggling tuna, it could be easily picked off. Dozens of times the net was laid out and the noisy charge took place; a couple of times a duiker bolted but always in the wrong direction. Finally though, just as everyone was starting to tire, a squeal from a duiker and an excited cheer from the nearest BaAka indicated that the hunt had been a success. Tonight I would be leaving this African wonderland, but the BaAka would feast on antelope and once again dance with the spirits of the forest.

Music and dance is integral to BaAka life and village dances area  common occurance. This particular dance also included a few Bantu villagers. Image by Stuart Butler / Lonely Planet.Music and dance is integral to BaAka life and village dances area  common occurence. This particular dance also included a few Bantu villagers. Image by Stuart Butler / Lonely Planet.

Practicalities

Getting there: Air France offers the most reliable flights to Bangui (capital of CAR). Getting from Bangui to Dzanga-Sangha is possible by infrequent public transport or private car.

Where to stay: the superb South African-run Sangha Lodge (www.sanghalodge.com) offers comfortable traditional-style huts set above the river.

Learn more: check out the Dzanga-Sangha Reserve (www.dzanga-sangha.org). The park authorities organise most BaAka cultural encounters. For a more intense immersion in BaAka life, contact American Louis Sarno (akkaman11@yahoo.co.uk) who has been living with the local BaAka for nearly 30 years.

A BaAka man holding a crossbow stands in the road near the village of Bayanga in southwest CAR. A BaAka man holding a crossbow stands in the road near the village of Bayanga in southwest CAR. Image by Stuart Butler / Lonely Planet.

Other pygmy adventures

  • Ituri Forest, Democratic Republic of Congo: the pygmies who live in the Ituri forests around the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Okapi Wildlife Reserve (home to the half-giraffe, half-zebra okapi) lead fascinating multi-day hikes deep into the jungle. However, recent security issues have meant the area is currently considered unsafe.
  • Parc National D’Odzala, Congo: this newly revamped park gives you the chance to live the jungle life in relative luxury. Wilderness Safaris (www.wilderness-safaris.com), the only tour operator in Odzala, offers fly in safaris to their rustic-chic lodges buried deep in the jungle. From these, local pygmies will lead you to groups of habituated lowland gorillas.