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Conservationist Bruce Hayse
Author Bruce Hayse

“You will have to assume there will be gunfire”

Africa's Deadliest Conservationist

When his survey in the Central African Republic revealed the impact of poaching, conservationist Bruce Hayse organized an independent army to protect the region's wildlife and its terrorized villagers. Here, he discusses waging a hot war against heavily armed poachers.

In November 1999, while making a tsetse-filled and malaria-plagued first descent of the Central African Republic's Chinko River [see photo gallery], conservationist Bruce Hayse observed something he didn't like: elephant, buffalo, and hippo populations annihilated by Sudanese poachers. The poachers, who for ten years had been wreaking havoc on the country's wildlife, had been profiting from the booming bush-meat trade.

After witnessing the devastation, Hayse developed a program to protect the animals of the Chinko Basin. And in 2001, Ange-Félix Patassé, president of the Central African Republic (CAR), authorized Hayse's nonprofit group, African Rainforest and Rivers Conservation, to run an armed, independent defense operation to safeguard 100,000 square miles [260,000 square kilometers] of eastern CAR rain forest and savanna from the slaughter. (See "Conservation Crusaders" in the January/February 2002 Adventure.)

Online, Hayse discusses what the biggest threats are to his campaign to save this vulnerable region.

When did you begin to think about independently policing this area against poaching?

We initially went to this area in 1999 to see if there were any significant animal populations left. We had heard that they had mostly been decimated. After exploring the region, we found that there were still significant populations of wildlife, but that they were in danger of being eradicated.

At the end of the trip, we arrived in Rafai, the village at the mouth of the Chinko, and were greeted by the locals without particular surprise, even though having white people floating down the river was pretty remarkable. They said, "You've come—you've finally come to help us." At that point we had a meeting with the local forestry chief, the local village chief, and some other chiefs, and they said, "Look, here's what's going on and you have to take care of it." They basically didn't give us much of a choice.

It's fine to simply float down an unexplored river, doing a first descent and having a great time, but there's an ethical obligation at that point to do something more.

Had you been thinking about conservation in this area before the 1999 trip?

It had crossed our minds that if the region still supported a significant wildlife population, then it would be worth pr. It hadn't crossed our minds that we would be the ones who would take responsibility for it.

It eventually became clear that the government didn't have the resources or the interest to protect the region and that if it was going to receive any protection the effort was going to have to come from us.

What are some of the goals of this project?

The government has outlined certain requirements that we must follow in order to make this effort work. We are to involve the locals on different levels by training them and making them part of our team and also to help set up some local economic arrangements.

We are talking about creating low-cost loans to encourage people to start their own businesses, which I hope will be wildlife oriented. Ecotourism is really the only way to protect the region and its wildlife, and at the same time it will give economic support to the local people.

Are the villagers primarily concerned with the poachers' pillaging of their villages or the poaching itself—or both?

It's definitely both. The villagers depend on wildlife for their subsistence.

The local economic enterprises, primarily big-game hunting, that were the only source of outside income for these people have totally gone by the wayside because of the poachers. I have no doubt that [big-game] hunting could resume once the area becomes free from poaching.

What obstacles do you see in the future?

The main concern is for the stability of the government in the CAR. Even though the government is democratically elected, it has been subjected to repeated overthrow attempts. There are opposition figures who are not willing to accept this government and are interested in violent overthrow.

Are you sensing that there will be a violent war with the poachers?

The poachers are obviously well armed and they're in a lucrative business and aren't going to be interested in listening to advice from us. There will be some confrontations, so you have to assume that there will be gunfire.

These people are lawless; they're basically criminals who are not easily intimidated.

You've been directed to shoot anyone who poses a threat—no arrest or trial necessary. Is this an issue in the CAR?

It's not an issue in this region. You're talking about [poachers] who are not in the country legally, who are well armed and who are not going to tolerate being arrested.

Certainly to us, arresting them would be a reasonable option, but we wouldn't even have anyplace to put these people. You have to have a jail first.

How many people are going to be working on the antipoaching project?

There will probably be close to 400 people in all. There will be a lot of locals who will be working with us. The plan is to have units that will consist of some of our people and some of the local people.

The villagers have set up self-defense committees and have been trying to deal with the poachers as best they can, but they use very low-tech solutions such as poison arrows. They are certainly attuned to what is going on, and they're at home in the forest and know how to get by, how to survive and that type of thing, which will be very helpful to us. But they're not trained in terms of high-tech operations.

Do you hope that by protecting this wilderness you could provide scientists with a place to research the Ebola virus and other afflictions?

I think it's important in terms of diseases like Ebola. We are seeing a horde of strange diseases coming out of central Africa, and we need these kinds of wild places to be able to understand the ecology of the diseases.

—Fred Turner
Photograph by Chris Andersen/Aurora

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Related Web Sites

Central African Republic: Country Facts and Maps
Get the basics: maps, population figures, average life expectancy, and more.

Photo Gallery: Chinko Voyage
One look at these photos from Hayse's first descent of the Chinko River and you won't have to wonder why no one had done it before.

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