The thump of helicopter rotors breaks the Chinko Project’s main camp out of its afternoon stupor. All eyes are on the airstrip as the green and white AStar 350 touches down in a plume of red dust, discharging three rangers and a Central African Army lieutenant dressed in British fatigues from its sliding rear door as soon as the skids hit the dirt. The comings and goings of aircraft are a welcome interruption to the sweat-soaked languor at the Chinko base, a hopelessly remote outpost of conservation in the eastern wilds of the Central African Republic. For a few days running, the chopper has been pulling antipoaching duty, ferrying rangers armed with captured AK-47s to the encampments of nomadic cattle herders who’ve been supplementing their income by selling bushmeat poached from Chinko’s virgin habitat. The chopper belongs to the African Parks network, a conservation nonprofit based in Johannesburg that manages wildlife preserves and national parks all over the continent. It’s on temporary loan to Chinko, the newest addition to the African Parks network, and it’s been a powerful tool of psychological warfare, deceiving the herders into assuming that the rangers are better armed and better reinforced than they actually are. The heavily armed herders, who come predominately from the Darfur region of Sudan, about 600 miles away, have lived their entire lives in the bush. They count former janjaweed in their ranks, Sudanese militiamen who’ve carried out and survived all manner of atrocities. By contrast, the Chinko rangers are, without exception, total greenhorns. So far, the ruse is working—no one has fired a shot, and aerial surveillance shows that the herders have been pushing their camps out of Chinko’s protection zone.
Two white men—Frank Molteno and David Simpson—trail behind the Central Africans as they make their way to headquarters. With his salt-and-pepper mustache and lively blue eyes, Molteno, a sinewy sixty-one-year-old South African helicopter pilot, cuts a dashing figure. Molteno is a four-decade veteran of civil wars, interstate conflicts, and antipoaching operations from Rhodesia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Simpson, Chinko’s twenty-eight-year-old cofounder and park manager, walks beside him, his face streaked with sweat and soot. The son of Yorkshire, England, pheasant farmers, Simpson is quiet and understated to the point of seeming shy. His AK-47 and magazine pouches seem disproportionate to his slight frame. But Simpson is anything but soft. He has five years on the ground at Chinko, and a résumé that includes run-ins with the Lord’s Resistance Army as well as a long stint in a Central African prison. He is the pillar on which Chinko rests. Every afternoon, he morphs from the khaki-clad manager of some 400 workers and staff and a $2.5 million budget into a camouflaged guerrilla cadre, leading his assault team from the front.
The rangers dump rice sacks full of confiscated gear on the floor of the open-air dining room, evidence of what the rangers are up against: AK-47s, machetes, knives, ammo harnesses, steel-tipped arrows in PVC quivers, plastic tubs of poison, and dozens of sachets of anti-parasitic medicine, which herders use to protect their cattle against trypanosomiasis, the fatal “sleeping sickness” carried by the endemic tsetse fly. Deprived of access to these pharmaceuticals, the herders wouldn’t be able to keep their cattle alive for more than a few weeks, let alone make the grueling round-trip journey from Sudan. When face-to-face persuasion fails, taking away the herders’ weapons, bushmeat, and meds is the only way Simpson has left to discourage them from traveling through Chinko.
A cloud of flies swarms around one particular rice bag, which is filled with poisoned meat and puts off a revolting stench. “That’s why we don’t have any lions,” Simpson says, exasperated. “They ring their camps with this stuff. They just exterminate everything. If this keeps up, there won’t be anything left.”
Poaching is an established pastime in this lawless corner of the Central African Republic, flanked to the south by the Democratic Republic of the Congo and to the north and east by Sudan and South Sudan. In the age before Western hunting outfitters began showing up with government concessions to specified hunting blocks, and a vested interest in protecting game for their clients, it was just called hunting—which is what locals still call it. Bushmeat has always been a vital source of protein in central Africa, but with the emergence of global trade networks, illegal wildlife has become the second-most lucrative black market in the world, supplying pangolin scales and lion bones to Chinese medicinal markets and bushmeat to the African diaspora. Local hunters in the Chinko area put a serious dent in the area’s population of forest elephants in the service of the ivory trade, but these days they mostly hunt for their own sustenance. Things started to change around 2012, when foreign pastoralists—known locally as Mbororo—began driving their herds deeper into CAR, partly in response to the vanishing of grazing land along their traditional routes, and partly in response to the violence and shifting power dynamics in South Sudan. Since the Mbororo started showing up in the Chinko area, poaching pressure has escalated to the level of an existential threat. If poaching continues at the current pace for a few more years, Chinko’s large antelope and buffalo will be gone, and without healthy prey populations, predator populations will collapse, too.
The Mbororo walk hundreds of miles from the Sahel regions of Chad and Sudan with their wives, children, and cattle to get to the verdant terrain around Chinko, camping under tarps stretched between wood poles and trading with villages along the way. The water-rich grasslands and stands of rain forest are a herder’s Shangri-La, with no local strongmen to force them to pay grazing fees and an intact ecosystem bursting with poachable animals, including a dozen species of antelope, two subspecies of buffalo, leopards, and crocodiles. The cattle are as devastating to the landscape as the poachers, if not more so. The Mbororo set uncontrollable brush fires to clear pathways for their animals, to drive game toward their guns, and to kill parasites and snakes. What’s more, the combined weight of tens of thousands of cattle walking in more or less straight lines wreaks havoc on the dry-season soil, and overgrazing destroys anchoring grasses and shrubs. The desertification process that made a wasteland out of the once-lush landscape of Darfur is creeping into Chinko, causing erosion and deforestation in the world’s last bastions of intact habitat for imperiled species such as the Lord Derby eland and the African wild dog.
Chinko was founded in 2014 to protect this singular habitat, and as far as Simpson is concerned, there is only one option—fighting back with every weapon they can muster—that will give the project a chance to succeed. Until the helicopter showed up, that didn’t add up to much: a handful of bolt-action hunting rifles and shotguns, a fleet of Toyota trucks long overdue for the scrapyard, and a couple of platoons’ worth of rangers who were as likely to steal equipment as protect it. The chopper has lifted spirits around Chinko, and it has put the fear of God in the Mbororo, though everyone worries the poachers will catch on soon.
With a million-dollar aircraft under his charge, Molteno does not mince words about the danger. “This is serious business,” he says, once the gawkers have gotten their fill of the contraband and dispersed. “We’re breaking every rule in the book. It’s a fucking cabaret. Sun Tzu would not be proud.” Molteno understands the stakes. He’s based permanently at Garamba, where eight rangers were killed in 2015 while trying to protect the park’s elephants.
Simpson takes a break from inventorying the captured gear. He collapses on the dining-room steps and says, to no one in particular, “If we don’t do something, we’re going to lose the park.” A moment later, two Chinko staffers grab the sack of rotten meat and head off to the burn pit.
This is what it looks like when a handful of twentysomethings start a nature preserve twice the size of Yellowstone—nearly 7,000 square miles total—in the heart of one of the most anarchic regions in the world. The Chinko Project nature reserve—which received a fifty-year concession from the Central African government in 2014—contains not a single paved road, not a single law enforcement officer. The closest government outpost lies a 150 miles to the south, in a town called Bakouma, on the far end of a network of barely maintained dirt tracks that become impassable during the rainy half of the year, from about April to October. Lacking any police or military protection, the government officials in Bakouma are authorities in name only. Chinko may as well be the end of the world, and every black flag in the region is reveling in the power vacuum.
The Central African Republic is just beginning to emerge from a civil war that started in 2012 and quickly culminated in the ouster of then-President François Bozizé by predominately Muslim rebels from the north, known as the Séléka, before devolving into tit-for-tat massacres pitting Christians against Muslims. Although the country recently held its first presidential elections since the coup, in February 2016, and inaugurated a new president in April, fifty-nine-year-old Faustin-Archange Touadéra, it remains mired in factional violence and humanitarian crisis. Nearly a quarter of the population has been displaced by the fighting. According to Louisa Lombard, a Yale University anthropologist who specializes in the Central African Republic, the country is “an extreme limit case in statehood.” And if CAR is the definition of a failed state, its neighbors aren’t faring much better. In the east, CAR’s internal headaches are exacerbated by the spillover of Congo’s battle with the Lord’s Resistance Army and South Sudan’s civil war.
The Mbororo, who have occasionally aligned themselves with the Séléka militias, look at Chinko the way European settlers must’ve looked at the American Great Plains—as so much empty pasture destined to be exploited. The Lord’s Resistance Army, which has a reputation for raiding villages and murdering anyone who’s too old to kidnap, also enjoys almost total freedom in the Chinko area, despite the presence of hundreds of Ugandan soldiers in the region who are supported by US Special Forces. Gold and diamond miners tear up Chinko’s riverbeds, threatening violence if their activities are disturbed. All of them poach—the Mbororo, the miners, the Ugandan soldiers—for money and sustenance. Then there is the local population itself. They poach, too. Chinko also contends with epidemic levels of theft at the hands of its own laborers, from jerry cans full of precious gasoline to food and tools, even sheets and dishware. The threat of mob violence is always simmering in the background. Simpson receives death threats on a near-daily basis from Chinko’s workers. “I had a knife pulled on me just last Saturday,” he told me nonchalantly on my first day in camp.
If there are certain risks that come with being utterly cutoff from the world, surrounded by several hundred men who are often armed, disgruntled, and drunk (in spite of the camp’s alcohol ban) there are also advantages to keeping a safe distance from the central government. For generations since independence, corruption has plagued every level of the state, from district prefects all the way to ministers in Bangui, in part because government salaries are paltry and often go into arrears during times of crisis. Corrupt officials are naturally drawn to the biggest prey, but aside from a few timber operations, foreign industry has virtually disappeared from CAR. Despite the country’s wealth of natural resources, corruption, conflict, and an astonishing lack of infrastructure simply make the country too inhospitable for investors. Because Chinko is the only major tax-generating entity in the entire eastern half of CAR, and one of the largest employers and importers of foreign goods in the country, it draws a disproportionate level of scrutiny at ports and at ministries in Bangui.
On the local level, Chinko’s isolation is its salvation. The reserve’s dense Congolian rain forest and wooded savannah comprise some of the most pristine wildlife habitat on the African continent, joining at the fringes of spring-fed river channels to create what biologists refer to as an ecotone—a fusion of two normally distinct ecosystems, where species that thrive in one ecosystem stray into the other, interacting with animals and plants they wouldn’t normally encounter. In the Chinko ecotone, it’s common to find bongo, a giant antelope normally found in dense forest cover, grazing in the open savannah; the Lord Derby eland, the bongo’s savannah-adapted cousin, and the largest of all antelope species, are found in the forest. The same dynamic applies to forest and savannah buffalo, to monkeys, warthogs, and innumerable species of birds, felines, and insects.
It was the wealth of biological diversity that drew a Swede named Erik Mararv to Chinko in 2005, when he was just nineteen years old, possessed by the dream of launching a safari operation. The son of parents who owned a well-drilling company, Mararv grew up on the other side of CAR, in a city called Berbérati. He left school at age fourteen to apprentice with a French professional hunter, and a few years later decided he could make a better go of it on his own. Fellow professional hunters laughed at Mararv when he said he wanted to start a hunting concession in the east, but he was undeterred. His enthusiasm infected his parents, Roland and Gunnel, who decided to throw themselves into the project. After securing a hunting concession from the government for what came to be known as Central African Wildlife Adventures (CAWA), Roland, Gunnel, and Erik Mararv spent five weeks opening a road into the center of what is now the Chinko area, camping beside the bulldozer at night with Erik’s younger sister, Charlotte. As they pushed deeper into the uninhabited forest and savannah, they found a menagerie of game guaranteed to excite European and American clients.
Of the game animals that African safari operators call the Big Five—elephants, rhinos, lions, leopards, and buffalo—four were present in CAWA’s concession. Leopard and lion hunts brought in the most revenue, but CAWA would become known for its antelope—ranging from the skittish red duiker, which is barely bigger than a Labrador retriever, to the iconic bongo and eland, notoriously wily giant antelope species that are facing extinction across much of their historic habitat. The Mararvs ran CAWA successfully for six years, during which time they put in hundreds of miles of dirt roads and two airstrips, built luxurious thatch-roofed guest quarters, trained a dedicated contingent of trackers and camp personnel, and imported a fleet of Toyota trucks and heavy machinery. Clients poured in from Argentina, Russia, Denmark, Mexico, and from all over North America, especially Texas. Erik Mararv was swiftly establishing himself as one of the most sought-after safari guides in central Africa.
David Simpson came to CAWA in 2010 at the age of twenty-three, as an apprentice hunter and pilot, chasing his own dream of working in the African bush. “I came to Africa with all the expectations you get from watching the Discovery Channel. I thought there would be herds of elephants everywhere, lions, giraffes. And here the grass is so tall, you can’t see three meters in front of your face,” he remembered. Mararv worked Simpson hard, sending him out to the bush for weeks at a time with a road crew and a .22 rifle to hunt for food, and he was impressed with the quiet and stolid pheasant-farmer’s son. As the May rains brought the season to an end, Mararv stunned Simpson when he asked if he’d come back the following season as general manager. Mararv wanted to scale back his role in order to spend more time with his two young sons, Theo and Axel, who had moved from Bangui to Sweden with their mother because of the rapidly deteriorating security situation. Humbled by Mararv’s confidence, and eager to prove himself, Simpson agreed. He flew home to England to sit out the rainy season. When he returned, he would be in charge.
Pre-Cambrian geology and torrential monsoons are the magic recipe for the Chinko ecotone. The preserve sits about 2,000 feet above sea level on an ancient volcanic plateau eroded by millennia of rains. The rains, in turn, have deposited a thin coating of alluvial soils over a foundation of bedrock that channels fresh water into a latticework of spring-fed rivers and streams. Sourced by underground wells, the waterways flow year-round, keeping the rain forest green and the wildlife well hydrated even in the height of the dry season, which lasts from about November to April, when the parched savannah fades to a landscape of beige and ash.
Water is Chinko’s most valuable resource—even more important than the charismatic megafauna that draw donor dollars. No matter the time of year, no creature has to walk more than a few miles to find fresh water, allowing the region to support a tremendous biomass. But the ample distribution of water also means animals are more dispersed than they are in a more arid place like Zakouma National Park, in Chad, where herds cluster around a limited number of watering holes. The upshot is that photo safaris will probably never be a big draw at Chinko, because the animals are just too spread out to guarantee sightings. When you do see animals, they’re often dashing through the brush. Fortunately, the animals’ dispersion makes poaching almost as challenging as photography. Dispersion also encourages genetic diversity: When animals aren’t forced to congregate around a limited number of watering holes, they’re less likely to inbreed.
Thierry Aebischer, a twenty-nine-year-old Swiss biologist working on his Ph.D., has been exhaustively surveying Chinko’s flora and fauna since 2012. The number of animals residing within the park is not an adequate measure of its value, according to Aebischer. One must also consider the value of the habitat itself, which means taking into account Chinko’s unique geology, its abundant water supply, and the ecotone’s value as a diversifying agent. There are plenty of animals in other regions of the African continent, but Chinko is the largest contiguous block of pristine habitat with the genetic diversity required to recolonize populations that are disappearing from surrounding regions. In this way, Chinko is the living equivalent of the Arctic seed bank, a reserve where species that once roamed from Uganda to Nigeria may one day regenerate and reconnect over huge spaces where they are currently extinct. As Simpson told me, “It’s all about the habitat. If we can protect the habitat, the animals will sort themselves out.” Protecting habitat means more than deploying ranger teams and chasing poachers and cows out of the bush; it means understanding exactly what there is to protect and which species should be prioritized. That’s where Aebischer comes in.
Aebischer’s journey to Chinko began in 2010, at a research lab in the Costa Rican rain forest, where he befriended an Austrian student named Raffael Hickisch. Both men were early in their postgraduate work and already entranced by rain forest ecology. The Amazon and the Central American rain forests were everything a biologist could hope for, but they’d been in the spotlight for decades, and competition for funding was fierce- (not to mention that it would be difficult to discover anything new in the tropics of the Western Hemisphere). Aebischer and Hickisch felt compelled to explore less-known equatorial ecosystems, so they pored over maps of CAR on Google Earth, eventually focusing on the eastern region.
“There was just no information. Every expert we asked said, ‘We don’t know what’s there. Maybe everything is already gone,’” Aebischer told me. Even the legendary megatransect biologist Michael Fay, who crossed the area in the 1980s, had deemed it a probable dead zone. The lack of authoritative answers about what came to be known as the Chinko area only served to stir the young scientists’ curiosity.
The only people who seemed to know anything current about the area were big-game hunting guides. Aebischer and Hickisch wrote to several professional hunters about the possibility of doing research on their concessions, but only Erik Mararv responded. “He said, ‘I’m open to it, but I have no idea who you are. So you’ll have to come meet me in Sweden,’” Aebischer recalled. He and Hickisch scrounged up airfare to fly to Sweden, where they explained their idea for an exhaustive biological survey project to Mararv. They would mount dozens of camera traps in CAWA’s concession, conduct long-distance overland transects, walking as straight a line as possible to collect samples of plant and animal tissue for laboratory analysis of genetic data. Nothing of the kind had ever been done anywhere in the Central African Republic. Mararv was so impressed that he granted the pair permission to use CAWA’s concession and resources.
By the dry season of 2012, Aebischer and Hickisch were on the ground. From the beginning, Hickisch insisted on a tech-driven approach to surveying wildlife, which Aebischer resisted. “I’m more the hardcore biologist, and he’s more the computer scientist,” Aebischer admitted. “I wanted to come here with a pen and a notebook and write down all of my observations. Raffael said, ‘We should use a smartphone,’ and I said, ‘I don’t even have a smartphone in Europe.’” Five years later, Aebischer’s smartphone is practically grafted to his hand, running a custom Google Earth map that enables him to plot sightings of wildlife and tracks, and to make notes on all sorts of details about the sightings, from the weather to the time of day, road conditions, and the suspected age of the track, generating a rich data set he uses to extrapolate population densities for target species.
A week after my arrival in Chinko, I joined Aebischer for a spoor transect—a methodical search for animal tracks. Aebischer sat on the hood of the truck, and the driver—whose name is Bashir, but who goes by George—rattled along at about fifteen miles per hour. Every time Aebischer spotted the spoor of a predator or a large antelope, he stopped to take a measurement with a ruler, snap a photo, and enter the information into his smartphone, geotagged with the location. George had brought a set of wireless headphones with a built-in music player, which he wore while driving. Sometimes Aebischer had to yell and bang on the hood to get him to stop, which spoiled a few tracks, though Aebischer never broke stride. He has a reputation for toughness around Chinko that is only matched by his garrulousness. Before I ever met him, several people had answered my questions with a half-cocked warning, “You’ll have to ask Thierry about that, but good luck getting him to stop once you’ve gotten him started.”
Aebischer’s five-foot-nine-inch frame grows rangy during his Chinko jaunts, his arms and face darkened by sun and the grime of the road. He comes at least once a year, often for several months at a time, avoiding camp as much as possible, returning only to charge batteries, backup data, and give his team a break from the punishment of the bush. Spending as much time in the bush as he does, there’s no escaping the bugs, and Aebischer’s parasite stories are the stuff of legend.
“Once, I came home to Switzerland with five different taxonomic groups of worms inside of me,” he told me with pride over dinner one night. From a filaria worm in his eyeball to four bouts of malaria, nematodes, amoebas, and, most recently, sand fleas that burrowed under his toenails, swelling on his blood until the pain was so excruciating that he had to cut them out with a knife, Aebischer’s skin and guts have played host to just about everything.
Then there are the insects. “It’s a permanent fight—that’s what makes it really hard. It’s not the poachers or the lions, or the outwardly dangerous things. It’s the tsetse flies, sweat bees, African bees, crickets that eat the rubber off your boots, termites that eat the floor of your tent, tiny ants that crawl inside your electronics and chew the O-rings and gaskets to shreds, beetles that eat the seals on water bottles.”
Combined with the nearly 100 percent humidity and tropical heat, the environment itself seems programmed to destroy you. “But that’s biodiversity, and I love it. All around me, on me, and in me. You don’t get all of that incredible tropical diversity—the birds and the mammals—without that kind of biomass,” he said. Night had fallen, and we were eating a dinner of manioc, which locals call gozo, and sardines cooked in oil, with thousands of mating termites crawling all over us. Aebischer dipped a ball of gozo into the greasy mixture. Chewing happily, he said, “I love this stuff. You just can’t get good gozo in Switzerland.”
Simpson was halfway through his first season as CAWA’s general manager when the bush revealed its gruesome potential. The Lord’s Resistance Army had been knocking about the area for a few years, terrorizing locals with road blocks and kidnappings. The attacks rarely rose above the level of banditry, but in March 2012, things took a macabre turn.
Simpson’s crew had opened a road to the Ngounguinza River, on the southwest side of the hunting concession. The road provided easy access to miners, who started showing up on their bicycles, setting up mining camps along the river and poaching for food. Their presence was an intolerable annoyance to Simpson, who tried without much success to convince them to leave. One day, he was working on a road-improvement project about a half mile from the Ngounguinza site when his Thuraya satellite phone rang. It was Mararv on the other end, calling to tell him that one of the drivers had just radioed the base in a panic, claiming he’d discovered several bodies at the Ngounguinza mine.
Simpson met the driver on the road at the river’s edge and left his rifle and his phone with the truck, hoping to minimize his value to a potential bandit. He continued down to the river on foot, where he found six bodies laid out like spokes on a wheel, with their heads touching at the center. Their skulls had been crushed, and the bloodied sticks used to club them were lying on their bare chests. They weren’t bloated—a sure sign, in this tropical heat, that the murders had to have happened that morning. While Simpson was taking stock of the carnage, three more miners showed up on bicycles. Their horror was plain to see, though it wasn’t clear if they were more scared by the gore or the white man standing in its midst. “It’s not safe here,” Simpson told them. “You should come with us back to our camp.” Two of the miners agreed, but the third jumped back onto his bicycle and fled.
Simpson drove through the night to fetch a group of soldiers and the sub-prefect of Bakouma. The next day, they found seven more bodies scattered amid the mining pits farther upriver from where the first bodies had been found. Their hands were bound. Some of them appeared to have had boiling water poured on their faces. The signature footprints of the Lord’s Resistance Army rubber wellington boots were everywhere in the mud. Simpson noticed that someone had cut the tires off of the two bicycles that the miners had abandoned the previous afternoon, which meant someone had been watching them. The Lord’s Resistance Army used terror to devastating effect, and the soldiers at Ngounguinza that day had no intention of meeting the same fate as the dead miners. They retreated quickly to the trucks, refusing to even finish inspecting the site. In all, according to the rumor in town, eighteen miners from Bakouma had gone missing. Several of the bodies were never recovered.
Back at camp, an emergency was quickly turning into a full-scale disaster. Mararv and Simpson had already been trying to figure out a plan to evacuate a worker with a head injury before the bodies were discovered at the mine. Mararv decided to send Simpson in the camp’s Cessna to retrieve the injured worker from Bakouma and airlift him to Bangui. Normally, a crowd would surround the plane, but that morning the runway was eerily deserted. While he was waiting for the ambulance to load the patient, Simpson’s satellite phone rang. It was Mararv, calling to tell him that the town was rioting against them. It turned out that the third miner—the one who’d fled on his bicycle—had told the villagers in Bakouma what he’d seen, and his story quickly morphed into a rumor that Mararv had ordered Simpson to carry out the killings. From the cockpit, Simpson could see a mob armed with shotguns walking down the main road toward the airport. A group of soldiers rushed onto the runway to protect the Cessna. “They were literally holding back the mob while we took off,” Simpson told me.
After he dropped off the patient in Bangui, Simpson raced back to the CAWA base. In Bakouma, the rioters had burned a CAWA truck and the storage depot, and now the camp’s workers were rioting, too. The Ministry of the Interior had caught wind of the trouble and summoned Mararv to Bangui. Simpson flew Mararv, the remaining expat staff, and the hunting clients to the capital, where Mararv was arrested as soon as he stepped onto the tarmac. Fearing he’d be arrested too, Simpson whipped the Cessna around and flew back to the camp, where the workers were stealing everything. Amid the mayhem, Simpson did his best to shut down the camp. He then flew to Bangui, where he turned himself in and was thrown in prison with Mararv.
Along with eleven local staff members, Mararv and Simpson would sit in prison for months without ever being charged. At first, they were crammed into a dank holding cell with forty other prisoners and one constantly overflowing bucket for human waste. Later, they were transferred to a “VIP” room on the upper floor of a facility for political prisoners, which they were allowed to renovate if they paid for the building materials. The renovation project gave them something to do, and time to talk and think. During a daily recess, Simpson ran laps around the soccer field. For a treat on Sundays, he would run the other way around. It was there that Simpson and Mararv began discussing the possibility of transforming CAWA’s hunting concession into a reserve.
Mararv was eventually able to convince the authorities to release him on house arrest, owing to his latent malaria, but Simpson languished on. One day, a prison riot broke out, and rather than suppress the rioters, the guards let everyone go. By the time Simpson made his way outside, the rioters were ripping the main iron gates out of the ground and loading them onto a truck. “They were stealing everything, and the guards were just standing there watching. But then they saw me and said, ‘Hey—where do you think you’re going?’ They forced me back inside. I was the only prisoner left, and I could hear them talking about what to do with me. ‘We should keep him here,’ one would say, and then the other would say, ‘But I really want to go home.’” After a while, they let him go. He left the prison shoeless, wearing only a pair of shorts. (His fellow prisoners had beaten him and stolen his clothes.) Roland Mararv, Erik’s father, sent a car to pick him up. A week or so later, the prison authorities, who had finally gotten their doors back, begged Simpson to come back because they needed prisoners. It was a ridiculous plea, but Simpson knew that he wanted to continue working in CAR, and if he didn’t cooperate he might be deported. So Simpson returned, and this time he was kept in a cramped cell with ten other prisoners and prolific mosquitos. He got malaria, again, and some-one tried to stab him. By now he was used to it.
The Mararvs learned there was more to the imprisonment than they had initially suspected. According to their well-connected sources in Bangui, an influential member of the Bakouma prefectural government who was heavily invested in poaching—one of the main ivory exporters in eastern CAR, no less—was furious that CAWA had cut into his business. When the bodies turned up at Ngounguinza, the official seized the opportunity, calling on his own connections in Bangui to pin the murders on Simpson and Mararv. It was only after the Bakouma official and his cronies in Bangui ran into their own trouble with the central government that the investigation into the Ngounguinza murders officially began. “Of course, we had to pay for it,” Simpson said with an incredulous laugh. “They made us pay for the ink to print the documents they needed.”
After six months, Simpson was released for lack of evidence. Back home in England, he was overwhelmed with media requests, which led to an appearance in a Channel 4 documentary as well as other high-profile productions, some of which paid an honorarium. Simpson came out of the media ordeal 30,000 British pounds richer. “I felt like it wasn’t my money, so I decided to invest it in Chinko. That was the seed money that got us started.”
A chance encounter with a high-ranking agent with the US Fish and Wildlife Service led to another major financial boost. “I knew that if this was going to be something long-term, we needed to bring in international support,” Simpson told me. “Once you get major international institutions involved, it turns into something that can’t just be taken away by the local government.” The US Fish and Wildlife Service agent was sufficiently convinced of the project’s merit to award it a $100,000 grant. Mararv also believed in the project, and saw it as a serendipitous exit strategy from CAWA. With the money from Simpson’s media appearances and the US Fish and Wildlife Service grant, Simpson and Mararv arranged to sell CAWA’s entire equipment inventory to the organization that had come to be known as the Chinko Project.
“That’s what allowed us to get started so quickly,” Simpson explained. “If we didn’t have the vehicles and the roads from CAWA, there’s no way we would’ve been able to do it.”
On a typically hot and dusty morning, I jump into the back of a Toyota Prado with a team of eco-monitors, whose job is to patrol the bush with a handheld GPS, marking sightings of critical wildlife and signs of cattle herds and reporting them to the control room, where they’re plotted on a custom Google map. The eco-monitors also carry out what they call sensibilisation with Mbororo and anyone else who shouldn’t be in the park—miners, fishermen, village poachers. In French, sensibilisation refers to the diplomatic side of antipoaching. The eco-monitors wear olive-drab pants, combat boots, blue button-down shirts. They carry machetes as bush tools, not as weapons. Normally they walk a nine-day circuit around a roughly 600-square-mile protected zone—an area at the center of the project area that Simpson determined was the maximum border his men could enforce with their limited resources—spending one night each at a series of huts, then returning to the base camp for a couple of days of rest.
I’m joined on the trip by Erik Vestlund, another Swede, twenty-nine, who joined Chinko in January 2016 to design and supervise construction projects. Vestlund, whose parents were Lutheran missionaries, grew up near the Mararvs in Berbérati. He learned to speak Sango from his nanny before he learned to speak Swedish, and he’s offered to translate for me.
We head south on the Bakouma road, George at the wheel again. He reads the roads like Braille, weaving around two-foot-deep ruts on a suspension system that makes us sway like a ship at sea. Warthog sows skitter through the trees with their tails sticking straight up in the air, their piglets close at their heels. Every so often, a duiker explodes from a day bed, sprinting in a blur across our path. We pass groups of baboons who lope lazily away from the road, resting on the low branches of trees to stare us down. Giant termite mounds are everywhere, some of them taller than the truck, swallowing whole trees. The birds seem to be rioting against the oppressively dull palette of the late dry season. We see hoopoes and hornbills, electric-blue kingfishers, sunbirds with two preposterously long tail feathers, a black-bellied bustard, stone partridge, guineafowl, buzzards, and a secretary bird—a predator with the face of an eagle, who wears a headdress of black feathers and walks on long yellow legs like stilts. He is a winged mongoose, a creature of pure fantasy, and he happens to eat cobras.
The rains have yet to wash away the ashes of the brush fires lit by the Mbororo, which have consumed the majority of ground vegetation. Once the brush starts burning, the fire can travel hundreds of miles, which is the intended outcome. In an earlier age, elephants did the vital ecosystem maintenance work of trampling the grass, which cleared a path for smaller animals, but now the elephants are virtually wiped out, and fire is the only tool man has come up with to replace them. The trunks of the gnarled savannah trees are all blackened, but the rainy season is near, and even the tiny essence of moisture in the air over the past few days has prompted some of the trees to bud.
We’ve been traveling for a couple of hours when we coast down a hill and slip into a cool forest, fording the stream that runs through its center. The forest feels like stepping into an air-conditioned room. We drink directly from the stream, wash the dust from our faces, then build a fire from deadfall so dry that it practically bursts into flame at the touch of the match.
After lunch, we hike downriver to check on an illegal goldmine. Ali, the lead eco-monitor in our group, has been to the spot before. He leads us along a trail that skirts the savannah edge for a mile or so, then dips into the forest, down to the river bottom, where there is an abandoned miners’ camp of empty grass huts. The riverbed appears to have been dredged with heavy machinery, but the square pits half-full with muddy water and the piles of gravel tailings everywhere are the work of men with nothing more than shovels and picks. The same cool stream we’d taken water from earlier has been reduced to a series of stagnant pools, with no discernible flow between them. As we walk quietly along, Ali picks up a recently discarded cigarette pack, beside a fresh footprint in the mud. “They’re here,” he says.
A little farther off, we hear the clank of shovels, the sloshing of bodies in water, voices through the trees. When Ali gets close, he makes his presence known. “We’re unarmed. We just came to talk,” he shouts. The miners scramble for their guns and machetes, but once they see that Ali is indeed unarmed and apparently alone, they let down their guard. The rest of us emerge from the trees onto a scene of total devastation. The miners have cut a wide clearing, and the river is simply gone, replaced by pits and trenches that recall the Somme. The miners glare at us, probably as unsure of our intentions as we are of theirs. A few of the men have glazed-over eyes. They say nothing. It’s rare to see a white person in this part of Africa. Two white men, rarer still. Later, Ali would tell us, “With two white men, they might’ve thought we were from the military or something. We’re lucky they didn’t shoot us.”
After a brief standoff, enough time for Ali to break the ice with friendly banter, the miners return to their work. We’d interrupted the foreman, a man who introduced himself as Christian Giovanni, during his lunch break. He wears a skimpy set of blue shorts and a woman’s bucket hat pulled over his ears, and he glares at us as Ali apologizes for bothering him. Giovanni squats back down on his stool and picks up the baboon skull he was gnawing on. He plucks an eyeball out and pops it into his mouth, sucking the gristle off his fingers. It’s the season of bees, which crawl over him as if charmed.
Giovanni answers our questions slowly, not bothering to mask his suspicion. He tells Ali that he and the other miners walked three days to get to the mine from a village called Nzako, where the sub-prefect provided them tools on the condition that he have first dibs on purchasing whatever gold they might find.
“Where does it go after that?” I ask.
“It all goes to Bangui. We don’t know where it goes after that,” Giovanni says. “We make enough to buy food for our families and send our kids to school. No one is getting rich.”
The living conditions at the mine seem to support Giovanni’s assertion. The miners languish amid swarms of bees, mosquitos, gnats, and tsetses. They work up to their waists in water for two weeks at a time. They eat bush meat, mainly duikers and baboons, which they shoot with homemade shotguns and then smoke over coals with the fur still attached. I ask Giovanni if he knows about the Chinko Project, and if so, what he thinks about it. “The mission of protecting wildlife is a fine idea,” he says, “but not everyone can work for Chinko.” After a few minutes, he grows irritated. “What’s the point of asking me all these questions? What will it change?”
We wander around for a moment, taking stock of the scene, and then Ali starts quietly guiding the miners toward a couple of wood benches at one end of the mine. “Now comes the hard part,” Erik says. “Ali is going to tell them they have to leave.” The camp of twenty or so gathers around Ali, who explains Chinko’s mission, which requires keeping the preserve’s rivers clean. He tells them they’re violating Central African law, and that the Chinko rangers have the right to expel them by force if they’re caught here again. No one says a word.
Giovanni finally asks, “How long do we have?”
Ali knows that asking them to leave immediately will only cause them to hide in the bush for a few days before coming back. This isn’t the first time he’s attempted to reason with them. “You can stay as long as it takes to sift what you’ve already dug, one or two days at the most. No new digging,” he says. “The rangers will come by in two days to make sure you’re gone. They’ll arrest you if you’re still here and take you to Bangui.”
Giovanni says he understands. “We’ll go,” he says.
As we walk back to the truck, Ali says, “I saw a lot of familiar faces. They’ll be back as soon as the money runs out.”
On one of the last days of my visit, I accompany a group of rangers on a morning patrol, following them as they slip through the bush, spaced five yards apart in a single file, communicating with hand signals. The man at the tail of the patrol turns to scan the trees behind him every so often, keeping an eye on the rear. Their British surplus combat fatigues—with dark brown, olive, and black stripes—hide them well in the blend of charred brush, hanging vines, and bright-green leaves. The squad leader, Teddy Abrou, carries an AK-47 captured from an Mbororo camp. The others carry hunting rifles and shotguns left over from CAWA days, painted green to make them look a bit more warlike. The calibers are a mixed bag, from heavy .375, which would stop an elephant, to .22, which is better suited for shooting squirrels but is enough for an effective show of force. Anyway, it’s all they’ve got. And besides, the ammunition pouches that the men wear on their chest harnesses hold water bottles, not magazines.
The men who Teddy commands on today’s patrol are a Potemkin squad of sorts, a few good men selected from a larger group. After three ranger-training cycles carried out by various mercenaries from South Africa and France under contract with African Parks, Chinko had sixty rangers. By late February 2016, they were already down to fifty. “We have a huge discipline problem,” Simpson admitted to me one day back at Chinko base. “Unfortunately, the last trainers we had infected them with a sense that they’re above everyone else. They have no respect for authority. They cause serious problems in the camp.”
I wasn’t surprised to hear this. Even in the United States Army, which has a professional noncommissioned officer corps to ensure that proper training is conducted and standards are met, it’s almost impossible to train new recruits and drop them into functioning units without hiccups. New recruits face a steep learning curve, complete with disciplinary issues, moments of insubordination, and all the tactical failures that come with inexperience. Trying to start a unit from scratch in a place like eastern CAR, where insubordination is a political necessity, means all those challenges and more. The rangers have a bad habit of leaving loaded weapons lying around in places where they can be stolen. They’ve also had more than a few accidental discharges. One ranger put a .375 round through his arm, nearly tearing it off. He was evacuated by Cessna to a Médecins Sans Frontières field hospital, where Chinko’s full-time doctor, Jean-Marie Mafuko, saved the arm with emergency surgery.
The bigger problem is that the rangers are periodically unwilling to do the job they were hired to do. From refusing to go on patrol, to failing to carry out patrols according to the plans supplied by the control room, to threatening mutiny if someone gets hurt, they are, for the time being, causing as many headaches as they are curing. Part of the problem may be that the second and third ranger selection rounds were based primarily on physical fitness tests that measured how fast a candidate could run the airstrip and how many pull-ups he could do. Those tests eliminated older and more mature men, some of them ex-poachers who knew the bush better than most.
What some of the young rangers lack in experience, they make up for with dedication. Jolidon, twenty-two, is one of them. He walks point on patrol on the morning of my second day with the rangers, guiding his squad mates through dew-soaked grass and fields of termite mounds. The previous night, he’d told me that he and the other rangers truly believe in Chinko’s mission. “I grew up here in the Central African Republic and even I have never seen an elephant,” he’d said. “Now they are almost totally gone, but we can bring them back to our park. I want my children to see elephants here someday.”
I asked him if he and the other rangers were afraid of the poachers, some of whom were probably veterans of the genocidal wars in Darfur. “No, we’re not afraid. They might have better guns than we do, but they’re not well trained. They just shoot wildly,” he said, mimicking firing in all directions. “We learned from professional foreign soldiers, so we’re not afraid. Anyway, this is our job. We have to do it.”
Of course, the real test will come when the bullets start flying. So far, things at Chinko have been calm. The Mbororo aren’t cut from the same cloth as the hardcore elephant poachers in Garamba, just over the border in Congo, and they have their wives and kids to worry about. All the same, they’re not likely to continue taking the pressure from the Chinko rangers without a fight. Everyone suspects that next season will be worse. This year, herders have fired shots in the air to warn off approaching rangers, and one guy tried to shoot Simpson on a helicopter raid, but the rangers have yet to go through any kind of trial by fire. How they will perform is anyone’s guess. By the most important measure, though, they’ve already succeeded: This year, Simpson’s goal was to keep a 620-square-mile protection zone completely free of cows. By the end of the dry season, they had cleared more than three times that amount of land.
Lying on the hood of the Prado, looking up at the stars, Jolidon said, “When people think about CAR, all they think about is war and poverty. I want to develop this project to give them something else to think about. Something positive, something we can be proud of as Central Africans. I want tourists to come here from abroad and take photos of our park and go home and tell their friends about all the animals they saw—that they saw something beautiful in Central Africa.”
Photo and video evidence of wildlife is critical to a project like Chinko, because it convinces donors that there’s something worth saving and protecting. “If we don’t have the pictures, no one will believe there is anything left,” Aebischer says. On their first trip to CAR, Aebischer and Hickisch set sixty Bushnell motion-activated camera traps with infrared flashes around the CAWA concession. By the end of that season, almost all of the cameras had been destroyed by hyenas, insects, heat, or thieves—but the SD cards that they recovered led to major donations. They showed wildlife that are almost never observed directly—because they’re nocturnal, or too elusive, or too scarce, or simply because the nature of the bush makes it almost impossible to catch more than a fleeting glimpse. “At Zakouma, you can show a donor a herd of 200 buffalo mixed in with antelope, which makes a donor say, ‘That’s awesome! I’ll give you money.’ But here, people say, ‘Why are you wasting our money?’ It’s a permanent struggle just to prove its worth. I know my camera traps go a long way toward keeping people interested.”
Every year, Aebischer lugs fifty-five new camera traps to CAR. As of this year, the project has amassed 17,009 camera-trap days in more than 500 locations, producing more than a million photos. Aebischer has tried to use an algorithm to search the photos and identify animals, but the human brain is the most adept tool. “I can spot a mongoose tail in the leaves, but a computer can’t,” he says, showing me the photo in question on his laptop. Back in Switzerland, Aebischer spends hundreds of hours inspecting camera-trap photos. The traps have proven the existence of at least two species that were assumed to have disappeared from the region: chimpanzees and African wild dogs.
Proving the presence of chimps was a major victory for Chinko, and it has provided a boost to funding appeals ever since. Still, Aebischer thinks all the focus on charismatic megafauna such as chimps and lions comes at the expense of less well-known species, such as the African wild dog. “They’re even more endangered and neglected, and they’re in a more dangerous situation because there are few individuals remaining and they need enormous amounts of space—it’s similar to the lions’ dilemma, but even more severe.”
At sunset, after a day of spoor transects, I accompany Aebischer as he sets up a calling station. He pulls two speakers from a storage box and places them on the rooftop cargo rack, then he uses a handheld device to dial up a call of an African wild dog searching for a lost pack mate. As the call booms out over the savannah, Aebischer scans with his binoculars. Unlike the rise and fall of a wolf call, or the frantic yipping howl of a coyote, the African wild dog call is flat and lonesome, almost like an owl. The bush does not call back.
A few days later, Aebischer and I are on a flight back to Bangui, looking down on a human population that grows increasingly dense the closer we get to the capital. Amid the green expanse that flanks the winding Ubangi River beneath us, we see roads, metal-roofed buildings, clear-cut forest, scorched earth—even in this scarcely developed hinterland, the hand of man is brutal. “The animals down there are totally gone,” Aebischer says. “Look at Chinko: 38,000 square miles without a single permanent settlement and they had already finished two species of rhino, savannah elephants, and giraffe thirty years ago. Now they’ve almost wiped out the forest elephants and the lions. Then the big antelope will follow.” The threat was all too clear: That same week, we’d learned that one of the seven eland that Chinko fitted with a GPS collar in February had been shot by poachers.
“Do you ever get depressed?” I ask.
“Yes, often,” he says. He remains quiet for a minute.
“It would be too easy to just give up,” he adds finally. “You have to keep working even if in the end you can’t stop it. I’m in a shitty position sometimes because I am a scientist, and I have to present the data. And when I put together the facts, it’s really sad. So I have to be careful not to dwell too much on the sadness, but rather to present the urgency and the potential.” Aebischer delivers this last bit with a disarming grin, and for a moment it is impossible not to believe in him, and in the whole wild dream.
Reporting for this project was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.