Angelique Todd has spent the past 15 years working as a WWF primate specialist in the Central African Republic – specifically in Dzanga-Sangha, one of the last strongholds for iconic species like forest elephants and lowland gorillas. Six weeks ago, a government coup in the country turned her life, and our vital conservation work, upside-down – with unprotected elephants among the tragic victims of the chaos. Angelique is now temporarily back in the UK for safety – but her thoughts are still with the forests, wildlife and communities she’s had to leave.
“We’d been on the edge of our seats for months, wondering whether rebel groups would oust Central African Republic’s president Bozize. Then on 24 March, despite an earlier peace agreement, the Seleka rebels took over the capital city, Bangui (hours after President Bozize fled to the bordering Democratic of Congo), and Michel Djotodia quickly proclaimed himself as the new president of the Republic, disbanding the government’s constitution and national assembly.
Since then, this poor but relatively unknown mineral-rich nation has been in a state of chaos.
For some of us in the long-standing WWF team there, this isn’t the first coup we’ve experienced. The government has had a long history of political unrest since gaining independence from France in 1960. The last coup was in 2003 – but as we’re based in the village of Bayanga, in the far south-west of the country (500km from the capital), political instability has rarely touched us, or the forests and wildlife we protect. This time it’s been entirely different.
The day of the coup in CAR
The morning of 24 March we read news of the rebel incursion into Bangui and were on stand-by in case the trouble spilled over into our remote region. But taking past experience and our isolation into account, and being a fabulously sunny day, I decided to fulfil my promise to my three-year old daughter to go swimming.
Our leisurely lunch was abruptly interrupted by a message from my boss, Dr Anna Feistner, delivered by motorbike (there’s no telephone network there) – we were to come back immediately as we were evacuating as a precaution. In one hour.
I rushed to pick up our things and hurriedly drove our 4×4 pickup truck back up the bumpy track, following the slowly disappearing motorbike in the distance. We arrived at our house at the project headquarters with 25 minutes to spare.
The local staff watched as I pulled out our small emergency bag from under the bed, helped me squeeze some last minute essentials in, and with a desolate goodbye to their desperate and pensive-looking faces, I wished them ‘kanga be’ (‘courage’ or ‘hold your heart’ in the local Sango language), and left for the boat to evacuate us to Congo. Would they be alright, and when would I see them again?
Evacuation – via Congo and Cameroon…
The light was disappearing fast as we fled down the Sangha River, bordered by dense forest, towards the Congo. On our boat were four colleagues, my daughter Poppy, myself and our trusted boat driver Aka.
As darkness fell Aka had to slow down as it became more difficult to discern the many shifting sand banks – thankfully there was nearly a full moon. On a normal night the BaAka people would be singing and dancing around here.
Five hours later, cold and tired, we finally arrived at our destination, Bomassa camp, headquarters of our colleagues at the Wildlife Conservation Society in Nouabale-Ndoki National Park, where we were warmly welcomed.
We heard by HF radio that, shortly after we’d left, the ex-Presidential Guard had turned up and stripped the presidential residence (located just outside of the reserve). I believe not even the roof remains now.
We spent four days in the beautiful surroundings of Bomassa, but constantly stressed over what would become of our friends, the wildlife, our homes…
Next stage of the evacuation was to Cameroon. After a three-hour river trip to the border town of Libongo – and despite having official refugee status in Cameroon – we still had to wrangle with (and pay) the authorities to be given our passports back (with no entry stamp), and bargain for a car to take us to the airstrip. All pretty typical, unfortunately.
Thankfully there was a super-helpful local governmental ecoguard there who volunteered to be our unofficial guide and negotiator.
We were told that the plane to take us to Cameroon had been delayed on its way to get us – and we wouldn’t be able to take off once it got dark. Just as we were losing hope and light was falling, the plane arrived. Finally we were off back to civilisation…
Of course the long journey wasn’t quite over. The pilot was at first denied permission to land at Yaounde in Cameroon. So after another hour of circling, and almost running out of fuel, we were redirected to the coastal city of Douala. We spent hours sitting on the tarmac next to the plane (playing word games with my daughter to pass the time), before a new flight plan was submitted and taxes paid. We all fished into our pockets to help the pilot pay this unforeseen and rather large sum of money.
We finally arrived in Cameroon just after midnight, to be greeted by the friendly faces of WWF support staff. Next day we were back in the UK.
Fears and hopes for central Africa – and how you can help right now
After such an experience, it’s good to be somewhere I know we are safe. For Central Africans, though, the ordeal continues.
Uncontrolled Seleka troops and others are destroying an already poverty-stricken country. There’s use of child soldiers, extortion, looting, pillaging, kidnapping, rape, torture, disappearances, executions and killings. How much longer will this innocent population – the majority of who live life simply as subsistence farmers – have to suffer?
A young man in our village was killed – apparently his only crime was being outspoken. WWF offices in Bangui and Bayanga have also been ransacked and looted, equipment and vehicles vandalised or stolen. The villagers had to round up what little money they had to avoid further looting before the rebels left.
After a lull in mid-April, things have taken a turn for the worse. A new Seleka rebel group arrived in Bayanga and seriously looted the project. Many people, including WWF staff, ran into hiding in the forest. This time little remained untouched – including the store where confiscated arms and ivory were kept, staff houses and vehicles. Some staff were beaten in the rebels’ efforts to find money.
We’ve received several disturbing reports of increased poaching too, in particular potentially extensive poaching of elephants. Thanks to WWF’s work in the Dzanga-Sangha Protected Area, there had been no reported cases of elephants killed there for two years. Now the tide has turned.
On 5 May, a group of heavily armed Sudanese commercial ivory poachers arrived in Bayanga. The next morning they proceeded to the Dzanga Bai forest clearing – a uniquely famous (and vulnerable) forest clearing where more than 100 elephants might visit each day to extract salts and nutrients from the earth.
There were two days of slaughter at Dzanga Bai – with the ecoguards helpless to intervene. Latest reports now say 26 elephants were killed and their tusks taken.
WWF, UNESCO and others have urgently asked the CAR government to restore security in the park. We’re waiting to see what happens next – but there have been some moments of good news.
A courageous project driver and friendly local shopkeeper managed to convince the Seleka rebel colonel based in Bayanga to help. He sent out a contingent to remove the Sudanese from the park, and by that evening they’d left.
Thankfully, the gorillas I work with are still being monitored daily and remain untouched. But we don’t know when the poachers might return to threaten the area. Urgent measures need to be taken NOW to stop this tragedy getting even worse – this is our World’s Heritage.
You can help right now, please, by signing this Avaaz-hosted petition – and stay tuned for further updates.”