The story, as I first heard it, had the zing of a Hollywood pitch: Led by a soft-spoken doctor, a band of American conservationists had persuaded the president of the Central African Republic to let them raise a militia and take over the eastern third of the Texas-size country. Their mission was to drive out the marauding gangs of Sudanese poachers who were rapidly wiping out the region’s elephants and other animals. Their authority: shoot on sight.
No one had been killed yet when I arrived in Bangui in early march. Throughout the dilapidated capital, signs of a November coup attempt were still fresh: Bullet divots scored the bricks of the Tropicana Club, and a curfew remained in effect. A detachment of Libyan paratroopers hulked in front of the mansion of President Ange-Félix Patassé, who had been bailed out, again, by his friend Muammar Qaddafi.
Most of the fighting had taken place in the northern reaches of town, where the American group, Africa Rainforest and River Conservation (AARC), had rented a gated compound. As I approached the large whitewashed porch, it struck me that ARRC was well prepared for another flare-up. Scattered among the wicker furniture were several men in fatigues, a couple of AK-47s, a grenade launcher, and a very excited chimpanzee.
Dave Bryant, a 49-year-old South African who had been hired in August to lead the militia, extended his hand. “Welcome to bloody paradise,” he said. He introduced a slight, 26-year-old Iowan named Michelle Wieland, who was in charge of ARRC’s community-development component, and a thin 35-year-old named Richard Hagen, who had flown up from South Africa to help with security.
“And the little fellow jumping up and down is Commando,” said Bryant. “We rescued him from a Sudanese trader, and to show his appreciation he’s been crapping all over our floors.”
Bryant’s face seemed custom-assembled for bad-ass impact. Beneath a clean-shaven scalp, a towering forehead descended into a deep ravine of a scowl line, bridged by wraparound sunglasses. An expansive Fu Manchu mustache arched around a loaded cigarette holder, which dangled expertly from one side of his mouth.
“I guess you’ve heard that we’re in a bit of a cock-up,” he said. “We’ve been stuck in this shit-hole for five months now, trying to get out into the bush to do a reccy [reconnaissance] before the rains hit. We’re waiting for gear, we’re waiting for money, and we’re waiting for vehicles. And we’re waiting for people in this zoo they call a government to do something other than put their bloody hands out.”
The three were eager to hear about my meeting that day with the American ambassador, Mattie Sharpless. Sharpless had recently arrived in Bangui, and I had asked her what she knew about ARRC.
“The rumor is that they’re hiring South African mercenaries and diverting funds into diamond venture,” Sharpless had answered.
Wieland winced when I relayed the quote, but Bryant smiled and leaned back in his chair. “Yes, well. We South Africans don’t usually like to use the term ‘mercenary.’ We prefer to say ‘playing at soldiers on a privately employed basis.'”
Bryant had been hired by Dr. Bruce Hayse, a Jackson, Wyoming, family physician, conservation activist, and organizer of extreme wilderness trips to improbable, dangerous destinations. Hayse first came to the Central African Republic in 1999, leading an attempt to raft down the eastern CAR’s as yet undescended Chinko River (see ADVENTURE, March/April 2000, “Crazy in the Congo”).
Hayse was among a minority of Westerners who had even heard of the Central African Republic, a former French colony was most notorious citizen was a child-slaughtering alleged cannibal named Jean-Bédel Bokossa. Before Bokassa, who ruled from 1966 to 1979, the center of Africa had gained infamy as an abundant source of slaves. Arab raiders, convinced that the dark-skinned infidels south of the Bahr el’Arab River were something less than human, essentially “hunted out” the eastern half of the country, leaving it with only a few thousand permanent inhabitants.
“This is one of the wildest areas left in Africa,” says Richard Carroll of the World Wildlife Fund. “Humans were prey, and they learned to stay away. It’s sad, but because of this, the animals thrived.”
The Chinko region is what ecologists can an ecotone, a zone where two major natural habitats (in this case, forest and savanna) meet, resulting in exceptional biodiversity. Hayse had heard that the region was home to the most impressive herds of the continent-giant elands, lions, leopards, chimpanzees, and especially elephants. He hoped to survey those populations as the team made its descent down the Chinko.
The three-week journey was plagued by food shortages, malaria, and swarms of stinging bees. But to Hayse, the biggest catastrophe was the lack of wildlife. The great herds were gone; beyond the banks of the Chinko-once called the River of Elephants-the forest was empty.
At the mouth of the Chinko, they dragged their rafts onto the banks at the village of Rafaï. It was surely the first time a group of white people had arrived on inflatable rafts. But as Hayse recalls, the villagers greeted them not with curiosity but with relief. “They said, ‘You’ve come-you’ve finally come to help us.'”
Subsistence hunting is Africa’s oldest endeavor, but in recent years the nature of hunting has changed radically, and a booming market has developed around bush meat. Conservationists say the bush-meat trade is now among the most significant causes of biodiversity loss on the continent. Africans are eating their wildlife into extinction.
In most of Africa, new logging roads aid the bush-meat trade as they cute into fauna-rich habitats. But the eastern CAR has little commercial logging, few passable roads, and few permanent inhabitants. The killing is being done by Sudanese poachers, who began crossing into the CAR in large numbers in the 1970s, when ivory and rhinoceros-horn prices skyrocketed. Skilled horsemen rode into the herds and used spears to cut the elephants’ hamstring muscles. They left the fallen animals to die in the sun, then returned to collect the ivory.
By the late 1980s, Sudan’s civil war had generated a surplus of cheap guns and trained shooters, and Sudanese merchants saw meat and money on the hooves of just about any animal that roamed in CAR’s unpatrolled east. Ivory became a by-product.
Now, each November as the rains abate, columns of up to 200 well-armed poachers cross the border with horses and camels along the old slave routes. Dividing into smaller groups, the poachers set fires to flush out the animals, then shoot them and smoke the meat.
Until recently, the wildlife around Rafaï had been abundant enough to provide plenty of food for its residents-most of whom are Zande, a Christian-animist tribe-and even employment with French big-game hunting operations. But with the animals getting scarcer, the poachers had taken to looting Zande villages.
“Sometimes the braconniers [poachers] come to trade with us,” a villager told me. “But when they cannot find animals to shoot, they come with guns. They make us lie down on our faces. They take everything we cook with. If they find your woman or daughter, they will rape her. They make us smoke their meat, and sometimes they take our people to carry the meat. These people are never seen again.”
Hayse spent two days in Rafaï, listening to stories. “The villagers had organized a conservation and self-defense force,” hey says, “but they had no guns or ammunition. They were saying things like, ‘You’re doctors; you’ve got to heal this.'”
Hayse huddled with the other expedition members. Among them were Randy Hayes, the founder of the Rainforest Action Network, and Mike Roselle, who, like Hayse, was a co-founder of Earth First! In the western U.S., the conservation activists had spiked trees and organized rallies; they had blocked loggers from spotted-owl habitats and embarrassed scores of companies and politicians. But none had ever considered the prospect of confronting murderous soldiers in an unstable African country.
“It’s fine to float down an unexplored river, doing a first descent and having a great time,” says Hayse, “but we came to believe we had an obligation at that point to do something more. A whole ecosystem was going to be lost, just so a few hundred outsiders could make money. But this was a very difficult decision to make, because the poachers weren’t going to leave just because we told them to. If we were going to save this place people would have to be killed.”
Eighteen years ago, a hunter named Jean Laboureur faced a similar decision as he stood on an overlook in the northern CAR, watching the hillsides ripple as thousands of elephants moved across the savanna.
In the elephants’ migration, Laboureur saw innocence and authentic liberty, a freedom unhindered by walls or barbed wire or men with guns. Such freedom was particularly important to him. At the age of 16, he had been plucked out of his adolescence in wartime France and thrown into a concentration camp in Germany. Laboureur does not speak of his ear in Dachau, except to say that when the camp was liberated, “I left hell and never again had a normal life.”
After the war, Laboureur joined the French Army and asked to be sent to Congo. After his tour, he was hired to hunt for meat for restaurants in Brazzaville. The job suited Laboureur; it allowed him to disappear into the bush for days at a time. Sometimes, when he saw white men approaching, he would hide, convinced he no longer had anything in common with his fellow Westerners.
“When I met him,” says his wife, Claudine, “he was eating one meal a day, communicating mostly with grunts.”
In 1965, the couple moved to French Africa’s undeveloped reaches, in the northern CAR. They built a luxury hunting camp, Koumbala, and developed a clientele that included French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and CAR president Jean-Bédel Bokassa, whom Laboureur had first known as a table boy at the French officers’ dining hall in Brazzaville.
Koumbala became the place where Europe’s elite came to break trophy-hunting records. But with poachers killing not one elephant at a time but dozens a day, the safe places where the animals could roam were shrinking. Determined to protect the elephants, Laboureur put the majority of the hunting reserve aside for people who wanted to photograph the animals (presaging ecotourism). Hunting would continue in one small area to finance the protection of the rest.
It was Bokassa’s predecessor, David Dacko, who had granted the Laboureurs the country’s largest safari concession, some 4,600 square miles. But it was Bokassa who would often fly in without notice with a hard-drinking entourage to lap up the camp’s luxuries. And it was Bokassa who, after declaring himself emperor, nationalized the Laboureurs’ reserve in 1977 to rid it of “colonists.” The Laboureurs were given just two days to leave. Afterward, the poachers, with no one to fend them off, began swarming across the boarders.
After Bokassa was overthrown in a 1979 French-sponsored coup (his excesses had become too embarrassing for Giscard d’Estaing), Laboureur returned to see what was left of Koumbala and its wildlife. The hills that once shook under the weight of thousands of elephants now writhed with vultures, shrieking and circling in the stinking air, tearing at decaying gray-and-red mounds.
Laboureur went back to camp for dinner, which he ate in silence. After dinner, one of his companions remembers, the Frenchman lit a cigarette and sent someone to shut off the generator. As the motor’s hum faded, the sounds of the African night came up, and the flywheel spun its last few turns. The light flickered, and then Laboureur’s cigarette was the only glow. He stood in the cookhouse doorway, silent, for a long time. Finally, he threw down his cigarette and spat. “Qu’ils terminent dans les ventres des vautours. Comme nos elephants.”
“Let them end up in the bellies of the vultures. Like our elephants.”
After leaving Rafaï, Hayse spent a week in Bangui, talking to officials. The government was far too broke to pay for a conservation program, they said, but if the Americans could find a way to finance it, they would support it.
Two weeks later, back home, Hayse learned that everyone he had talked to in the CAR had been ousted in a government shake-up. Undeterred, he sent Erik Lindquist, a Jackson-based forest ecologist, to Bangui to make new contacts. Hayse also began seeking funds. Among those he approached was Kathe Henry, who had met the physician in 1992, when he treated her AIDS-stricken son. “Back then,” says Henry, “there was a lot of discrimination against people with AIDS. In Jackson, Bruce has a reputation as the doctor who won’t turn anyone away.”
After her son died, Henry started the Scott Opler Foundation to fund conservation efforts and other causes in his memory. Hayse showed her ARRC’s proposal to protect the 60,000-square-mile wilderness through counter-poaching operations, scientific studies, and community-based natural-resource management and development. In addition to recruiting and training an antipoaching force of 400 local men, ARRC planned to fix roads, build dispensaries and schools, and teach locals how to exploit their natural resources in a sustainable way. Hayse estimated that the project would need $300,000 to get up and running, and $600,000 per year to keep it going.
“I was a little shook up, because of the possibility of violence,” says Henry. “But people say that’s the way it’s done in Africa; there’s no law, there are no jails. It would be a tremendous achievement, the chance to change a country. I thought I could get behind it, so I sent the materials on to the foundation’s attorney.”
The attorney thought otherwise. In a harshly worded letter, he advised against funding ARRC, citing possible exposure to civil and criminal liability and loss of charitable tax-exempt status. “Charitable activities do not include the creation and training of an off-shore, non-governmental military force,” he wrote. “The use of deadly force is not a charitable activity.”
In the meantime, the search for an experienced antipoaching coordinator had turned up Bryant, who was training some guards at Liwonde National Park in Malawi. His girlfriend, Wieland, was finishing a Peace Corps stint at the park, and she agreed to organize the community-development side of the ARRC program.
By the time Bryant arrived, Lindquist had managed to arrange a meeting with President Patassé. On August 14, 2001, he sent an e-mail to Hayse: “WooHOOO! We did it! Met with the president today. He gives us full permission to work in the country….We basically a sked for, and received, the entire Chinko River basin….We’re celebrating in Bangui tonight….at least until 9 when the curfew kicks in. Send case of whiskey…urgent.”
I went to bed early the night I arrived. In the middle of the night, I heard footsteps treading quietly across the tiled floors outside my room. It was 4 a.m.; someone was pacing the halls.
It was late morning when I woke again and walked out onto the porch. Commando was stretched out on Bryant’s lap with his arms over his head, smiling serenely as Bryant rubbed his tummy. Near the concrete railing, Richard Hagen crouched over two tubes of paint, camouflaging his stove, his tea canister, and his cigarette holder.
I asked Hagen if he had slept well. “Like a slob!” he said, grinning. “But Dave was up early, as usual.”
“I like to get up in time to hear the sparrows far,” Bryant said, brushing it off. “Also, it’s the best time for an ambush.”
The front gate swung open, and ARRC’s green pickup rolled through, its bed loaded with four fuel drums and several ammunition boxes. Ange Lesieur, a high-cheekboned Central African member of the Presidential Guard, stepped out and greeted Bryant with a foot-stomping, thigh-slapping salute.
“Ca va, patron?”
Bryant had haired Lesieur from the CAR military to provide security. The army’s sporadically paid soldiers make much of their living by stopping vehicles and demanding “coffee money” at gunpoint. (I experienced seven such shakedowns in a single day.) With an officer in the front seat, ARRC personnel could move through roadblocks with minimal hassle-“paying the bribes up front,” as Bryant put it.
Three days earlier, Bryant had given several hundred dollars to a local man named Bob Ouinia to acquire essentials-fuel, ammunition, an extra truck, bulletproof vests-for the long-delayed reconnaissance mission. Ouinia had disappeared, and on Bryant’s orders Lesieur had tracked him down and brought him in. Judging by the presence of the containers, Ouinia had accomplished his mission.
But when Hagen picked up one of the ammo boxes, it rose far too easily. He thumped one of the fuel barrels; its tone was hollow.
“And the flak jackets?” he asked.
Ouinia responded with the vague “Mmmm” that serves as an answer for just about any question in the CAR. “First, I get containers,” he said. Bryant came down off the porch.
“Don’t worry, Richard,” he said, offering a cigarette. “A sucking chest wound is nature’s way of telling you you’ve been in a firefight.”
Bryant is working incognito in the CAR-the name he uses is not his real one-but his disguise has as many holes as a Michigan stop sign, and whiskey drills a few more.
He grew up mostly in England, but moved to South Africa so he could join the army at the age of 17. (“I wanted to go to Vietnam to play, but I was underaged and my mother wouldn’t sign the papers.”) After a five-year stint in the army, he fought as a mercenary in the Rhodesian bush war-“the best war I’ve ever worked in”-and then, in 1993, joined the South African “security” company Executive Outcomes, which had been hired by the South African government to fight in Angola against the Unita rebel movement.
But it was during a 1989 undercover stint in Hong Kong, in which he infiltrated a rhino-horn smuggling syndicate, that Bryant found his calling. “If I’m good at anything,” he said, “I’m good at lying and BS’ing people. Plus, I like animals, and I believe they should have rights.”
In southern Africa, the line between paramilitary and conservation work is often blurry, and Bryant moved easily into antipoaching jobs, setting up and training patrols in game parks in South Africa, Mozabique, and Malawi.
Like Bryant, Hagen (who also uses a pseudonym) sought adventure in South Africa, after deciding that the New Zealand Army was “too boring.” In an obviously long-standing routine, he and Bryant would sit on the porch each evening, cracking sheep and “homo” jokes and waxing nostalgic about guns, hostage rescues, and special-forces runs behind enemy lines.
Hagen is rail-thin, with a Mediterranean complexion and almost-black hair slicked into a pompadour. Beyond his AK-47, ammo, and flares, his war-zone essentials included Brylcreem, English Lapel aftershave, and wet wipes. At 35, Hagen is “too young to have been in any respectable war,” said Bryant. But when Bryant invited him to fly north, Hagen said, he jumped at the chance to “have a go at the Sudanese.” Bryant laughed and plucked the butt from his cigarette holder. “we needed somebody who was expendable,” he said.
In January 2002, Hayse, Lindquist, and some of the Chinko expedition members flew to Washington, D.C., to meet with Olivier Langrand, the director of Conservation International’s Africa programs. ARRC had received some small grants, but Hayse was paying for most of its expenses, and he was running short of funds. Hayse hoped that Conservation international, which had just received a pledge for $261 million from Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, could become a long-term funding source.
Langrand had worked in the CAR and was familiar with the poaching issues there. “It was obvious that they knew what they were talking about,” he says of the ARRC delegation. “There is probably still enough seed stock in remote pockets that the animals could come back quickly if the poachers were cleared out. We’ve seen it happen.”
But when Hayse described the land Patassé had given them authority over, Langrand was stunned. “This area is four times the size of the Serengeti. Nothing that big had ever been successfully patrolled.”
Langrand was also concerned that ARRC had hired an antipoaching expert from South Africa, fearing that Bryant might use methods that “won’t work in central Africa, where the culture is different.” But his biggest concern was that ARRC would be setting a precedent that might put the conservation community in an awkward position. “This is one of the poorest countries on earth,” he says. “They don’t have the resources to enforce the law. We have a group that’s willing to do it. But I’m not sure that conservation organizations should be used as a substitute for governments.” Langrand encouraged the ARRC team to apply for a grant through CI’s Global Conservation Fund. But he told them he wasn’t overly optimistic about ARRC’s chances for success.
Among Africa-focused conservationists, Langrand included, few would argue against the need for lethal antipoaching enforcment-though most conservation groups are keen to distance themselves from it. “We wouldn’t do it,” says the World Wildlife Fund’s Richard Carroll. “Can you imagine the headlines? ‘WWF supporting South African mercenaries to kill Central Africans’? But hopefully [ARRC] can make it happen. It’s really a last-ditch effort. I just hope they’re understanding what they’re getting into.”
Carroll had proposed WWF involvement in the area in 1999 but pulled back when he determined that the problems were “well beyond what community conservation could handle.”
“It’s probably better that the WWF isn’t involved,” says one mainstream conservationist. “This is the side of conservation that the organizations with the panda-bear logos don’t want to deal with. It’s dirty, filthy work. And if you want to succeed, you don’t put a choirboy in charge.”
“You tell those rag-heads they won’t get away with this!” Bryant was yelling into the phone about a bounced check written by a Sudanese diamond dealer. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard such an outburst, and each time the subject was obvious-though Bryant never used the word “diamond.”
The decision to get into the gem trade was rooted, at least partly, in desperation. In the seven months since they had arrived, Bryant and Wieland had managed to purchase a truck and import an arsenal; they had rented a house and had hired about a dozen locals; they had made impressive contacts in the Bangui government and among the missionaries and tribal leaders in the east. The operation seemed on the verge of getting on its feet, but Hayse, who by then had spent about $130,000, was tapped out. The project, if it was going to continue, needed a quick and significant infusion of cash.
“Diamonds looked like a way to develop the project with some kind of secure financial foundation,” says Hayse, “and to provide a more equable means for the local people to sell the diamonds they pick up.” Diamonds are abundant in the CAR; trading in them is also one of the dirtiest games in Africa, having been at the center of everything from virtual slavery in Angola to terror amputations in Sierra Leone. In a country were foreigners have more than once posed as do-gooders to cash in on the gems, diamond dealing could tarnish ARRC’s image.
“Of course,” says Hayse, “we would be opening ourselves up to accusations of operating this as a front, but hopefully our results would be the proof of what we were about.”
If Hayse sounds naïve, Bryant was bluntly practical: “Michelle and I hadn’t been paid in five months. And the money was just sitting there, lying on the ground.”
Erik Lindquist completed a weeklong course in gemology, then returned to Bangui. He bought several diamonds, following the advice of Andre Ouinia, Bob’s brother. Andre had been recommended by Serge Patassé, the president’s son.
Ouinia’s appraisals turned out to be ridiculously optimistic, and the transaction was a loss. Subsequent attempts fared even worse. In total, Ouinia was given almost $60,000 to buy diamonds. So far his deals had yielded a net loss of $31,000. Hayse and Lindquist believe that the problems stemmed from buying bad diamonds-but Bryant was convinced that Ouinia was cooking the books.
One afternoon, a brand-new Land cruiser pulled into the compound with Serge Patassé behind the wheel. Bryant yelled toward the kitchen, “Michelle, hide the whiskey!”
As Patassé walked toward the porch, Commando darted behind a potted plant. “Mmmm, those taste so good,” Patassé said, glancing toward the furry head peeking out from behind the plant. “But don’t wait too long, because the meat gets tougher when they’re older.”
Patassé announced that he had come to sort out the “misunderstanding” between Bryant and his friend Andre Ouinia.
“This isn’t a misunderstanding,” Bryant growled. “This is a rip-off. I’ve tried to be nice and polite, but I’m done. Andre either gets me the money or he gets me the rocks.”
Over the next few days, Bryant’s frustration grew, and the mood on the porch turned sour. In a pattern repeated over and over, each day of handing out money to various errand-runners-for gear, paperwork, food, beer-was followed by two days of trying to track down the recipients and find out what happened to the cash. The phone stopped working. The power went out. Some nights, we heard automatic gunfire in the distance.
“Curfew-breakers,” Serge Patassé said. But in the expatriate community, rumors of another coup attempt were building.
When the telephone started working again, it rang with good news. A third Ouinia brother had found a very rare blue diamond near Bria. “It could be worth $50,000,” said Bryant. “Everyone’s flying out there to try to buy it. But we financed him and set him up in the business, so he wants to sell it to us. If we get that blue diamond, we’re in business.”
While Bryant and crew waited for news, I headed to Bangui’s bush-meat market with photographer Chris Anderson. We took our time passing through a city once so giddy that French colonists had named it La Coquette. Now, the colonists’ meticulously reconstructed image of Europe lay crumbled under layers of dust. Among the few aid workers and other expats who still visit, the bedraggled capital has been rechristened La Marchette-the doormat of Africa.
Much of the city is a field of ruins, and an inadvertent open-air museum to the Bokassa era. We passed under the dictator’s crumbling “triumphal arch” and made our way toward his now roofless hillside palace, where his successors are said to have found the body of a schoolteacher hanging on a meat hook near mounds of human flesh prepared for roasting. We walked along the street where a hundred schoolchildren had once dared to stone the presidential car after they were required to wear school uniforms emblazoned with pictures of their leader. Bokassa had ordered the children rounded up, beaten, and executed.
Under Bokassa, the cruelties and injustices of colonialism looked like child’s play. French president Giscard d’Estaing indulged the dictator, coveting the country’s uranium deposits and diamonds, and his beloved hunting reserves. The French government picked up the tab for Bokassa’s most outrageous fantasy, the lavish coronation ceremony in which he crowned himself emperor of a renamed Central African Empire. The 1977 event cost about $20 million-nearly the equivalent of the the country’s annual gross domestic product at the time. Outside the national stadium, the wooden frame of his imperial throne still stands, stripped bare of its jewels.
At the bush-meat market, a woman named Marie-Claire Dogbaide guided us through the species that lay at her feet in hunks, rough-smoked, with a thick black crust. Here was a rib section from a small antelope (about $3). Next to it lay a piece of a python ($2), a buffalo intestine ($1.50), the top and bottom halves of a chimp ($4.50 and $5), and trunk sections from four elephants ($7.50 each). Technically, sales of endangered species are illegal in the CAR, but Forestry Department officials rarely enforce the law.
A truck pulled up to Dogbaide’s stall, and the driver unloaded a pile of whole, unsmoked carnage: lizards, monkeys, a porcupine. Dogbaide paid him, then picked up a white-faced monkey by its long tail, which was tied around its neck to make a handle. After showing it to us, she threw the dead monkey back on top of the pile, the animals all seemed to jump a little, animated by the impact.
By the next day, the blue diamond was gone, scooped up by Andre Ouina. When Bryant heard the news, he walked to the kitchen and returned to the porch with his last bottle of Glenlivet scotch.
“Looks like it’s AWA,” he said, taking a long slug from the bottle. “Africa wins again.”
Bryant announced that he was “pulling the plug” on ARRC’s operation and called his landlady-the president’s secretary-to tell her he intended to break the lease. He tried to phone Hayse but couldn’t get an international connection.
“I’ve got to go find another war somewhere,” he said. “I can’t make a living on my own wars.”
Two hours later, the porch was a goat’s nest of rifles, beer bottles, and cigarette butts. Bryant, as he worked his way through the scotch, had hatched half a dozen new schemes-among them a plot to lure Andre Ouinia into the bush and “take him out.”
Commando was rolling around, gleefully hugging a bottle of beer he’d swiped and nearly drained. Bryant approached him, and the chimp stumbled backward, tripped over a rifle, and fell into a potted plant. The plant toppled over and the pot broke, spraying dirt across the porch.
“Commando, damn it!”
Bryant rushed at the chimp, his hand drawn back. Cornered, Commando cowered and covered his eyes, shrinking form the expected blow.
When it didn’t’ come, the chimp slowly spread apart two fingers, peeked up at Bryant, and ventured a tentative grin. Bryant’s fury faded. Before he walked back to his chair, Bryant shook his fist in a mock “why I oughtta” gesture. Then he sat down and lit a cigarette. When he looked again across the porch, the chimp was standing with one hand curled around the beer bottle and other balled into a fist-which he was shaking, slowly, at Bryant.
The next morning, Bryant awoke with a monstrous hangover-“My mouth feels like I’ve got a cape-vulture colony nesting in there”-and a seemingly incongruous sense of blustery resolve. “None of the armies I ever worked in taught retreat maneuvers,” he said. “We’re going east.”
The decision seemed to have been catalyzed by early morning radio reports from missionaries all over the eastern CAR. “They are speaking of braconniers everywhere,” said Lewis-Alexis Mbolinani, ARRC’s liaison with missionaries and self-defense organizations in the region. “They are moving feely along the roads, hundreds of them, and now they have bombed the gendarme’s house at Mboki.”
Bryant’s mission was reconnaissance only, with no plans to actively engage the poachers until ARRC’s militia was in place-which couldn’t happen until additional funding came in. We hitched a ride in a missionary Cessna, and Bryant sent ARRC’s truck east under Lesieur’s command. Bryant had told Lesieur to go directly out of town, but Lesieur asked if he could make a stop, for some lard.
“The braconniers have very powerful magic in their gris-gris,” said Lesieur. “Regular bullets just bounce off. But because they are Muslims, we can coat our bullets with pig grease to penetrate their magic.”
The pilot weighed our luggage before loading the Cessna. “Anything dangerous in here?” he asked.
“Uh, not if you don’t pull any pins,” Hagen answered with a goofy grin. The pilot chose not to ask any more questions, but he said a prayer just before starting the engines: “Lord, we pray for a safe journey, and we pray for these guys as they seek to help the people and save the animals out there…”
“Amen,” Bryant said from the copilot’s seat. “I’m a big believer in the holy spirit-especially the single-malt variety.”
Jean Laboureur’s offensive began in the dry season of 1985 and gained momentum quickly. With his son, Matthieu, and ten Central Africans, Laboureur attacked and burned 83 poachers’ camps that first season, recovering 500 tusks, killing 37 poachers, and taking no prisoners.
The French media caught wind of the story, and Laboureur quickly became a celebrity in his homeland, the unyielding champion of wildlife in central Africa, the man leading the battle against ivory poaching. Matthieu, who had been raised in the African bush, was nicknamed “Tarzan” by the press.
“He was 20 years old then, a crazy bad-ass,” says conservation biologist J. Michael Fay, who arrived at Koumbala at the end of Laboureur’s first season back. “He and the old man would go out with a few guys and some old single-shot guns, and they’d take on 50 guys with machine guns and scatter them.”
By the second season, Laboureur’s team was better armed and making serious progress. By the end of that season, they had reduced poaching by 80 percent, and the next year, the elephants began returning. But one morning three years later, the crusade went terribly wrong.
There are probably a dozen versions of what happened on January 31, 1990. But what is clear is that the Laboureurs were on a family picnic near a river when they stumbled across a group of men they thought were poachers. Shooting broke out, and one man was killed.
But the victim, who had been taking a swim, was not a poacher. He and his companions were Central African game guards who had been hired by a rival European Community-funded antipoaching program. Jean Laboureur was arrested, charged with murder, and jailed in Bangui.
The controversial case caused a rift between Bangui and Paris, and between Paris and the European Community. Laboureur was eventually released, but the price was hit: He left Bangui for southern France with the understanding that he was never to return.
“I love the smell of WD-40 in the morning.” It was Hagen’s birthday, and to celebrate, he had awakened early, made some tea on his camouflaged stove, and begun cleaning his rifle.
“I certainly hope victory smells better than this,” Bryant said.
We had landed the previous afternoon at the Protestant mission in Zemio, run by an energetic American named Wendy Atkins. With the safari companies gone, many of Zemio’s residents survive on the hunting, transport, and trade of elephant meat, much of it from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, just across the M’Bomou River. An elephant yields about $250 worth of meat; once smoked, it is brought over the river in baskets and sold at Zemio’s market.
Among the shoppers at the market was Karl Amman, a Kenya-based conservationist who was collecting samples of elephant meat for DNA analysis to determine if forest elephants are interbreeding with savanna elephants in the northern D.R.C.
“It’s sad and ironic,” Amman told us over dinner, “that it’s become easier to buy meat in a village than to collect fecal samples in the field. They’ve wiped out 80 percent of the elephants within a hundred kilometers of the border. What’s next? Buffalo are the next biggest piece of meat, then antelopes, then it’s on down the line to chimps.”
Amman is one of the few conservationists who dare to venture into the war-torn D.R.C.’s northern region. He is an outspoken critic of “feel-good conservation” in Africa.
“The big organizations pretend they’re succeeding, because success brings the money in,” he said. “It’s ‘Just write us a check, and we’ll take care of the rest.’ But the reality here is a mess.”
Amman and Bryant had rendezvoused in Zemio to plan a joint operation in two weeks to arrest eight former Congolese guerrillas living in the CAR who were organizing teams of elephant poachers.
“If I had an accurate idea of where they were crossing,” said Bryant, “I could hit them as they came across. We have carte blanche from Patassé; he doesn’t care what methods we use. But we have to be careful. We don’t want the bleeding hearts brigade from-what do you call it?-Amnesty International coming down on us.”
On our third day in Zemio, Lesieur rolled in with ARRC’s truck, its bed stacked high with rifles, rocket launchers, food, and beer. Wendy Atkins, our missionary hostess, looked nervous.
“Patron!” Lesieur greeted Bryant with his foot-stomping, thigh-slapping salute. Lesieur had brought two soldiers. One wore dark glasses, camouflage boots, and an excess of attitude, and Hagen immediately nicknamed him Rambo. Bryant decided that he didn’t like either of them. “These aren’t soldiers,” he said. “They’re garden boys with guns.”
We had planned to continue east as soon as Lesieur arrived. But only one of the three diesel fuel drums that had been sent ahead made it. If we pushed on, said Bryant, we wouldn’t have enough fuel to get back. “Haven’t we had enough bloody obstacles?” he yelled. When we left Zemio, we traveled west, toward Rafaï.
Bryant’s instructions to his soldiers were cursory: “We’ve got 500 rounds between us, a few grenades, and three RPGs. It’s not a lot. So I don’t want any plinking shots.”
I asked Bryant what he planned to do if we were ambushed.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “Normally when you get Africans in a firefight, it’s just a matter of finding cover and waiting until they fire off all their ammo-which is usually about the time it takes to finish off a cigarette. Then you calmly walk toward them and shoot them.”
The road west looked like it hadn’t been maintained since independence in 1960, and in some places it was nearly impassable. Fending off driving tips from Hagen, Bryant drove through the rising heat, his left arm dangling out the window. His sweaty skin was soon coated with a layer of fine red dust.
At one point, Lesieur cautioned that the road ahead was notorious for hijackings. Bryant put on his chest webbing and checked his gun. “Better feed one up,” he told Hagen, glancing in the rearview mirror. “Lesieur’s pretty nervous.”
As Hagen cocked his AK-47 and clicked off the safety, Bryant stubbed out his cigarette and put the butt in his pocket. (He is possibly the only man in Africa who doesn’t throw his butts on the ground.) He wheeled the truck into a tunnel of trees spread over the road.
A few seconds later, shots exploded.
“Bloody hell!” Hagen yelled. He had his gun barrel out the window, sweeping the trees. Then he looked back at the soldiers and saw them sitting at ease, their rifles pointing toward the sky. Bryant guffawed.
“I forgot to tell you,” he said. “I told them to fire off warning shots, to scare off anybody who might think we were an easy mark.”
In the town of Dembia, Bryant stopped to talk to the gendarme, Christoff Touk Kekke. Kekke told Bryant that if he had fuel and ammunition, he would go after a braconnier named Aboulde who had settled in the area. Aboulde had been guiding other poachers, and he was running raids on nearby villages.
“Our fuel’s been stolen,” Bryant told him. “But if it hadn’t been, we could have a go at him. It might do me good to get some of the frustration out of my system.”
Bryant fished a Kalashnikov clip out of his chest webbing and handed it to Kekke-a small gesture that would turn out to be the most consequential action of the entire trip.
We drove all day, sometimes averaging only 10 to 15 miles an hour on the rough roads. By early afternoon, the sky went gauzy, as if it had soaked up the sweat of the trees. In the haze ahead, the road unrolled into distant herds of hills.
Toward evening, the light softened, and the villages along the road began to look more like ephemeral encampments. As the darkness advanced, the villagers moved close to their fires, huddling around the light, warding off the eternity in the shadows of the trees.
We crested a hill, and Bryant suddenly stomped on the brake and threw the steering wheel sideways. Hagen was in the front seat, and as we skidded to a stop, the barrel of his rifle knocked against the dashboard.
“What the bloody hell is going on?” Hagen said, recovering his gun.
Bryant nodded ahead, and we got out and walked to the front of the truck. Illuminated by the headlights, hundreds of tiny blue and yellow butterflies had alighted atop the red-dirt road, fluttering wings no bigger than fingernails. I don’t know how he ever saw them.
Finally, we pulled into Rafaï and visited with some of the officials and local volunteers who Hayse had fist made contact with. Each had a new report of a robbery, a murder, a rape, a kidnapping.
“If the braconniers think I’m not prepared to use violence,” Bryant told a representative from the local environmental and self-defense organization, “I guess I’m going to have to do so to make a point.”
“We are waiting patiently for you to begin,” the man said. “We are ready to help. We will clear the roads for you; we have men ready to fight alongside you.”
Unbeknownst to us, as we were holding our meetings in Rafaï the gendarme Kekke was leaving Dembia for Derbissaka, armed with the ammunition clip Bryant had given him. At dawn, he and his men surprised Aboulde and his two sons at their camp outside the village. Before the poachers could get to their guns, Kekke captured them.
Next, Kekke apparently marched his prisoners into the nearest village, where an angry crowd formed, demanding immediate justice.
“He just blow Aboulde away, literally,” Bryant later reported. “It was essentially a public execution. I don’t have a moral problem with it, but we could have the bleeding hearts brigade saying there was no due process, despite the fact that hundreds of people had witnessed the murders and thefts he was doing. But I don’t believe it was necessary to terminate him on the spot.”
We hadn’t yet heard of the incident as we sat down outside a missionary house in Rafaï to watch the sun set. Bryant called the base in Bangui on a satellite phone, and Wieland told him that Commando was sick. She couldn’t find a single veterinarian in the country.
“Maybe one of the MSF [the French acronym for Doctors Without Borders] doctors could look at him, “Bryant told her, “owing to the chimp’s similarities to a human.”
Wieland also reported that talk of ARRC’s diamond-dealing had made its way to President Patassé, who couldn’t recall having given ARRC permission for such an operation. Apparently, Patassé wasn’t happy. Meanwhile, though, rumors of an impending coup attempt were growing.
“I don’t know who’s going to the thrown out of the country first, us or him,” Bryant said.
As we sat drinking warm beer in the fading light, a breeze came up, carrying a spicy-sweet smell. It was the smell of resilience, of optimism-the smell of the color green-and it overwhelmed thoughts of humanity’s failures. For a moment, anyway, nature was winning.
When we arrived back in Bangui, Commando was gone. Wieland had found him a home at the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage in Zambia. The missing fuel, meanwhile, had turned up in the supply yard of the MSF compound in Mboki.
Two weeks later, Bryant and Karl Amman would carry out a predawn raid on the Congolese poachers near Dembia. On the CAR side of the M’Bomou River, Bryant’s force captured two men immediately. Another five managed to escape across the river-right into the arms of Amman’s men. By sunrise, Bryant and Amman had caught seven of the eight ringleaders, and had confiscated elephant meat, ivory, several assault rifles, and ammunition. There were no casualties on either side.
I left the CAR the day after our return to Bangui. At the airport, I noticed blood dripping from some other passengers’ boxes. The rainy season was just beginning, and the braconniers would soon begin heading home, with their spoils, along the old slave trails. Come November the rains will cease and the poachers-and ARRC-will return.
It takes a long time to get from Bangui to a former convent perched high above a gorge in southern France. It’s early spring, and patches of snow still occupy the shady spots; a tough wind blows against the gray-brown vegetation on the mountainsides.
Claudine Laboureur welcomes my wife and me into her sitting room, where yellow firelight warms the thick stone walls. The room is furnished with pelts and African carvings, including a wooden statue of a hippo holding a top hat, the signature souvenir form the Central African Republic.
“He says it’s over for us there, that we won’t go back,” Madame Laboureur says. “But he dreams of Africa every night.”
I have heard that Jean Laboureur can be gruff and bitter. But for a man who has experienced the worst of the 20th century-the Holocaust, the cannibal dictators, the slaughter of Africa’s wildlife-he’s relatively buoyant when he enters the room. He is balding, and his shoulders are stooped by the weight of his 74 years, but his eyes have a roguish glint.
Laboureur takes me through his life in Africa. He turns the pages of photo albums with large, calloused hands, and I watch his eyes flicker as he registers each memory: the compound at Koumbala, the heads of state in safari gear, the Land Cruisers and bush planes atop the red-earth landing strip.
“Here is a family photo,” he says, pointing to a shot of Matthieu torching a poachers’ camp. On the next page, a dead elephant lies on its back in the mid, its body bloated and stripped of its tusks.
“It was only for greed,” he sighs. “We tried to stop it. But we lost, always.”
When I tell him about the ARRC project, Laboureur perks up. He has spent a long time on the sidelines, thinking through the logistics of such an operation, and his ideas come in extended bursts: They could put GPS-equipped spotters in ultralight airplanes; they could radio the poachers’ positions to game guards on motorcycles. Perhaps Matthieu could get involved, and maybe Giscard d’Estaing (now working for the European Community) could find some funding.
“In the right hands,” Laboureur says, “you could have some real results. But the world is distracted, and time is getting away from us. In five or six years, this region will be completely empty of animals. That is a loss that humanity will never be able to recover.”
Just before dinner, Laboureur switches on the news. The broadcast is filled with scenes of suicide bombings in the Middle East, attacks on refugee camps, rockets, rubble, grief. He mutes the television and turns toward me, as the staggering images carry on in silence, just over his shoulder.
“Listen,” he says. “In the past century, all the best minds have been focused on finding more efficient ways to kill. But there are some people who still believe in the possibility of doing something positive for the Earth.
“Perhaps their efforts will end badly, as mine have. But if they should somehow manage to succeed…that would be a beautiful thing.”