The Other French Connection
Transcript of a message recorded after witnessing the slaughter of a gorilla group
It is Tuesday today, and I am not sure what the date is, but it is the day after the massacre of the 5 gorillas which, when I get home, I plan to write up under the heading of: 'The other French Connection.'
(see related story/photos in the NY Times Magazine)
|Photo by Karl Ammann, Sept 1998, in the Pallisco logging concession, Eastern province, Cameroon. (appeared in 5-9-99 NY Times Magazine).|
Yesterday morning, after discussions with Joseph and villagers, who we met at the Bordeaux junction, we decided it wouldn't be very difficult to get on foot from Bordeaux to the new logging concession road having recently been constructed by Sabe/Pallisco. They reckoned it would take us not more than 4-5 hours about the same time as for the car to drive around via Mbong Bang. So after a morning spent trying to find Dieudonne, a well-known gorilla hunter who wasn't in, we came back to Bordeaux and sent the driver on his way, keeping a minimal amount of baggage to walk with. We then walked from Bordeaux to Joseph's old camp which now had an overgrown path and was no longer to reachable by car.
On the way there Joseph told me that the girl, who had joined us from the main road, who was also the daughter of the village chief, had mentioned that her brother had shot a gorilla the day before and it was at present being smoked in the camp. This was information, it seems, was unknown by the chief himself, who was already quite drunk at the road junction nor any of the hunters hanging around. When we got to the camp, we met Desire, the hunter who shot and confirmed to us that he had shot a silverback the day before. He said it had been very near the camp, about 2 km., so they had carried the whole carcass back, which had taken 4 people and yes, the skull was still around. He fetched it from a nearby roof where it was put to dry. We looked at it but it had already been scraped off and it looked just like a skull with a few remaining bits and pieces of meat on it, but nothing like a fresh head of a gorilla.
We then interviewed him as far as how, where and why he had shot the silverback, his philosophy on gorilla hunting, etc. After that I went down to the river to have a wash. On the way back I met a hunter going out with a torch and a gun and I asked him what he expected to get and he said up to 10 duikers.
I went back to camp where I went to bed, relatively early, in a little hut they had allocated to Joseph and me. It started raining in the middle of the night and the hut started leaking. It was an old hut but it wasn't much of a problem. When we got up in the morning it was still pouring down, pretty unpleasant. We settled down with some of the villagers in the only covered outside area, where they had a fire going.
We decided to wait out the rain, which the chief and everyone else agreed that it would probably take until 11:00 am. It was only six so we had lots of time to talk. The chief explained to us how upset he was with the amount of commercial hunting going on in his area and that he had prepared a letter to some high official in the Lomie area to which he reported that things were out of control. He showed us the letter, which stated that if hunting continued at this rate that he didn't expect there to be much wildlife left in 2 years time. With that his wife came and served his meal, which consisted of cooking bananas and quite a bit of gorilla meat. He shared it with our 2 porters who we had hired at the Bordeaux junction, one a pygmy and one a Bantu. It consisted of the intestines of the gorilla, which had been shot by his son only the day before.
When I asked Joseph if the night hunter had returned with anything, he in turn informed me that he had indeed returned to tell Desiree that he heard gorillas nesting down. It must have been just at dusk and he had come back to call Desiree to go out with him. They got some sleep and then left at 4:00am. So, Joseph at that stage knew that something might be up. Fortunately by about 9:30 or 10 the rain started to subside. We gave our presents to the villagers, which consisted mostly of tee shirts and shoes, and started walking down the road towards this new logging concession area of SABE, administered and exploited by Pallisco, a French logging outfit. About 20 minutes out of camp Joseph said he had heard two shots which I did not hear. He thought some hunter might be after gorillas, since very few other mammals would require the use of two cartridges. We had gone about 2-3 miles when we came to a village where Joseph wanted to say hello to some acquaintances. While we were standing there, Desiree came walking down the track, gun over his shoulder a guenon hanging on the barrel. This was his double barrel shotgun, which he had already told us he had rented from a watchman at the Pallisco concession. He is paying him 15000 CFA rent per month. He had also shown us the chevrotine cartridges (not produced by MACC but of French production) which he generally used to hunt gorillas. That, I suppose is where the French connection starts, plus the fact that we were still in the SEBC concession which is co-owned by the Miterrand family.
Seeing him walk down the road with the one monkey, I was kind of relieved. When he reached the village square I kind of joked and said: "A very big hunter with a very small carcass!" With that he walked into a hut and I was left standing outside with the guy he had spoken to in the road who told me that indeed he had hunted gorillas and he would tell me about it after he had had a drink. When he came out he said he had killed 3 females. He didn't want to go into much detail, he wanted to head back to the main camp to get help to carry the meat. He was soaking wet. I suggested that he might want to show us the females he had killed but he felt he was too tired and too wet. I felt this wasn't an opportunity to miss, as far as understanding exactly what had happened and what the scene looked like on the ground. I offered him a clean and dry shirt, which was obviously going to be a present at the same time and asked if he would now agree to come back with us to show us the killing area.
(The evening before he had offered to accompany us to the new Pallisco road to sell half of the silverback carcass to the lorry drivers. This obviously changed when the night hunter had come back with his tale. This is where the French Connection continues: Pallisco is also a French company.)
The shirt did the trick and he agreed to turn around and show us the dead gorillas. So with that we followed him down the road and I tried to interview him, walking parallel to him. I asked how he had killed the 3 females and why not the male who surely must have charged. He explained that the other hunter, the guy who went out night hunting, had shot at the male when he charged, but he seemed to have missed and then the male fled. The females were now all awake, running from their night nests. They had hit them at first light at 6 am in the morning. The first hunter had obviously been right about having found the nesting site the evening before and they were pretty sure they would find them very early in the morning. Now Plaisir, the dog took over - he loves to hunt gorillas according to Desiree.
The females were chased up the nearby trees. Desiree could now concentrate on reloading and shooting three females out of the trees. He confirmed that he had seen at least one female carrying a baby. However when shooting into the trees there was no way he could tell what he would hit. He confirmed that he had indeed killed one baby and he agreed that would make it four dead gorillas.
With that we kind of stopped conversation and tracked on. It was about an hour later that we left the old logging road and went to the right into the forest, tracked another half hour and then he said now down to the left of the track. We followed and we got to the point where he said this is it. We didn't see anything yet. He now pointed out that he was loosing a lot of time and that somebody would have to go to the village and tell them to send people to help get the meat. I agreed that one of our porters could go back, leave our bags and go and call the villagers to come and help carry the meat out.
I now asked for him to tell me the story right from the beginning, before going to see the carcasses. A cartridge was lying in front of us and he told us exactly where the male had appeared to our left, from where his colleague had shot at him, probably wounding him before he fled. And then we walked ten steps and saw the first female, she was sitting there. I asked if she had fallen that way to which he responded that he had propped her up. Then we saw the baby, which was laying three feet away. I asked him what happened, why it had such severe injuries to the chest. He said that wasn't from shotgun pellets but that he had cut it open and given the intestines to the dog to eat. The eye was half popped out.
I asked the tracker to put the gorilla baby near the mother and tell me the story of how he shot her out of the tree. He explained how he had no way of knowing that she was the one carrying the baby, that she was just sitting up in the leaves above him and how he blasted away until she fell down.
We then walked another 10 meters and there were another 2 females and another baby which he hadn't told us about. When I asked him, he agreed that he had forgotten about it and that indeed he had killed 5 gorillas. The grouping of three very much looked like it was a female with a large female offspring. A daughter becoming independent and then the small about one year old baby? One could easily see most of the entry wounds of the chevrotine in the chest of the mother and some entries in the baby as well.
I felt at this stage pretty upset, but I had to somehow switch to the documenting mode. I decided I wanted to get this over with, document what was on the ground, get as much as possible and get the hell out of here. I was concerned that once the villagers arrived somebody would start wondering what I took all the pictures and video footage for and it might then sink in with Desiree that it was not in his interest to have me hanging around. These are the scenarios where things can turn nasty very fast.
So, I asked Desiree and the porter to put all the gorillas together so I could take some pictures. (He wanted to start butchering then first female in the location we had found her). I had to convince him that I wanted to get some images first to which he eventually agreed to. We put the carcasses together and I started shooting. It's already kind of a blur what happened at this stage. I do not remember what I actually filmed, photographed, when I used an external microphone and when not and if I had switched it on or not… (I will have to try to look at some footage this evening). Desiree then started dragging one female to the side and asked the remaining tracker to help cut her up. They cut open the rib cage and got the intestines out which I remember shooting extensively because that was the virus transmission shot I had kind of hoped to get at some stage, though not in this kind of setting or scenario.
They then cut the legs and head off, at which stage I went back to the other group and shot some more images. It was pretty dark in the forest so I wasn't sure if I could shot without flash. So I used various films and exposures. We then decided to say goodbye. At this stage Desiree expressed his desire to stop gorilla hunting, since it was not what he wants to do in life. If Joseph would take him into his project, he would give this up. I pointed out again that Joseph had told us the same story a few years ago and now he was hunting instead of Joseph. Joseph was actually pretty upset because this was the gorilla group he said he had tried to get on 3 different occasions and never managed to do so. I think his pride was also kind of hurt that another guy got in there and did it under his nose.
I pointed out that even if we found another way of life for him that within a few weeks, there probably would be another hunter in exactly this positions in the same forest 'taking care of the remaining four gorillas in the group. (It had consisted of 9 animals and the silverback was most likely bleeding to death somewhere at the very moment. One of the butchered females had lost a hand in a snare and seemed to have lived with this handicap for some time.)
So we tracked on and left him there and I gave him some money for his efforts. I felt that was the least he expected. I knew his father from before. He had gotten very nasty about money in the past: as far as offering service, guidance, a room in the village and being willing to talk, etc. So we headed out and soon met the night hunter who obviously hadn't had enough with the 5 gorillas and was still out hunting. He didn't carry any other meat and we didn't go into how the rest of the morning went. Our trackers talked to him and a new companion, and although I didn't understand all the words, it was clear they were talking about 5 gorillas and it was considered a major achievement and it seems a big hero story will be the result (although most credit should go to Plaisir the dog who made it all possible - actually at some stage I asked Desiree if I could buy Plaisir, but he refused). The story telling scenario repeated itself two more times when we met hunters on route on this small forest track, so it was quite obvious the area was extensively hunted.
The explanation of the continued existence of gorillas in this area became clear in a discussion with the chief the previous day. He pointed out that the forest in his area wasn't very valuable that it didn't have very many of the valuable trees that the loggers were looking for. As such they had been surrounded on 4 sides by logging concessions without ever having the core, where his village is located, having been logged. His assumption was the gorillas were fleeing into this pocket from the surrounding areas where logging was now going on in each direction. As a matter of fact we could now already hear some bulldozers in the distance. It was reasonable to assume that this activity most likely had chased gorilla groups from surrounding areas into this pocket. The hunters had somehow figured this out and were now very active supplying the demand for gorilla and bushmeat in general.
It took us another half an hour to reach the new concession road. It was wet and soggy. Just before we got there we met on of the prospectors of this Pallisco company. He had a bunch of snares in his had and a blue duiker over his shoulder. He told us that; yes, they were working and yes that lorries had gone down the road and if we waited by the major park, where a lot of trees were lying around, we would be able to get a lift to where the Pallisco company had headquarters and which was 60km away. This is where we told our driver to wait for us. We sat by the road for about 2 hours, everyone leaving us. We had paid off the 2 trackers. The other one had returned by this time as well to get his pay.
We had also discussed prices with Desiree. He had told us at that stage that he would expect 30,000 CFA (U$ 50) for the 3 females and that the babies would fetch nothing. He would probably let the kids have them and they could cut them up and cook them and turn it into a playing household game.
Joseph in the meantime went up the road and came back saying there was no sign of any activity. We now decided the Pallisco workers had tricked us and that we had no choice but to head out on foot. I also did not want our whereabouts to be known at this stage since I was still worried about Desiree's father and some other villagers suddenly deciding they had not gotten enough out of showing us what we had seen.
We tracked for 2 hours and then called on the satellite phone Yaounde, to see if a message could be passed to our driver concerning our whereabouts. Our contact did not sound too hopeful and we decided to set up camp while there still was some light. We went down a track as not to be seen from the main road and hang up our mosquito nets. It was a pretty wet and miserable night. We went to sleep right away since we had no lights with us except for a smell torch and were back on the road at 6 am.
At 6:30 we met the first logging lorry. I bribed the driver with 10 000 CFA to take is to a kind of a field headquarters with a radio some 20 kms down the road.
That is where we are now. They called the main office and it seems the bosses are concerned as who we might be and have not yet decided if our driver is allowed to come and get us. I am sitting in a hunting camp, which is next to the Pallisco containers, which serve as field station. There are lots of snares bundled outside and the hunters are about to go out and lay them.
I hope the French guy at head office will allow our car to pick us up, otherwise it will be another 30 km walk to the Lomie road and I am not quiet sure if I am up to it. A shower would be nice a this stage….
A final thought on yesterday's events:
How can the so called conservation community go to bed at night, knowing this is going on and is a day to day scenario. What hope is there for the wildlife pretty much anywhere if we can do no more for our closest animal relatives? This to me is a question of all our humanity being at stake, not just that of the hunter in the forest or that of the conservation community.
I hope my cameras worked and the images will be as hard as i remember them - even without the smells of a female gorilla being disembowled!!!!
Karl Ammann, Nanyuki Kenya
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