In the rainforests of central Africa, people and wildlife have co-existed for millennia. The Ba’aka (or Bayaka) are a tribe of semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers who live in the southwestern Central African Republic and northern Republic of the Congo, where the Elephant Listening Project (ELP) works¹. The tribe has an intimate knowledge of their forest home and of the wildlife that lives there, like the African forest elephant.
Our own Elephant Listening Project (ELP) has relied on the wisdom of the Ba’aka since the beginning. Andrea Turkalo, one of the founding members of ELP, worked for 27 years alongside Ba’aka tracker Sessely Bernard. Together they observed the daily lives of generations of elephants visiting Dzanga Bai, a forest clearing and popular gathering place for wildlife. Today, Sessely’s sons, Bonga and Mobeawe, are an essential part of the team working in Dzanga Bai².
Our researchers need to trek to remote locations to observe the elusive forest elephants. The Central Africa rainforest’s notoriously dense and thick overstory makes it difficult to navigate, even with a GPS device. However, Bonga, Mobeawe, and the other Ba’aka trackers are able to confidently guide our team through the forest, identifying plants and animals by sight and alerting to the presence of elephants nearby. They can easily climb tall trees to set up the acoustic recorders ELP uses to monitor the elephants. Now, the team of researchers at the bai is training the Ba’aka to count the animals at the bai and download data from the acoustic recorders².
The Ba’aka tribe is thought to be one of the oldest human societies³. Ba’aka live in tight-knit family groups of around 20–35 people. Their society is egalitarian and although leaders and elders are well-respected, there is not a strict sense of hierarchy⁴. Fathers in the Ba’aka tribe are well known for being exceptionally close to their children, and they share the responsibility of caring for children equally with their wives. One researcher found that Ba’aka fathers are near their children 47% of the time — more than any other group in the world⁵.
Traditionally, the Ba’aka migrate through the forest, sleeping in small, temporary dwellings made of bent branches and leaves. Women and children forage for food and help set up hunting nets in the trees to catch small mammals like duiker antelopes. The men of the tribe herd the animals into the nets and kill them with spears. Sometimes they climb trees in search of honey². When not looking for food, the Ba’aka often spend their time performing complex songs and dances which are part of rituals celebrating important events like hunting or moving to a new camp. In 2008, the unique polyphonic singing style of the Ba’aka was declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO⁶.
Today, the Ba’aka way of life is threatened. Unfortunately, indigenous peoples living in the wild places of the world are often the first to be affected by environmental degradation and the exploitation of natural resources⁷. The Ba’aka, for example, rely on a healthy ecosystem for food, clothes, shelter, and medicine. Deforestation has destroyed Ba’aka hunting grounds and interrupted their traditional nomadic lifestyle¹. Their food supply reduced, the Ba’aka have had to live in a village of thatched mud houses near the forest, where they have small gardens for food². In the village, they are vulnerable to malnutrition, poverty, and disease¹.
Historically, the Ba’aka have also faced discrimination and oppression. The Bantu, the majority ethnic group, are farmers who live outside the forest. Although the Bantu have traditionally been traders with the Ba’aka, tensions have developed between the two groups. The Bantu consider the Ba’aka to be inferior ‘outsiders’ and often exploit them for manual labor or treat them like servants. The Ba’aka have become dependent on the Bantu because they earn a meager income from selling what they have foraged from the forest¹. The Ba’aka continue to suffer from political instability and conflict in the Central African Republic, which fuels violence against humans and wildlife⁸. For instance, poachers have blackmailed members of the tribe into acting as guides in the forest because the Ba’aka are familiar with the favorite gathering spots for wildlife².
Although the Ba’aka are especially vulnerable to environmental change, their unique relationship with their ancestral lands has also prepared them with the expertise needed to conserve natural areas and save endangered species from extinction. Conservationists are beginning to understand the invaluable contributions that indigenous groups like the Ba’aka can make in the fight to protect threatened ecosystems around the world⁷. The Wildlife Society of Congo (WCS-Congo) has sponsored the education and training of several Ba’aka who now work as research assistants, gathering data for the WCS’s gorilla and elephant projects⁹. Several Ba’aka are also part of the eco-guards who protect wildlife from poachers².
Understanding the mutually dependent relationship between the Ba’aka and the forest is incredibly important to fulfilling ELP’s mission of elephant conservation. African forest elephants are threatened by habitat loss and poaching, which are both connected to the overall instability and civil war in the country. Ending deforestation and supporting the biodiversity of the Congo Basin will not only allow the Ba’aka to continue their traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle but will also provide a haven for rare species like elephants. By collaborating with and learning from the Ba’aka, we can work towards a better future for both humans and wildlife.
¹“Indigenous Peoples of Central Africa — Cultural Heritage in Dzanga-Sangha.” Dzanga-Sangha, May 29, 2020. https://dzanga-sangha.org/facts-infos/cultural-heritage/.
²Eclipse, Isabella, and Anahita Verahrami. The Ba’aka of Dzanga Bai. Personal, April 27, 2020.
³Hewlett, Barry S., ed. Hunter-Gatherers of the Congo Basin: Cultures, Histories and Biology of African Pygmies. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2014.
⁴Boyette, Adam Howell. “Aka Fieldsite in the Congo Basin.” Arts and Humanities Research Council: Culture and the Mind. University of Sheffield. Accessed June 3, 2020. https://philosophy.dept.shef.ac.uk/culture&mind/people/boyettea/.
⁵Hewlett, Barry S. Intimate Fathers: The Nature and Context of Aka Pygmy Paternal Infant Care. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1994.
⁶“Polyphonic Singing of the Aka Pygmies of Central Africa.” UNESCO: Intangible Cultural Heritage. Accessed June 3, 2020. https://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/polyphonic-singing-of-the-aka-pygmies-of-central-africa-00082.
⁷Rundle, Hannah. “Indigenous Knowledge Can Help Solve the Biodiversity Crisis.” Scientific American Blog Network. Scientific American, October 12, 2019. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/indigenous-knowledge-can-help-solve-the-biodiversity-crisis/.
⁸“Central African Republic: Aka (Ba’Aka).” Minority Rights Group. Accessed June 3, 2020. https://minorityrights.org/minorities/aka/.
⁹“Donatien, the Indigenous Person Who Wants to Become a Research Assistant.” WCS Congo Blog. Accessed June 3, 2020. https://wcscongoblog.org/donatien-the-indigenous-person-who-wants-to-become-a-research-assistant/.