I arrived in the far east of the Central African Republic for what may be my last trip to follow in the footsteps of William Stamps Cherry. The war has settled down here, but there are large parts of the country, in particular about the entire eastern half, that are still in the hands of the Seleka. They are calling Ndele, their former capital, by the name that Cherry would have known it: Dar al Kouti. For these Seleka, the colonial era was just that, a short period in history when their raiding over large parts of central Africa were curtailed. In Cherry’s time it was primarily for slaves and ivory. Today, because slaves are hard to sell and elephants have become so rare in this country, Muslims coming from the north poach wildlife and graze cattle.
Vast No Man’s Land
David Simpson, the Director the African Parks Chinko Project, greeted me at the airport. This project is the last outpost of anything connected with the Government of the Central African Republic. Beyond this point to the east you enter a vast no man’s land spanning millions of acres between the Central African Republic and South Sudan. It is an area that was never really colonized by the French or the British and has been used as a vast raiding zone by Muslims from the north. It is an area where no modern state has ever ruled, a place where humans come and go as they please and take as they wish. This is where the last remnants of the Lord’s Resistance Army roam.
The objective of my mission here, like Cherry, is to walk as far as I can get into the hinterland toward the Sudanese border. I will be traveling with three Central Africans, one of who speaks Sudanese Arabic. It could take us some weeks to get to the Sudanese border. We will have no protection and will survive on what we will carry on our backs. I will spend two days in camp preparing for the trip.
Not too long after I arrived, I was invited to go on a reconnaissance flight in an ultralight. The Chinco Project flies about 5 hours a day looking for cattle and herders, information they use to control grazing in the core conservation area the Project has established to save the last remnants of the wildlife in this area. That morning a body had been spotted from the air in the river about 50 km to the southeast. There was chatter that a member of Lord’s Resistance had drowned. We would fly in the opposite direction, to the north. I readily accepted.
The temperature was pretty hot and the ultralight seemed to get off the strip with not too much of a struggle, and immediately we were above the canopy. What strikes you right away is this vast savanna that goes for tens of miles in all directions; and far beyond where you can’t see, that is just untamed land. There are no villages, no roads, no cultivation; just roving bands of nomads and the occasional wild animal.
We flew to the northern boundary of the protection zone and saw smoke, a sure indicator of herders burning savanna to induce the growth of fresh grass for their cattle. Cedric, the pilot, spotted a large herd of white, long-horned cattle and then saw the camp of nomad tents. We flew low over the herds, estimated their number, then dropped leaflets to let them know they were on the border of the conservation area. These people are from areas in north Sudan and they make annual transhumance into the Central African Republic. Over the decades, their numbers have increased dramatically, while wildlife populations, including elephants, have plummeted to what can be described as remnant populations, in most cases.
After observing several more groups of cattle on the periphery of the greater protected area, we headed to a wetland that used to be frequented by large numbers of wildlife. From a long way away, I saw a tan animal, and said to Cedric, “antelope”. That was exciting, but as we got closer the animal kind of didn’t look like an antelope. Then I thought hyena; but then we could see not one but two lions. Cedric was beside himself; he has been flying two seasons in Chinko and these were the first lions he has seen. There have been increasing numbers of lion vocalisations heard and tracks seen, but our sighting from the air is a milestone. It would seem that wildlife is responding to the protection in Chinko. Time will tell.
Tomorrow we head out toward the Sudanese border. I will send only tweets and a few small pictures from my satellite phone as I can get them out. Perhaps longer descriptions, if possible. Cherry would be happy to see us making this trip and especially happy that people are making an effort to keep this wildlife paradise alive.
Africa explorer-conservationist J. Michael Fay is in the Central African Republic, completing an expedition he started in 2014, retracing as best he could the footsteps of the 19th Century American Game Hunter-Explorer William Stamps Cherry. Fay, a former National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and recipient of numerous National Geographic Society grants, has also worked for decades for the Wildlife Conservation Society. His transects through some of Africa’s most remote and inaccessible wildernesses (among them the National Geographic-sponsored Megatransect and Meglaflyover) rank among the most significant in the history of exploration of the continent. You can read all his dispatches at Expedition Through the Heart of Africa.