CURWOOD: Just south of Sudan in Central Africa is a paradise of dense jungle and grassy plateaus called the Chinko River Basin. The region was once habitat to large numbers of elephants, lions, and hippos. But poachers have been operating in the area for decades, killing the animals for ivory and meat. Today, the once-great herds are nearly gone. Still, some conservation groups call the Chinko River one of Africa's last great hopes for wildlife protection. A group from the U.S. recently conducted perhaps the first detailed biological assessment of the area. Recording engineer Brian Whitlock went along with the expedition. His audio journal is narrated by Brent Runyon.
(Plane engine, ambient voices)
RUNYON: The enormity of what we're about to do is sinking in. We're flying about as far as you can get from civilization. From the air, I've only seen two villages in two and a half hours. Below me is true wilderness. Rolling savannah, dappled with acacia groves. Lush forests along the creeks and rivers. But this is a lawless landscape, where poachers are free to set massive grass fires that drive big game into their sights. The Central African Republic doesn't patrol this frontier because it can't afford to. A spate of coups has scared away foreign investment and commerce. Even the capital is crumbling, filled with dilapidated chateaus that look like ghosts of the French Colonial occupation. The dirt streets erode a little more with every rain, as if the city itself is melting. Our mission is to attract international conservation projects to the Chinko River. It's the only way to protect it. We need to show that despite the decades of poaching, there still are animals here whose populations can recover. We're on a hunt for the Chinko River's last survivors.
(Footfalls and machetes through tall grasses; buzzing bees)
RUNYON: The audacity of what we're doing becomes clear as we approach water's edge. We're going to run 300 miles of uncharted river. Three weeks without any outside contact or support. Just to get to the river, we have to machete a path through razor-sharp grass ten feet high. The temperature is in the 90s. It's unforgivingly humid, and the air is alive with bees. Swarms of them everywhere. When we first encountered the bees, we scrambled for long-sleeved shirts and head nets. Actually, that got us stung. By moving calmly and quietly, we're learning it's possible to work while covered with bees.
(Bird calls; movement through water)
RUNYON: It's better when we're out paddling on the water. The river is fast-flowing and muddy, but gentle for now. Altogether, there are 12 of us traveling in three inflatable rafts and three kayaks. A local guide begins to explain the poaching situation.
KOLAGA: (in French)
TRANSLATOR: Surely, at least 50,000 elephants have been killed since this started over the years. This was the river of elephants, and he doesn't think that he's exaggerating.
RUNYON: Toma Kolaga was once the premier game tracker along the Chinko. He looks the part: quick and lean. But the hunting safaris, which killed only a few trophy animals each year, are now gone, driven out by relentless poachers.
KOLAGA: (in French)
TRANSLATOR: He would like to see poachers killed if it would stop them from coming here. These people come and they take life away, and what are we going to do for our children? How are we going to explain to them that life once existed here and now it doesn't exist any more, because people took it away? This is nature. You can't kill nature. You have to protect it.
RUNYON: One of the members of our expedition is Randy Hayes of the U.S.-based Rainforest Action Network. He tells me that in many parts of Africa the ecosystem itself is under assault. But that's not the case here, which makes him hopeful the region can rebound.
R. HAYES: You don't have logging. You don't have roads. You don't have mining projects. Right now it's a wildlife issue.
RUNYON: And it's not like the Chinko lacks any animals. The river banks are buzzing with monkeys and birds. It isn't long before we spot hippos, too.
R. HAYES: You've got all your major mammal species here. You've got rhinos. You've got a lot of the antelopes. You've got the hippos. You've got the crocodiles. All of that can come back into the sort of plenitude that it once was, if we can stop the poaching.
(Animal calls up and under; fade to walking through grass)
B. HAYSE: Hey, Thomas? What's that noise? That bird?
RUNYON: Thomas is uncomfortable in our rafts, but he melts into the jungle with natural ease. To him, every track or sound or broken branch reads like a story. Our expedition leader, a conservationist and adventurer from Wyoming named Bruce Hayse, is especially impressed.
B. HAYSE: We are fortunate to have Thomas along, who is able to tell us with tracks and sounds and scat and trampled vegetation, lots of different signs he does see as to the relative abundance of the animals, that's made this a worthwhile trip. Without him, we'd be pretty stuck, since we've had only minimal sightings ourselves.
RUNYON: This is our morning routine. Walking side creeks and tributaries in the thick understory. The places where animals tend to congregate. Today, we're at a natural salt lake on the Cavaga River. The ground is covered with tracks. Thomas whispers the names of the animals that made them.
(Thomas whispers. Someone says, "Leopard.")
RUNYON: Thomas is ecstatic to see so many signs of wildlife. He thought the Cavaga's animals were poached out long ago.
RUNYON: Walking through a swampy tangle of kapok trees and hanging vines, we come to another clearing. Thomas begins making a noise that he hopes will attract a small antelope, called a duiker.
RUNYON: After several minutes, a duiker scurries through the vines. It stops to peer at us, and in a twitch it's gone. Our expedition is turning out a bit differently than I'd imagined. We're not seeing the big animals directly. This isn't a game park where you drive up in a Land Rover to a pride of lions and snap a roll of film. Here the signs of the wild are subtle.
RUNYON: In the afternoons as we float along, Thomas entertains us with animal calls.
MAN: Another hippo.
(Thomas makes a hippo call; fade to rain)
RUNYON: It's the end of the second week and it's been pouring rain almost every night. Everyone is starting to break down. The tsetse flies and mosquitoes have ripped us to pieces. Half of us are on antibiotics. One person had a bad reaction to malaria medicine and is suffering a complete psychotic breakdown. I haven't been dry in six days, and there is a staph infection on my ankle. We've all taken on the permanent color of mud, and we're losing weight at an alarming rate.
RUNYON: So far, the Chinko River itself has been tame. We've come during the rainy months to avoid getting killed by poachers, who do their dirty work during the dry season. The rains have swollen the river, covering up most of the rapids. But now, we're facing a boiling 30-foot drop.
(Several voices at once)
RUNYON: Nobody agrees how to get past the rapids until leader Bruce Hayse makes the decision.
B. HAYSE: Basically there's three islands here. The easiest run is probably to the far left, just to sneak right down there...
RUNYON: Bruce looks like the kind of guy you trust in situations like this. A quiet country doctor with the rough edges of a mountain man. But the only thing he cherishes more than wilderness is dangerous wilderness. He says it fosters reverence for nature and keeps people humble. The rapids are too risky for everyone to run, so the expert boatmen will go it alone with our food and gear. The rest of us gather on a cliff to watch.
MAN: Oh, it's brutal.
RUNYON: The last boat takes a beating and flips, but nobody's hurt.
(Yelling, laughter; fade to sounds of dragging)
RUNYON: It's our final day, and as we unload our rafts at the village of Rafai we discover there's a human side to the poaching story. Rafai is a small collection of grass huts with a few mud brick buildings. The people are very friendly. As evening falls, they bring us Ngouli, a liquor made from the casava plant. It tastes like vodka with dirty laundry in it. But Randy Hayes seems to like it.
(Several voices at once)
RUNYON: There used to be many more villages on the Chinko. It was once a happy place. But settlements have largely disappeared because many people are afraid to live here now. With the frontier unprotected, roving bands of poachers have easily taken control. They've not only slaughtered the wildlife, but enslaved the local people. We learn about this inside the home of a Rafai [phonetic spelling] villager named Jacelin Goni.
GONI: [in French]
TRANSLATOR: The poachers come and take our people away and force them to be porters carrying the poachers' supplies on their heads. They take the women to bed and use them. It's not good.
RUNYON: The campaign to end the poaching here will be more than a struggle to protect exotic animals. It will be about protecting people, too.
(Local music and conversation)
RUNYON: It's night and the village is filled with music and dancing. The Ngouli liquor is flowing like a river, and a community meal is being prepared over open fires. The melody is coming from a 12-foot instrument that looks like a xylophone. It's carved from split papaya logs. The Central African Republic faces a daunting challenge in putting an end to poaching. But the people in Rafai seem to appreciate our efforts in documenting their situation. We're spending our final night along the Chinko River with them in celebration.
(Music and singing continue)
CURWOOD: A Chinko River Journal was written and recorded by Brian Whitlock and narrated by Brent Runyon. Thanks to the African Rainforest and River Conservation Group and the National Geographic Society.
(Music and singing continue)
TOOMEY: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week: Grapes grow well on California hillsides. Why not another Mediterranean mainstay, olives? Sore, but monosaturated proponents of the tiny fruit are singing its praises.
WOMAN: (sings to the tune of Shenandoah) For one small bottle of olive oil on the hills of El Retiro I broke my back before lunch break. Away, let me get away to my chiropractor. (Laughs with others, who applaud)
TOOMEY: An ode to the olive next week on Living on Earth.
(Music up and under)
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