Video: Dzanga Bai

A short movie I made about Dzanga Bai, a place I consider one of the most beautiful in the world (best viewed in full screen!). I highly doubt there is any other place that can offer a comparable elephant-watching experience; on any given day, one can see up to 120 elephants at a time. 

A very recent study concluded that over the last ten years, two-thirds of all forest elephants were killed for their ivory. 

The Wildlife Conservation Society separately found that Minkebe Park, in neighboring Gabon, has lost 11,100 elephants since 2004. Most of these killings were likely to have occurred in the last 5 years. Meanwhile in another bordering country, the DRC, the Okapi Faunal Reserve is reported to have lost over 5000 elephants since 1998.

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the global illegal ivory trade has doubled since 2007In general, most ivory is smuggled to China but Japan is the only country with a preference for the softer ivory of forest elephants.

Here’s an excellent article by the Washington Post about the growing illegal ivory trade.

Check out my last post about Dzanga Bai and consider donating to the Wildlife Conservation Society or the World Wildlife Fund

How to climb a really, really tall tree with a piece of vine

I am currently back in Hong Kong relaxing and spending time with my family, and I will be returning to the C.A.R. on February 7th. Everything is looking relatively good, with the peace agreements signed, a new prime minister appointed and the cabinet dissolved. From now on the only hold-ups I anticipate are silly delays, like when government officials were late to the negotiations in Gabon while the rebels were on time.

In an unrelated matter, Ugandan soldiers together with US Special Forces have killed Kony’s chief bodyguard in the eastern jungles of the CAR (I’m in the west, phew). I think this is good news!

A few months ago, there was a period of time when the radio in our camp was broken. Being our sole form of communication to the outside world, it is rather vital that it remain up and working. After several fruitless attempts to fix it, someone came up with a decidedly novel solution: have the best Ba’Aka tree climbers mount antennae at the tops of very high trees. Didou and a couple other trackers were enlisted due to their elite tree climbing skills and were driven in for this specific purpose.

The Ba’Aka are known for their amazing tree climbing skills, which they need to access the most prized treat of all: wild honey. Check out the mind-blowing segment above from the BBC’s Human Planet, in which a Ba’Aka man climbs to head-dizzying heights and braves a hive of bees in order to impress his wife with some fresh, all-natural honey. (Human Planet is similar to their more famous series Planet Earth but about people and yes, narrated by David Attenborough!) Seriously, watch it. CRAZY. This was actually filmed in Yandoumbe, a village very close to where I am.

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I’m not sure if this picture does justice to the height of this tree, but I guesstimate it to be about 130 feet high. If it helps at all the tiny oval at the base of the tree is a toilet seat; I have no idea why that is there, because we most certainly do not have any toilets.

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This is Didou looking rather smug with himself at the top of the tree. It was pretty terrifying to watch him as I was half-convinced that I was going to witness him plunge to the ground that day. Using no equipment except for a piece of vine with its ends tied together to form a hoop around the tree, Didou shimmied his way up  (watch the BBC video above to see how he did it). I couldn’t tear myself away to grab my camera as he was going up, but scroll down a little to see the video of him coming down.

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Here, Didou is performing some careful maneuvers trying to get a giant pole up the tree. I’m not entirely clear on the thought process behind this entire plan, so don’t ask me why he was doing this.

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A couple of other men climbed up other trees to attach yet more antennae. This guy here uses a different technique than Didou, chopping small footholds into the bark for a surer grip.

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As you can see, there is a very precarious split second during each upwards shimmy.

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The same guy up another tree.

And finally, here’s the video of Didou descending. I couldn’t zoom out to give you a full view of the tree but the length of time it takes for him to get to the ground should give you an idea.

Sopo’s Antics for Makumba’s Attention

Sopo’s Antics for Makumba’s Attention

Sopo went through a phase where he would just follow Makumba around, performing silly acrobatics which in my eyes appear to be an attempt to get Makumba’s attention.  Here’s a sweet moment in which Sopo swings from a branch, earning a mere glance over the shoulder from his apathetic father.

Makumba in Action

Makumba in Action


This is probably the best footage I got in the past few months, featuring Makumba walking on two feet across a stream with a branch in his mouth—complete with a piercing look right into the camera as he passes by about 8 feet away.

Best seen in HD on the Vimeo site itself (click on “Vimeo”). This is raw, unedited footage so if anyone has any tips or suggestions it would be much appreciated!


Louis Sarno: An American Who Has Lived Among Pygmies for 27 years

Last night I had dinner with some WWF staff, some who work in the reserve and others who work here in the capital. We went to a Cameroonian lady’s house where she makes delicious food for you if call in advance. I finally got to meet Louis Sarno, a legendary figure for anyone who visits this country. Twenty-seven years ago, he came to record the music of the Ba’aka pygmies. He ended up staying, marrying a Ba’aka and adopting her son from his birth. The video above is a trailer for a movie that was based on his life. He offered me to go visit his village and maybe stay a few nights in the forest—an offer I definitely will take up!! The Ba’aka are legendary trackers and hunters (the success of the gorilla habituation program is largely attributed to their tracking skills), so I can’t wait to pick up some new skills.

I spent most of dinner talking to a Cameroonian, Alain, who came here as a consultant on the fight against poaching. Back in his home country (neighboring the CAR), the ivory trade is a huge problem, though they have made a lot of progress. He told me how Hong Kong’s government, with the help of Interpol, helped them to seize the largest shipment of ivory ever!. It was pretty fascinating to talk to an African who is passionate about conservation. Last year, I had to convince a Cameroonian that conservationists don’t actually care more about chimpanzees than humans, and the only way I could get him to budge was to tell him how people pay around $800 USD to see the gorillas in Rwanda, and how Australia’s sharks have been calculated to bring in millions of dollars in tourism. Alain talked about how the Bantu, the majority ethnic group of Sub-Saharan Africa, feel entitled to use natural resources—like bushmeat—as much as they want. The rest of the night was spent trying to explain how Bangui was different to Hong Kong, if at all, (most of the table laughed at the asker), and repeatedly saying I was too tired to drink any more beer. 

Apparently the last car that went to Bayanga (the town near the reserve) left on Tuesday at 10 am, and got there on Wednesday at 10 pm… There are huge holes in the road that large trucks have been getting stuck around, effectively blocking the way. The only real way to get from here to there is to hitch a ride with a WWF car, so the cars tend to get packed. Today, six people are going. Should be a comfortable 15 hour car ride…. 

I was also informed that the vet who was running the lab that I was going to work in (and who was also going to train me well enough to run the lab in her absence) had to be medevac-ed the day before I landed. Not sure if she’s coming back, so I don’t know if the lab is going to continue to exist… Hope she’s ok!

The Inspiring Women of Mbosha

Site Visit 6: The Inspiring Women of Mbosha (7/3) – Mbosha Village, Cameroon

It is a small miracle that our car, a taxi borrowed from a friend of a friend, survived the journey. The rattling piece of metal took us over rolling green hills, down narrow, bumpy red dirt tracks and finally, to the remote village of Mbosha.

We traveled all this way to meet the women who, determined to meet the needs they saw within their community, decided to form a women’s group. With the help of Self-Reliance Promoters’ NGO (SEREP),  they set out to get things done. As you can tell from the video above, their passion and energy are infectious.

The village has no electricity or running water. But yet two women from the group run a health center that in addition to providing basic health services, has already helped give birth to over 70 babies since its creation in 2005.

The women who run the clinic are volunteers. Despite having families to take care of and crops to tend to, they have taken the time to get the proper training to provide basic primary healthcare for the people of Mbosha.

Above: One of the women, with her year-old daughter (born at the health center), with Mbosha village in the background.

Above: The women in front of the new center that is currently under construction.

As they try to build their capacity, they realized that they needed a bigger space! And so they have started building a new clinic. As you can see, construction is well under way. The new health center features more room for patients, a latrine out in the back, and a separate building for a kitchen!  Word has spread about the health center to the surrounding communities, and so those who must travel from afar to get here do not have local family or friends to shelter or feed them. The new building, kitchen and extra space will help solve this problem.

Above: The kitchen-in-progress

SEREP is also trying to get a palm oil project off the ground, which would consist of purchasing palm oil for both these women’s families’ consumption and for re-sale to generate some income. I can assure you that palm oil is an absolutely vital part of the Cameroonian diet. It is found in virtually every single traditional dish, and as one friend put it, “if it is not made with palm oil, then a Cameroonian will not eat it.” Currently, because of the lack of funding, the project is not currently taking place.

And last but not least: three of the many, many children who were born in the health center that they wanted me to take pictures of!

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Check out Meg’s blog on the visit.

How you can help: : Donate to “Help Mbosha women build a primary health centre” or “Feed a Cameroonian family: SEREPs Palm Oil Project”!