Privat Tiburce Massanga | July 25, 2011
Bomassa is a village deep in the forests of northern Congo. Walking along the path towards the village, a visitor is struck by the lack of agricultural fields. The area is fertile, but there are only a few fruit trees to be seen. Villagers do not take advantage of the good soils, or the waters of the Sangha River. The main reason is the large and intrusive population of elephants.
Bomassa is located on the edge of the Nouabalé Ndoki National Park, on the border with Cameroon and the Central African Republic. Many people sit around idly here. In the part of the village known as Bon coin, men, women and children sit in huts. Some drink palm wine or alcohol made from maize; others just busy themselves with doing nothing.
Gaston Gbobolo is village chief. He says, “As you can see, everyone in the village is sitting around. Apart from fishing and hunting at night, we have no activities during the day.” When asked about the reason for this lack of activity, Gaston Gbobolo replies, “Here, you cannot grow crops due to elephants. Plantations are ravaged each year. You cannot maintain a garden or field for several years.” As a result, villagers’ diets lack variety. Fishing and hunting is seasonal: when the Sangha River is low, fish are scarce. Hunting of forest animals is banned or regulated according to the season.
The situation is the same in the town of Kabo, about fifty kilometres from Bomassa. Otsangué is a 70-year-old man who lives in Kabo. He noticed the problem more than a decade ago. He says, “Before, we were not faced with the problem of elephants. I moved here almost 50 years ago. It is only in recent years that we are starving because of the elephants.”
The number of elephants in the region has increased thanks to conservation efforts in the national park. Today, the elephants live in the same area as humans. This closeness threatens the survival of the village. It is almost impossible to grow anything. People rely on neighbouring countries for food. Staple foods such as cassava, plantain and maize can be bought in Cameroon or the Central African Republic. But the nearest villages are two days away by canoe. And when goods reach Bomassa, they are sold at two or three times the original price.
The Wildlife Conservation Society is an international NGO involved in managing the park. Some time ago, it offered the villagers alternative activities such as snail farming. But the activities were not well-planned and failed. While the villagers are fond of eating snails, they did not see the need for snail farming as it is easy to find snails in the forest.
As a last resort, people have turned to the authorities. Farmers suggested culling a significant number of elephants. Jean-Claude Metsampitso works with the Ecosystem Management Program of the national park. For him, this is not the solution. He believes that, “The killing of fully protected animals is not an option.”
The villagers are frustrated with the elephants, but more so with the government. Otsangué is disappointed at the official response. He explains, “What annoys us most is the silence of our authorities. One gets the impression that they [would] prefer to see us starve because the elephants are more important to them than we the people of this land-locked area.” Tourists visit the national park, and the villagers receive some of the money generated. But it is only enough for basic needs.
Despite everything, the villagers refuse to abandon their land. Gaston Gbobolo says, “We cannot leave our village because of the elephants. Our history is here.” But how long can they carry on?