Net-hunting with pygmies

The highlight of my holiday in the Central African Republic was not the wildlife, as I had expected, but a morning spent with the Ba'Aka.  This pygmy tribe are indigenous to the rainforest, still mostly living as hunter-gatherers in a lifestyle that will have hardly changed over thousands of years.  They are believed to be amongst the closest people, genetically, to the original humans.

They really are very small, many with front teeth chiselled to points (which they consider beautiful), and with intricate little tattoos all over their faces.  Thye seem very innocent, almost childlike in their behaviour, which we saw clearly during our morning together.

We accompanied them net-hunting: me, another tourist, a guide, and an interesting American man (Louis Sarno) who has lived with them for the past 27 years.  There were around 15 Ba'Aka going out on the hunt - men and women together as this like most tasks are shared equally - carrying their long, fibre nets, machetes and a couple of spears, and all quite excited as they enjoy the hunt.

We followed them into the forest (as I constantly ducked to avoid branches and vines I could see the evolutionary advantage of their short stature) and they quickly set up the nets, hooking them up to the vegetation so as to form a long, metre-high barrier which curved round almost into a circle.  Then, inside the nets, they began to beat the vegetation with sticks, calling out with traditional cries, to flush out any animals into the nets.

The first attempt was unsuccessful but on the second go they caught two blue duiker (tiny blue-grey coloured antelope), which would be shared out traditionally according to each person's role - who flushed it out, whose net it ran into, who killed it, etc.

On the way out of the forest someone spotted some fruit ripening high up in the canopy, and before I could even switch my camera on one of the Ba'Aka had climbed maybe 30 metres up a tree trunk resembling a narrow telegraph pole, with no branches or anything to hold on to for support except for the trunk itself ... amazing.

After the hunt the Ba'Aka piled into the backs of our vehicles.  Elated, they were like an excited bunch of schoolkids in the back of the school bus on a field trip!  They started singing and clapping - traditional songs, polyphonic and mostly just sounds rather than words, but occasionally with some high-pitched chattering sounds like a monkey's alarm call (apparently representing the spirits).  It was a magical experience being with them as they sang (not for we tourists but for themselves, to express their joy after a successful hunt), like being transported into another world.

Sadly though it is a world which might not continue.  The American explained how Bantu poachers have entered the forest, with guns, killing animals in large numbers to sell to the bushmeat trade in the cities of the region.  Ba'Aka net-hunting is sustainable as they only take what they need to eat and as their population density is very low (average 1 person per square kilometre) the impact is also low.  Hunting large numbers of duiker and monkeys, with guns, is not sustainable and wildlife numbers have crashed.  He told a sad story of how he went out with an older Ba'Aka man to be shown the way they hunt monkeys - with bows and poisoned arrows - but that the man couldn't demonstrate his skills as they didn't find any monkeys. Later back on the road they met a Bantu man with a gun, carrying a sack full of dead monkeys.

Indeed in the course of my week in the forest I saw only a troop of de Brazza's monkeys, a few balck-and-white colobus, and two solitary putty-nosed; apparently a couple of decades ago there would have been monkeys everywhere.


Felipe said...

Fascinating. Nothing like the usual tourist experience anywhere. How lucky and adventurous you are.

The proliferation of "bushmeat" is a deepening problem, not just in terms of the sustenance of these people but also because of the tremendous impact that it has on the wildlife, monkeys and apes alike. [And one theory of the origin of AIDS is the consumption of simian bushmeat.] It's almost impossible to stop, alas.

But I'm curious about the American who has been living decades with these people. What is his motivation? Anthropology? Charity? Affiliated with a university or NGO? I have to confess that I'm instinctively sceptical about such "outsiders" living among non-mainstream populations.

Louise said...

Re the American - his original motivation was in studying and recording the traditional music of these people, although he sensed that it would be deeper than that and only bought a one-way ticket...

I would guess that he and other such 'outsiders' find mainstream culture doesn't suit them and so they are looking for something more attuned to their way of seeing the world.