With much of the Central African Republic in the hands of warlords, it's a nation synonymous with violent conflict. Yet amid the chaos of a torn country, conservationists are hard at work.
When Luis Arranz steps outside his home, it is to a view of trees and plants that twist and climb. It's also to an oppressive heat and high humidity, for here in the Congo Basin rainforest, it's always warm and muggy. There are no seasons, just variations in the amount of rainfall.
Those who venture into the dense green flora, do so by day, for by night, thousands of forest elephants claim the area for themselves, moving so quietly between the huge jungle trees, that for all their size, it's rare to actually catch a glimpse of them.
It's the elephants, and the battle to keep them alive, that brought Luis Arranz here. Born in 1956, the Spanish biologist has accumulated 38 years of conservation experience in Latin America and Africa — many of them spent in crisis and conflict plagued countries such as Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
He's been on the frontline of the fight against poachers for years. It's a dangerous job and he's seen many rangers shot dead by those trying to attack the animals they sought to protect.
Without people like Luis Arranz, who now works for the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) managing the Dzanga Sangha Protected Area in the southwest of the Central African Republic, the situation facing Africa's wildlife would be worse than it already is.
With its sprawling savannas, rivers and rainforest, the country could be a paradise in the heart of Africa. But instead it is a place gradually being destroyed by poaching, deforestation and most crucially, years of civil war.
Arranz is based in the small rainforest town of Bayanga in the region that borders Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Though the Dzanga Sangha Protected Area – the country's only remaining conservation zone that's still more or less functioning – has been on the fringes of the country's enduring conflict, it has not escaped the impacts of war entirely.
Working with the authorities, Arranz and his colleagues control and protect an area of more than 4,000 square kilometers (1,540 square miles) of rainforest, but in March 2013, professional poachers attacked the Dzanga Bai forest clearing where some 150 elephants gather at a time to drink the mineral-rich water.
They killed 26 animals and tore out their tusks. Things have been a little quieter since then, but the area requires constant surveillance, and both wildlife and people are still in extreme danger.
Arranz, who saw numerous rangers killed in the fight against poachers during his time in northeastern Congo and Chad, says war zone conservation without weapons is almost impossible. He wants those protecting the animals in Dzanga-Sangha to be trained by military experts and equipped with the means to counter poaching weapons such as modern assault rifles.
Securing the money to follow through on his determination, however, is not easy.
"Everybody says 'why do you want guns and ammunition to protect the elephants?' I don't need guns to protect the elephants. I need guns to protect the people that protect the elephants. If they meet poachers and are unarmed, they will die. A lot of people don't understand that, or don't want to understand that," says Arranz.
A country waiting for peace
The Central African Republic is not a place of peace, but in recent years, armed United Nations Blue Helmets have managed to introduce a degree of calm to the Dzanga-Sangha Protected Area. Rebels have now moved out of the area, and there have been no attacks, murders or looting for some time.
Given the situation in the rest of the nation, that is nothing short of a miracle.
But conflict there is not a recent phenomenon. On the contrary. Hundreds of years before the country itself was founded, the region that now constitutes the Central African Republic, was characterized by violence and tension.
In the 17th century, the area became a rich hunting ground for Portuguese, Dutch and Arab slave traders, who within two centuries had played a hand in the widespread depopulation the region.
The early 20th century brought more exploitation from overseas, this time from France, which incorporated the region into the colony of French-Equatorial Africa. For decades, the colonial government and private companies ruthlessly took advantage of the territory, laying claim to ivory, gold and precious woods. Insurgencies were brutally crushed by the colonial powers.
In the decades since France granted the country independence in 1960, power has changed hands many times, often as the result of a coup.
A particularly notorious leader was Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who ruled from 1966 to 1979, establishing a regime of bloody terror that was tolerated by the former French colonial leaders, themselves seeking to profit from the professional mining of raw materials such as diamonds and uranium that began at the end of the 1960s.
In 1972, Bokassa made himself president for life, and in late 1977, crowned himself Emperor of Central Africa. His extravagant coronation, which he modelled on that of his idol Napoleon Bonaparte, allegedly cost around €20 million ($22 million),part of which was financed by France.
And the spending didn't stop there. During his reign Bokassa spent millions on a lavish lifestyle while his people starved. Those who protested were brutally murdered.
His rule of terror, and with it the era of the Central African Empire, finally came to an end in a 1979 coup, to which France contributed parachutists.
Bokassa, however, continued to live a life of luxury in exile in a French palace until his return to Bangui in 1986. Once back home, he was sentenced first to death, then to a lifetime of forced labor. But he was later pardoned. He died in 1996.
Overthrown, over and over again
Since the end of the empire, the country has been repeatedly overthrown and plunged into renewed periods of armed conflict. And repeatedly, France was involved. Less, however, for humanitarian reasons, than because involvement secured French military bases in the country and provided unrestricted access to a wealth of resources.
In 1997, France moved its troops out, and shortly thereafter, a United Nations Blue Helmets mission (MINURCA) began. The idea was to ensure stability and security between two rival groups, but even fresh elections at the end of 1998 failed to calm the situation, and the ensuing years were characterized by attempted coups, and new conflicts in many parts of the country. In February 2000, the MINURCA mission came to an end.
The prospect of peace appeared on the horizon in June 2008, when the government signed a peace accord with several rebel groups. But the agreement only lasted a few months before conflicts in Sudan and Chad spilled across the border stirring tensions.
In 2012, the largely Muslim Seleka rebel alliance marched from the north to the capital Bangui, and in March of the following year, they occupied the capital and other important towns, committing horrific atrocities against the non-Muslim population.
Rebel leader Michel Djotodia appointed himself head of state, and Christian militias known as the Anti-Balaka emerged as resistance to the Seleka. The two sides started to massacre one another's civilian populations and public order in the country collapsed entirely.
It was at that point, that France decided to become involved again, and in March 2013, Paris sent troops to Bangui. Tensions eased a little, and a year later, a new Blue Helmets mission (MINUSCA) began. There are currently around 13,000 United Nations troops stationed in the country, mostly from African states, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Their role is to protect the civilian population and secure a fresh political beginning.
The nation now has a new president, Faustin Archange Touadera, but with 80 percent of the country ruled by over a dozen armed groups and warlords who terrorize the population as they fight for power and access to the country's minerals, his sphere of influence is small.
"The situation in the whole Central African Republic is completely unpredictable… Unfortunately, more and more people are being attacked." (Donaig de Lu, UNICEF)
Donaig de Lu has worked for the United Nation's children's fund UNICEF in the Central African Republic for many years. Time and again, she's seen how children across the country suffer as a result of repeated conflicts,massacres and atrocities.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there are currently more than 640,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), and almost just as many again have fled to neighboring states.
With around half of all refugee children, the Central African Republic ranks as the third worst place to grow up after Niger and Mali.
Because there are so few education opportunities, children at the Kaga-Bandoro refugee camp in the northwest of the country, are glad of the classes organized for them.
The forgotten forest people
The government in Bangui has neither the power nor the means to improve the situation for people in the country. And even less for conservation.
But that doesn't mean efforts aren't underway from other quarters. The BaAka and Sangha-Sangha indigenous groups, who've lived in the rainforest and along its rivers for millennia, are working with Luis Arranz and his people to protect it. Because if the forest dies, their culture will die with it.
They've already seen many parts of the lands where their forebears lived as hunter-gatherers emptied at the hand of poachers and looters — their rivers overfished.
The search for food has led many to fish with mosquito nets. But because the mesh is so tight, they're catching young animals and eggs, causing entire fish populations to collapse, with dramatic impacts on their nutrition.
The indigenous groups, who've been pushed further onto the fringes of society by the ongoing war, are ill-equipped to prevent the breakdown of their culture. Many have already moved into urban areas, but their lot there is not an easy one. They are routinely discriminated against, denied equal access to education and only granted human and civil rights under certain circumstances.
"The BaAka don't know their rights, which is why I'm here." (Martial Yvon Amolet, lawyer)
From his office in Bayanga, Martial Yvon Amolet looks after the rights of the region's indigenous groups. It's to him that they turn when they're facing day-to-day difficulties or violence as a result of their backgrounds. Because the government in Bangui has neither the money, nor the inclination to ensure the minorities are fairly represented, Amolet is financed by the WWF. But even he can't help them with everything.
Health is another human right, but a lack of affordable clinics within reach makes it difficult to ensure access to medical care for those who live deep in the rainforest.
"Discrimination of the BaAka and Sangha-Sangha means they have almost no medical care." (Emilia Bylicka, doctor)
But medical care is something they need. The BaAka and Sangha-Sangha often suffer from malnutrition and nutrient deficiency, and many children die from malaria, parasite infestation and tuberculosis.
The only clinic for miles around is in the rainforest village of Monasao. From there staff often travel for days at a time to reach patients in remote locations. Despite their best efforts, many children die before they are five years old.
A glimmer of hope
In the past few years, BaAka and Sangha-Sangha activists and the WWF have established a forest school to bring young people into closer contact with the traditions of their own people, and to enhance their sense of identity. They are now even connected with indigenous groups over the border in Cameroon.
In a broken country like the Central African Republic, it takes considerable courage to stand up for those, be they humans, animals, or the forest itself, who have no voice of their own, but thanks to Martial Yvon Amolet, Emilia Bylicka and Luis Arranz there is hope that the BaAka will remain an independent group with rich traditional knowledge and that in years to come, elephants will still be wandering across the Dzanga Bai.
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) is facing allegations of human rights violations in Asia and Africa. There has been too little oversight of the human rights aspects of some WWF projects, according to an external investigation by consultancy firm Löning – Human Rights & Responsible Business, in May 2019. WWF International has contracted a British law firm to respond to these criticisms.