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  • The Fight for Chinko
  • Reporting and Photographs by Elliott D. Woods

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Thierry Aebsicher looks for wildlife tracks in the Chinko nature reserve. Central African Republic, 2016.

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The thump of helicopter rotors breaks the Chinko Project’s main camp out of its afternoon stupor. All eyes are on the airstrip as the green and white AStar 350 touches down in a plume of red dust, discharging three rangers and a Central African Army lieutenant dressed in British fatigues from its sliding rear door as soon as the skids hit the dirt. The comings and goings of aircraft are a welcome interruption to the sweat-soaked languor at the Chinko base, a hopelessly remote outpost of conservation in the eastern wilds of the Central African Republic. For a few days running, the chopper has been pulling antipoaching duty, ferrying rangers armed with captured AK-47s to the encampments of nomadic cattle herders who’ve been supplementing their income by selling bushmeat poached from Chinko’s virgin habitat. The chopper belongs to the African Parks network, a conservation nonprofit based in Johannesburg that manages wildlife preserves and national parks all over the continent. It’s on temporary loan to Chinko, the newest addition to the African Parks network, and it’s been a powerful tool of psychological warfare, deceiving the herders into assuming that the rangers are better armed and better reinforced than they actually are. The heavily armed herders, who come predominately from the Darfur region of Sudan, about 600 miles away, have lived their entire lives in the bush. They count former janjaweed in their ranks, Sudanese militiamen who’ve carried out and survived all manner of atrocities. By contrast, the Chinko rangers are, without exception, total greenhorns. So far, the ruse is working—no one has fired a shot, and aerial surveillance shows that the herders have been pushing their camps out of Chinko’s protection zone.

Two white men—Frank Molteno and David Simpson—trail behind the Central Africans as they make their way to headquarters. With his salt-and-pepper mustache and lively blue eyes, Molteno, a sinewy sixty-one-year-old South African helicopter pilot, cuts a dashing figure. Molteno is a four-decade veteran of civil wars, interstate conflicts, and antipoaching operations from Rhodesia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Simpson, Chinko’s twenty-eight-year-old cofounder and park manager, walks beside him, his face streaked with sweat and soot. The son of Yorkshire, England, pheasant farmers, Simpson is quiet and understated to the point of seeming shy. His AK-47 and magazine pouches seem disproportionate to his slight frame. But Simpson is anything but soft. He has five years on the ground at Chinko, and a résumé that includes run-ins with the Lord’s Resistance Army as well as a long stint in a Central African prison. He is the pillar on which Chinko rests. Every afternoon, he morphs from the khaki-clad manager of some 400 workers and staff and a $2.5 million budget into a camouflaged guerrilla cadre, leading his assault team from the front.

The rangers dump rice sacks full of confiscated gear on the floor of the open-air dining room, evidence of what the rangers are up against: AK-47s, machetes, knives, ammo harnesses, steel-tipped arrows in PVC quivers, plastic tubs of poison, and dozens of sachets of anti-parasitic medicine, which herders use to protect their cattle against trypanosomiasis, the fatal “sleeping sickness” carried by the endemic tsetse fly. Deprived of access to these pharmaceuticals, the herders wouldn’t be able to keep their cattle alive for more than a few weeks, let alone make the grueling round-trip journey from Sudan. When face-to-face persuasion fails, taking away the herders’ weapons, bushmeat, and meds is the only way Simpson has left to discourage them from traveling through Chinko.

A cloud of flies swarms around one particular rice bag, which is filled with poisoned meat and puts off a revolting stench. “That’s why we don’t have any lions,” Simpson says, exasperated. “They ring their camps with this stuff. They...


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