few degrees north of the equator in central Africa a soldier peers into a soot-blackened cooking pot that rests on an open wood fire. Dressed in combat fatigues and shouldering an AK47, he is inspecting a dinner that belongs to a family of Pygmies huddled nearby. It is probably not the first time an "ecoguard" has stuck his nose in their pots. It is part of the man's job to confirm that the meal boiling away in a clearing in the depths of the Congolese rainforest does not contain the meat of an endangered animal.
The contents pass inspection, and without further ado the guard takes his leave -- a decorous encounter, as these things go. Ecoguards, with their firearms and enforcement training, can be far more aggressive on the job. Their beat puts them on foot patrol for days at a time, tracking suspected poachers through thick jungle; or at checkpoints along logging roads, inspecting flatbeds to make sure no animal carcasses are tucked among the hardwood stems; or on river patrol, scanning for waterborne contraband. Some Pygmies, with their preternatural forest skills, have landed jobs as ecoguards. They are natural conservationists, as integrated with the ecology of the rainforest as any gorilla or butterfly or mahogany tree, able to interpret forest signs that are all but invisible to others. But those skills are equally attractive to poachers, who pay handsomely to turn the Pygmies' profound knowledge to unwholesome deeds. Few who live in the central African rainforest are untouched by the booming trade in bushmeat -- the butchered flesh of wild animals.
Throughout the Congo Basin, some 1 million tons of animal protein -- roughly equivalent to the meat of 4 million cattle -- are killed and consumed every year. Heavily hunted regions are threatened with empty-forest syndrome, wherein habitats remain intact, but local species are nearly snuffed out. Beasts large and small, from forest elephants to cane rats, are at risk. In Africa's great moist forest, bushmeat is a food staple, supplying residents with the bulk of their protein. Some of the meat is sliced from the carcasses of protected species in flagrant violation of the law, but much of it comes from animals that do not appear on endangered species lists -- yet.
Pygmies have fed off forest animals for thousands of years, consuming their protein under the same broad leaves of the fruit trees that feed and shelter their protein sources. But today the pipeline from those sources stretches beyond the Pygmies' raffia huts, down freshly laid roads to nearby logging camps and Bantu villages, or downriver to towns where the meat is sold at market or packed onto planes for distribution in regional capitals, where the contraband is prized by urban dwellers for its taste and as a link to their rural heritage. Not infrequently, the haunch of a silverback gorilla or the brain of a chimpanzee or the meaty tail of a dwarf crocodile will be flown to London, Brussels, or New York to soothe the homesick palates of expatriate Africans, or to satisfy the whims of culinary adventurers who never have and never will set foot in Africa.
A model is in place to cut the bushmeat pipeline down to size -- specifically, to cut those sections of it that originate in the logging district surrounding Nouabale-Ndoki National Park, a million-acre forest and wildlife sanctuary in northwest Republic of Congo (not to be confused with the nation's larger and all-but lawless neighbor to the east, the Democratic Republic of Congo). But the model is intrusive. It is as much an exercise in social engineering, law enforcement, education, and nation building as it is a method of conservation. Since the experts in all but the last of those categories didn't feel much urgency or were busy with other pressing matters, it fell to conservationists to design and implement a plan. And so, a small corner of Congo is undergoing a makeover that may chart a course for conservation in logging areas throughout the Congo Basin and in tropical timber zones around the globe.