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Year : 2005  |  Volume : 3  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 407-435

Of Apes and Men: Baka and Bantu Attitudes to Wildlife and the Making of Eco-Goodies and Baddies

Centro de Estudios Superiores de Mexico y Centroamerica - Universidad de Ciencias y Artes de Chiapas (CESMECA-UNICACH) [Centre for Mexican and Central American Studies-University of the Sciences and Arts of Chiapas], Calzada Tlaxcala # 76 (esquina con Diego Rivera), Barrio de Tlaxcala, San Cristobal de Las Casas, C.P. 29230, Chiapas, Mexico

Correspondence Address:
Axel Kohler
CESMECA-UNICACH, Calzada Tlaxcala # 76 (esquina con Diego Rivera), Barrio de Tlaxcala, San Cristobal de Las Casas, C.P. 29230, Chiapas
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In this essay particular local attitudes to wildlife are compared with western representations of such engagement with the natural environ­ment. The ethnographic focus is on Baka (Pygmies) and their Bantu-speaking neighbours living side by side in the rainforest of the north-western Republic of Congo (Brazzaville). Their current attitudes to gorillas and chimpanzees, both CITES-protected species, seem to confirm western stereotypes of Pygmy hunter-gatherers living in tune with their environment and caring for it, and of Bantu farmers as invading the forest with little or no conservation ethic. How did these moral tales of proto-ecologists versus 'eco-baddies' develop and what is the history of such polarising ideology? How have these ideas been appropriated and used in environmental discourse, and how do they map onto current perceptions and attitudes on the ground? Heeding these ques­tions a specific history of representations is discussed, starting from an as­sumed Pygmy aboriginality and a Bantu status as late-coming forest colonisers and leading to a pervasively dichotomous view of their cultures and socio-ecological relations. A closer, anthropologically informed look at contemporary Baka and Bantu perceptions and attitudes to wildlife, however brings home the need for historical contexts and in-depth research both into social and cultural configurations and into situated ecological and economic knowledges and practices to uncover subtle distinctions within local models and the complexities of behaviour.

Keywords: Central Africa, Pygmies, rainforest farmers, environmental per-ception, conservation

How to cite this article:
Kohler A. Of Apes and Men: Baka and Bantu Attitudes to Wildlife and the Making of Eco-Goodies and Baddies. Conservat Soc 2005;3:407-35

How to cite this URL:
Kohler A. Of Apes and Men: Baka and Bantu Attitudes to Wildlife and the Making of Eco-Goodies and Baddies. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2005 [cited 2022 Oct 6];3:407-35. Available from: https://www.conservationandsociety.org.in//text.asp?2005/3/2/407/49320

   Introduction Top

'An integral part of any forest conservation scheme is understanding how city dwellers perceive the forest, its people and resources and re­lated activities. This is just as important as evaluating the socio­economic use of forest resources because perceptions influence use and use in turn leads to depletion. Analysis of perceptions thus consti­tutes a necessary step in the process of conceptualising action plans aimed at conservation.'

(Theodore Trefon 1994)

THIS ESSAY COMPARES popular western perceptions of central African forest dwellers in relation to their natural environment and their attitudes to wildlife. I begin with a discussion of a pervasive academic portrayal of Pygmy hunter-gatherers as the (ab)original central African forest people and of their non-Pygmy farming neighbours as late-coming colonisers of the forest world. A corollary of these views is a popular perception of Pygmies as arche­typal 'ecologists', of a people who are in perfect tune with their environment after millennia of co-evolutionary adaptation processes through which they have become a natural, organic part of it. Forest-dwelling farmers, on the other hand, are often depicted as relatively recent immigrants who imposed themselves both on the forest environment and its indigenous population. In metropolitan discourses on rainforest conservation and development, there has been a tendency to construct almost ideal-typical hunter-gatherer and farmer attitudes to nature, as if the two were in essential opposition. The hunter- gatherer approach has come to be seen as a pre-modern form of sustainable engagement with nature, some aspects of which happen to be highly congru­ent with currently held views, though no one seriously advocates hunting and gathering as a sustainable subsistence practice. [1] Forest farming practices, on the other hand, particularly slash-and-burn techniques have been cast as its antithesis, a rather precarious form of subsistence with unsustainable conse­quences for the environment.

After an outline of the historical and ideological bases of these narratives with a particular focus on transformations in the discourse on Pygmies, I will present some ethnographic observations from the north-western part of the Re­public of Congo (Brazzaville) [Figure 1] to find out how popular and aca demic perceptions match actual attitudes to wildlife. For this purpose I will consider the attitudes of Baka (Pygmies) and of their Bantu [2] neighbours to go­rillas, chimpanzees and elephants. My question is thus: How well does a moral tale of Baka friends and Bantu foes of the forest environment (eco­friendly Baka vs Bantu 'eco-baddies') fit the situation on the ground and for what reasons?

   Western Perceptions of Central African Rain Forest Inhabitants Top

'Aboriginal' Pygmy Hunter-Gatherers

From the moment of their appearance in metropolitan consciousness, Pygmies have been perceived and portrayed as aboriginal [3] forest dwellers. The roots of this narrative lie in antiquity and in mysterious reports about an African forest people of incredibly small stature. [4] These tales originated in Egypt and Greece but spread across Eurasia and persisted throughout the ages (cf. Scobie 1975; Bahuchet 1993b; Klieman 2003). Following the seventeenth century European voyages to the coasts of Africa and to islands in south-east Asia, they got a new lease of life with the discovery of the great apes, and for a while the mythical Pygmies were thought to be real-life simians. [5] In the nine­teenth century, however, they turned out to be human beings-undoubtedly among the most primitive of the species-living, as the myths had always in­dicated, in the recesses of the great central African rainforest. Fitting contem­poraneous scientific interests in the biological and cultural origins of mankind, living representatives of a human form that matched the potent im­age of man in its evolutionary infancy had finally been found. When a group of hunting and gathering peoples of comparatively small stature were 'discov­ered' in the 'Heart of Africa' (Schweinfurth 1878), they were quickly baptised 'Pygmies'. [6] They were identified as the aboriginal inhabitants of the forest environment, and it was their unique adaptation to it that was thought to have stultified them (cf. Hiernaux 1977). Old myths thus absorbed new content.

With the imperialist project of the conquest of the forest, the myth of the Pygmies acquired another layer of meaning with the notion of a vanishing people. First, there was simply the fear for an elusive subject of science, that these people were already disappearing at the moment of their discovery. But the notion of a vanishing people was also fuelled by social Darwinism and the concept of superior and inferior races locked in evolutionary struggles. From the turn of the century until the 1930s, there were speculations about the racial degeneration of Pygmies, most evident in their small stature and their ubiqui­tous socio-political subordination. As a result their numbers were thought to be declining naturally in favour of their taller and culturally superior neighbours. Further into the colonial regime such concepts became more re­fined, and Pygmies were rather seen as Pleistocene relics whose traditional lifestyle would have to give way to the thrust of modernity. Either way, they were destined to physically die out or be culturally assimilated. More re­cently, the notion of a vanishing people has become an integral part of a dis­course on fragile and endangered ecosystems, among which tropical rain forests figure prominently (e.g., Bahuchet and De Maret 1995).[7]

Whatever the reasons apart from a supposedly endangered existence, it is evident both in the literature and for their neighbours on the ground, that since their 'invention' in the nineteenth century (Bahuchet 1993b), real-life Pyg­mies have sparked a disproportionately strong interest among missionaries, conservationists, development and aid workers, and of course among re­searchers, particularly anthropologists, geneticists and ecologists.

In continuity with colonial perceptions, this interest has often been acted upon with a heightened sense of a vanishing world, both in research and in applied terms. Indeed, from the moment of their appearance in metropolitan consciousness, the notion of the Pygmies as a vanishing people has been en­tertained with changing undertones in tune with the times. The most palpable scientific construction of Pygmies as a disappearing (ab)original forest popu­lation and as a window on the evolutionary past of our species has been by geneticists and behavioural ecologists. Here Pygmies continue to be investi­gated as the transmitters of human biogenetic material of the longest-standing adaptation to forest ecology and as the vanishing repositories of forest knowl­edge, which they have been accumulating over millennia (see, for instance, Cavalli-Sforza et al. 1991, 1994). In spite of a considerable lack of conclusive evidence or precisely because of it, the mythologically inspired hypothesis of Pygmy forest aboriginality remains an almost axiomatic base line for investi­gation, and many researchers work from or around this central assumption.

A corollary of this widely accepted belief in Pygmy aboriginality and their forever unchanging life ways-unless disturbed from outside-is their natu­ralisation as an integral part of the forest ecosystem (e.g., Hecketsweiler et al. 1991; Bahuchet and De Maret 1995). The dominant view is of a people living both in social harmony with each other and in ecological harmony with their forest environment, at least as long as they have not been forced out of it. When this is the case, and some Pygmy groups do live in miserable conditions as an increasingly landless and marginalised rural proletariat in ramshackle roadside villages (see Bahuchet and Guillaume 1982; Mukito and Mbaya 1990), it is usually linked to the corrupting influences of markets, money and the modern world. [8]

The notion of Pygmies not only as the original but also as essential 'Forest People' was popularised by Colin Turnbull (1962, 1965). His culture-sensitive study of the Mbuti in eastern Zaire fostered an iconic status of peaceful, envi­ronmentally tuned-in, eco-friendly primitives, particularly in a paperback edi­tion (1962, 1993) of his ethnographic work that was destined for a wider audience. Here we find the classic anthropological account of Pygmies as semi-nomadic, egalitarian hunter-gatherers living in small groups in forest camps, both in social harmony with each other and in ecological tune with their forest environment. Turnbull characterised Mbuti cosmology as founded on trust in a benevolent forest, which they regarded as both mother and father to them (1965). From a Mbuti perspective the forest was thus a 'giving envi­ronment' (cf. Bird-David 1990), cool, shady, pleasant and the provider of all the Mbuti really needed. The villages of their Bila farming neighbours, on the other hand, were cleared of trees, exposed to the sun and hot, unpleasant and disease-ridden, but also full of attractive consumer goods. Bila cosmology was centred in fear and mistrust of the forest, and the mirror image of their battle against the natural world around them was a permanent distrust of the Mbuti and a social life punctuated by witchcraft and sorcery accusations (Turnbull 1965: 21, 60).

Inverting earlier arguments about a hostile forest and a one-sided Pygmy dependence on village produce, which had served to explain their inferior status vis- d -vis farming neighbours (Schweinfurth 1878; Schmidt 1910; Schebesta 1936), Turnbull asserted, to the contrary, that it was indeed the farmers who had a distinct economic need for various forest products which they usually obtained from the Mbuti. Subsequent anthropological, historical and ecological studies suggest, however, that Turnbull probably overestimated the potential for Mbuti self-reliance and the possibility of an exclusively hunting-and-gathering based subsistence independently and prior to the arrival of agriculture (e.g., Headland 1987; Bailey et al. 1989; Headland and Reid 1989). It has also become clear that Turnbull's notion of a basic structural op­position between forest and village, and between Mbuti and Bila, reflected a rather transient moment in colonial history. The Belgian administration had resettled the Bila by the side of the road-built, of course, by their colonial subjects-and had forced them to grow cash crops. In order to have better control over them, the Bila were then forbidden to enter the forest (Kenrick 1996).

Turnbull's ahistoric and romantic rendering of potential Mbuti autonomy has since given way to interactionist models of a continuous and long­standing socio-economic interdependency between Pygmy hunter-gatherers and forest-dwelling farmers. Despite paradigmatic shifts, however, Pygmies have remained the original 'forest people' by virtue of their long-term adapta­tion to forest ecology, whether independently and prior to the arrival of others (e.g., Bahuchet et al. 1991) or in complementary association with them (e.g., Bailey et al. 1989). Only first steps in a new direction have so far been made in order to rethink Pygmy history. Roger Blench (1999), for instance, has pro­posed a rather extreme revisionist hypothesis. Questioning the existing scien­tific bases for the common view on African Pygmies as the ancient denizens of the forest zone and exposing the substantial weaknesses of supporting lin­guistic, genetic and archaeological evidence, he suggests that the African Pygmies may well be the genetic inheritors of a specialised hunting-and­gathering 'caste' of their Central Sudanic, Adamawa-Ubangian and Bantu­speaking neighbours. Their origins in terms of a genetic adaptation to the rainforest environment may date back only as far as 4000-5000 years, and their distinct ethnicity would then be the result of a relatively recent develop­ment. [9]

Turnbull not only made an important ideological contribution to the perva­sive idea of Pygmy aboriginality and once again evoked an image of 'noble savages' as a critique of western civilisation. His representation of Mbuti forest life also has to be credited with being at the forefront of changing western perceptions of rainforests, and his convincing rendition of the Mbuti perspective of the forest decisively countered prior western stereotypes of 'mythical jungles' as a glaucous, impenetrable universe of ever-encroaching foliage, or simply as a 'green hell' (see Vansina 1990: 39), whose transformation into agricultural space could then only be envisaged as something positive. Turnbull's classic ethnography is the anthropological precedent to a different view of 'jungles' and a now prevalent image of lush, evergreen rainforests, which have been re­evaluated as gene pools of rich biodiversity and the 'green lungs' of the planet.

Fairhead and Leach (1995: 1024, 1032) have pointed out how development discourse has forged links between environmental and social conditions, be­tween 'original' climax vegetation and African societies of a traditional 'func tional order' that was once harmoniously integrated with 'natural' vegeta­tion. [10] Although their argument concerns mainly deforestation and develop­ment narratives and focuses on western views of West African peasant societies, it is also applicable to the anthropology of Pygmies and their Cen­tral African farming neighbours. Concerning Pygmies and other hunter- gatherer societies, cultural and behavioural ecology, in particular, have pro­vided the theoretical foundation for the popular theme of socio-environmental integration, with 'optimum foraging theory' as one of its 'hard science' cor­nerstones. Being members of non-hierarchical, small-scale semi-nomadic so­cieties, Pygmies maintain collective access to forest resources and share in their management and consumption. Their extensive land use practices and flexible residential patterns have been identified as characteristic of a 'foraging mode of production' (e.g., Meillassoux 1973), a co-evolutionary ad­aptation to the forest environment, which has ensured both human survival and ecological sustainability.

Economic anthropologists have further developed sharing concepts as 'local model' alternatives to other economies based on commodity and gift ex­changes (e.g., Mauss 1923/1924; Gregory 1982; Mauss 1990). The concept of a much wider sociality, for instance, has been condensed by Nurit Bird-David in the notion of a 'cosmic economy of sharing' (1992), in which the relations among humans, animals and plants are perceived and experienced as on an equal footing and within an undivided cosmos. Extended beyond interpersonal exchange relationships to include more or less the whole environment, this conceptualisation of generalised and unconditional sharing strongly resonates with conservationist values of collective responsibility and caring for the en­vironment. It also links up with current development discourse, in which 'lo­cal participation' and 'sustainability' have become key concepts for environmental protection in tandem with economic development.

With a growing public awareness of global environmental issues, the inter­national heritage and conservation movements have appropriated Pygmies along with other 'original' forest dwellers as archetypal rainforest 'ecolo­gists'. But as already highlighted in Turnbull's work, forest tales are also moral tales. In a familiar scenario of good and evil forces, the idyllic Pygmy picture is complemented with the construction of their ethnically and pheno­typically distinct farming neighbours as antagonists of forests and wildlife.

Bantu Farmer-Colonisers

In contrast with 'aboriginal' Pygmies, Bantu forest dwellers are usually de­scribed as relatively recent 'colonisers'. Their penetration of the forest started with the so-called Bantu expansion about 4-5000 years BP in an area north­west of the great forest, from where western Bantu-speakers gradually occu­pied all of central Africa (Vansina 1990; Clist 1995). Coming from the savannah they brought with them crops, livestock and a technology that were in many ways ill fitted to the requirements of their new environment. Their oral traditions often confirm a self-image as intruders into a foreign world. In particular, they reflect the difficulties involved in carving out and maintaining a patchwork of domesticated space within a physically and spiritually un­tamed forest landscape. The pervasive opposition between the forest and the village has been a central argument in Turnbull's work, where it became part of a series of other morally charged dualisms (hunting and gathering versus farming, freedom vs constraint, health vs disease, egality vs competition, spiri­tuality vs witchcraft, etc.). However, over time the various inhabitants of the central African rainforest developed a new 'tradition', one that Vansina (1990) has called 'the equatorial tradition', merging ancestral savannah tradi­tions with those of the fisher folk and forest dwellers they encountered, and assimilating various technological innovations and new food crops (banana, manioc). Thus 'emerged a single, special, and stable variant of the original heritage in the lands of the rainforests' (Vansina 1990: 58). Although in many areas interdependent with Pygmy groups specialising in forest products, the incoming cultivators had nonetheless become forest dwellers themselves.

Present-day migrant peasant populations often leave their former homes be­cause of landlessness, population pressure or (civil) war, and follow the in­roads made by logging companies into formerly less accessible forest areas. In development discourse, they tend to be characterised as 'land-hungry', and are easily made scapegoats for deforestation by both logging companies and con­servationists, the former claiming that it is the migrant peasants who destroy the forest, and the latter arguing that they finish off the dirty work of forest degradation with their destructive land-use practices.[11] Fairhead and Leach (1995, 1996) have analysed popular western perceptions of African societies and assumptions about deforestation and linear degradation. They have indi­cated how these became stabilised within a development narrative that in­volves growing populations of immigrant and indigenous farmers who have lost 'traditional' values and organisational forms, and who are seeking and de­wooding forested land.

A quick look at the colonial and post-independence history of French Equa­torial Africa, and of north-western Congo in particular, shows us likewise that a vision of original forest people and subsequent forest invaders is rather the result of colonial and post-colonial politics than a reflection of a clash of es­sential life ways, that is, of 'traditional' and thus almost by definition sustain­able hunting and gathering ways versus 'modern' destructive agricultural practices and market-driven wildlife depletion.

At the eve of the colonial conquest, the north-western forest zones of Equatorial Africa were in a state of social unrest that was triggered not least by a gradual involvement of the whole region in the Atlantic Trade. Large­scale migrations during most of the nineteenth century followed a kind of domino pattern. Groups either closer to the coast or with better access to European firearms displaced their neighbours. The Baka Pygmies, for exam ple, most likely migrated in the late eighteenth century from an area east of Bangui, the present capital of the Central African Republic (CAR), in order to escape the turmoil created there by slave-raiders coming up the Ubangi River (Bahuchet 1993a). Early colonial concessionary rule saw the imposition of a 'pillage economy' with virtually no constructive investment either from the state or private sources (Coquery-Vidrovitch 1971). It thus only heightened already existing ethnic and social tensions.

When the French state finally assumed greater colonial responsibility in the 1930s, existing ethnically specific social and political organisations and the different roles played by indigenous groups in emerging markets did strongly influence the perception, interaction and policies of the colonial administra­tion vis- a -vis the local population. This led to different colonisation processes and distinct colonial histories. In general and notwithstanding their strong re­sistance to colonial forces, the Bantu population in French Equatorial Africa was more directly and more thoroughly colonised than their Pygmy neighbours. Building on the perceived subordination of the rather inaccessible and demographically less important Pygmy population[12] by the Bantu, colo­nial policies focused on the latter to enforce resettlement, military and labour recruitment, and taxation. From its inception the colonial 'taming policy' of the Pygmies was intended as a watered-down version of the transformations enforced upon the Bantu. It did not have any direct influence on the targeted population, partly because the administrators quickly realised the futility of their instructions (Delobeau 1984). It was up to the Bantu to mediate the co­lonial impact, and for a long time, the Baka, like other Pygmy groups, re­mained marginal to administrative control, corv e e labour and resettlement schemes, and their integration into the colonial economy lagged behind. Co­lonial pressure influenced, however, the ethnic division of labour, which had formerly been based on an interdependent forest economy. Under pressure to produce for the colonial economy, the Bantu began to rely more heavily on their Pygmy neighbours and sought to exercise more economic and political control over them. The present marginalisation of Pygmies by more powerful farming neighbours most likely developed during the times of the Atlantic Trade and was consolidated during colonisation.

In pre-colonial times, the Bantu themselves lived in impermanent settle­ments that were spread out in the forest where they practised a subsistence economy of shifting cultivation mixed with hunting and gathering. In the 1960s, after more than half a century of colonial rule and the imposition of severe transformations of their 'traditional' life ways, Bakwele and Njem, for instance, still made use of fifty non-domesticated forest plant species for nu­tritional, medical, hunting or building purposes (Robineau 1966).

Once 'civilising mission', Christianity, money and new markets had made enough inroads into Bantu practices and consciousness, new ideas of being 'evolved' and 'civilised' took root on top of older cultural distinctions and markers of ethnicity. As a result, many Bantu began to model their Pygmy neighbours in the European image of the 'real' primitive. Thus an existing ideological gap between them widened, while their socio-economic interac­tion became more intense. For the Baka, this dynamic became particularly acute from the mid-1960s onwards, when they began to sedentarise and to catch up with a tentative integration into the cash economy through both de­pendent and independent cocoa cash cropping.

Since the 1980s, and with a total breakdown of the cocoa market, the Souanke area in the Congo panhandle (see map) has, however, experienced a growing enclavation. A current Bantu development fantasy involves a second colonisation with the arrival of European entrepreneurs who provide 'work' to locals, cutting down the forest, ploughing the earth for mineral riches, build­ing roads and setting up factories and towns. In other words, Bantu expecta­tions revolve around a fully commoditised modern world of high-level production and consumption, very much in line with earlier colonial and post­colonial development schemes. In the early 1990s, part of the area was ear­marked for future reserve status. This is largely unknown to the local popula­tion, but it would horrify most Bantu and could only be made appealing to them, if it offered employment, modern infrastructure and opportunities to make money and to partake in the 'civilised' world. The Baka, however, could easily be integrated into conservation-related research as knowledgeable trackers and guides to forest fauna and flora, as have Pygmies in other na­tional parks. They would likewise fit well into low-level (eco)tourist projects of safari hunting, photo-safaris, and other forms of guided forest tours.

   Baka and Bantu Attitudes to Wildlife Top

I will now turn to local attitudes to wildlife. How far do stereotypical and moralistic images of authentic Pygmy 'ecologists' and of forest and wildlife­destroying slash-and-burn farmers correspond to current environmental atti­tudes, subsistence practices and market production? I have chosen the exam­ple of gorillas, chimpanzees and elephants to illustrate the differences in local attitudes and the way these are linked to ethnicity, interdependency and mar­ket involvement.[13]

Bantu think of Baka as meat-eaters par excellence, because it fits their ide­ology of gluttonous forest dwellers, and because Baka produce most of the available bush-meat. Exaggerating their demands on Baka exchange partners, Bantu tend to display, however, a much stronger craving for meat and are also less particular in their choice of meat. Cases in point are the great apes. Most Baka neither eat gorilla nor chimpanzee meat, nor do they hunt these animals of their own accord. A Baka hunter will only kill a great ape in defence or hunt it in the service of a Bantu patron. Among Bantu, it is up to individual tastes and morals, but some are indeed very fond of gorilla meat, and in Bantu villages it is very common to see gorilla skulls attached to the central post of the men's meeting place as a sign of the prowess of resident hunters. Both Baka and Bantu are very aware of these animals' propinquity to human beings, as we shall see below. The idea of eating a close relative of their own species does, however, not seem to bother many Bantu. Some even refer with eerie pride to the period of the `great war' in the nineteenth century, in which can­nibalism occurred as part of the raiding practices against neighbouring groups.

Nowadays the successful confrontation and killing of a great ape furnishes Bantu hunters with a reputation of bravery that was formerly associated not only with hunter but also with warrior status. Baka on the other hand, deem the great apes to be too person-like, too close to human beings both in shape and in behaviour. To be on the safe side, one better leaves them alone. And besides, great hunter status is firmly associated with the killing of elephants and, to a minor degree, of wild boar.

Bantu agree, however, largely with a Baka understanding of the great apes as sharing almost person-like qualities with human beings. A Baka hunter would say: `Just look at the way gorillas and chimpanzees stand upright and move about, and the way they eat. That is the way of a person!' Or: `Look at their body, their face and their hands; they bear the features of a person!' And when showing me the leafy beds of gorillas, Baka acquaintances commented, , only a person makes a bed like that to sleep in'.

Of Apes and Men

Bantu men are occasionally said to reappear in the shape of a gorilla after their death, either for no other particular reason than for wanting `to be around' a little longer, because they died in the middle of a rather good har­vest and want to enjoy some more of the fruits of their labour, or because they are dissatisfied with the way their funeral and departure into the netherworld has been arranged by their family. It is the coincidence of the recent death of a person and the unusual behaviour of a particular animal that leads people to relate the two events and to conclude that the spirit of a deceased has reap­peared in the shape of a gorilla. When a gorilla thus turns up in the vicinity of a village soon after the death of an old man and starts to hang out behind the house of the deceased or in his fields, the animal is left alone, because people think of it as a gorilla-revenant. In one case, such a rogue animal had been observed staying in a banana plantation a few miles out of the village eating the fruit on the dead man's field and sleeping in his hut on the plantation. An animal identified as a gorilla-revenant is usually a 'silverback', an old male with grey fur on its back that has been chased from his group by a younger ri­val and now lives on its own. It is thus not only the gorilla's behaviour, but also its age and social history that bear a certain analogy to the deceased.

In general, it is rather rare for a gorilla to venture into the close proximity of villages and to raid fields without concern for the presence of human be­ings nearby. Fearlessness of human beings is therefore an indicator that such an animal may embody a human spirit. Gorilla-revenants are not shot, and vil lagers simply try to chase them away or wait until they leave on their own ac­cord. An aggressive animal that attacks people and does not distinguish be­tween the fields it raids is, however, likely to be identified as a rogue animal and to be shot by a courageous villager.

The post-mortem transformation of a deceased person into a gorilla is inter­preted as the manifestation of the dissatisfied spirit of a dead person or a trick played by the spirit to make his discontentment known to the family by haunt­ing his former possessions. This kind of metamorphosis is different from shape-shifting, which is a technique that witches are said to use for attacking an adversary or for damaging his crops. Hunters in the possession of secret forest knowledge and mystic powers will also shape-shift into certain animals while out in the forest either in order to escape situations of imminent danger or to kill game. It is, of course, not good to kill a gorilla embodying a dead man's spirit. The spirit will take revenge and cause unforeseeable damage. But it is equally dangerous to try and kill a witch in animal shape, as the fol­lowing story reveals:

A Bantu man was out in the forest hunting, when he encountered a fe­male gorilla. Happy at the prospect of bringing home a good supply of meat he shot the gorilla once but didn't succeed in killing her. Un­wisely he pursued her into a cave-like hideout, where she attacked and badly injured him. She repeatedly bit him, tore a sizeable chunk of flesh out of his buttocks and left him with broken arms and hands. Shortly after, an elderly woman confessed on her deathbed that she had changed into a gorilla as part of a village conspiracy against the hunter, who was the most successful cultivator of plantains in the village.

This story is as much a reminder of the dangers involved in hunting gorillas, as it is part of a local discourse on witchcraft. Killing a gorilla is always dan­gerous and the successful hunter has to protect himself and his family through medicine from the revenge of the deceased animal's spirit. Killing a human shape-shifter in the guise of a gorilla is, after all, an involuntary homicide and may have even more unpredictable results.

When asking locals whether Baka men also reappeared as animals after their death, the immediate answer was: 'Yes, some do as chimpanzees!' This belief in the post-mortem reappearance of Bantu and Baka men in the shape of gorillas or chimpanzees respectively, corresponds to a pervasively used im­agery, which highlights analogies and links between the great apes and men. Bantu draw on the image of the fierce and powerful gorilla in a variety of ways. They did so particularly in pre-colonial ritual societies associated with leadership in politics, trade and warfare, for instance, in the so-called Gorilla Dance Society (Siroto 1969). The circumciser and instructor in a ritual for the initiation of young men into adulthood is significantly named after the male gorilla in both Bekwil, the Bakwele language and in Li-Baka.

Among themselves, Baka usually refer to their Bantu neighbours as 'ebobo', 'gorillas', and underlying this metaphorical association is a Baka perception of the Bantu as being boisterous, aggressive, loud and assertive. For Baka, both Bantu and gorillas display a strong sense of territoriality and hierarchy, their tempers flare up easily, they tend to be rough and bad mannered, and are prone to use brutal force rather than a subtle touch.

Bantu oral traditions, on the other hand, liken Pygmies to chimpanzees. These myths illustrate the Bantu perception of the closeness of the Pygmies to the forest world and their near-animal status. They relate that two brothers, the Pygmy and the chimp, split company after they had been forced out of their village and had to retreat into the forest. The Pygmy maintained contact with the villagers who had expelled him, whereas the chimp refused all human relations, lost fire and culture and turned into a savage beast. When they meet in the forest, the chimp is known to get very cross and aggressive with his brother who, although treated badly by the villagers, refuses to join him and prefers to return periodically to the village (Bahuchet 1993a: 33). A Baka story relates the original transformation of a Baka man into the chimpanzee. This man was savage, crazy, destructive and unpredictable, jumping around in trees, shouting and annoying everyone else. One day he stole the child of a Baka woman and took it up into a tree. When Komba, the Creator-God, passed by and heard the women crying and begging for the man to return her child, he told him to come down and subsequently transformed him into the chim­panzee (Brisson 1995).

Baka and Bantu are aware that they mutually project these images of great apes upon each other. Although this form of representation tends to have strong aspects of caricature, it is accepted on both sides and, in some ways, it is even seen as a fair representation of their respective status within the animal world. There are a number of phenotypical and behavioural differences between gorillas and chimpanzees, which make the great ape metaphors a useful tool to express ethnic difference. Gorillas are taller and of darker complexion than chimpanzees, and the same phenotypical distinctions are perceived to character­ise Bantu and Baka. The analogy also holds in some behavioural aspects. Hunting pressure affects both primate species, which have subsequently left areas of extensive human activity. Still, gorillas seem to be more at ease with human co-presence. They are bolder and rather curious about humans, but also more likely to challenge them in their territory. Chimpanzees, on the other hand, are a rare sight and tend to keep out of human territory. This compares with the unobtrusiveness and shyness of Baka and the rather low profile they main­tain both in the forest and in villages. Chimpanzees also display musical skills in the drumming of their chests or of tree trunks, a musical ability that Baka and other Pygmy groups are famous for. Like the Baka, chimps also have a well­developed taste for honey and are very proficient at opening beehives. An­other uncanny affinity for the elephant-hunting Baka is that chimpanzees have been observed taking the tusks out of elephant skeletons and to scatter them around. A modern metaphor, this time going the other way, is the Baka comparison between gorillas and soldiers, which says as much about the (Bantu) soldiers as it does about gorillas. Examining the footprints of a gorilla, a Baka com­panion told me that we had now entered gorilla territory: 'The gorilla is a sol­dier, man! When you enter his area and meet him, he is going to ask you for your passport. And you better have your papers in order, because he doesn't like to fool around. If you haven't got a laissez-passer, he will go after you, slap you in the face and kick you out of his territory.'

The image used here is one of a policemen or border patrol, administrative staff who are all non-local Bantu and professional soldiers. They use their power to control the movement of people and goods across the Congo­Cameroon border in a rather autocratic fashion. Not uncommonly, they extort money and services, lock people up overnight in a prison cell in town and are known for beating them up. For their part, gorillas are competitors for wild forest fruit, and occasionally raid fields and feed on agricultural produce. They thus tax human efforts in a different way than do policemen, but in a fashion that Baka experience as similarly unsubtle and arbitrary. [14]

Although the great ape metaphors of Bantu and Baka seem to be alike, they are so only on the surface. The Bantu use of the chimp metaphor for Baka posits a similarity in terms of phenotype, behaviour and habitat which links two beings that are essentially distinct. Although Baka are clearly human, they are perceived to be wild, gluttonous, smelly, unpredictable, uncivilised and at home in the forest rather than in the village. The chimp metaphor draws attention to these similarities and thus implicitly questions the essential hu­manity of Baka. It is used as a symbolic device to denigrate them and to jus­tify the deprivation of basic human rights. When Baka talk metaphorically about humans and animals, in this case Bantu and gorillas, their use of meta­phor is ambivalent and, in a sense, dialectical. It indicates as much the gorilla­ness of Bantu as the Bantu-ness of gorillas. The change of the polarity concerning 'source domain' and 'topic domain' (Bird-David 1993: 112, fn. 1) points to an important difference in Baka perception concerning distinct spe­cies and their interrelations. There is an underlying essential continuity, a vital energy or life force which unites all living beings, and against which their par­ticular phenotype and context-specific behaviour stands out as figure to ground. Non-human primates not only share the forest world and a generalisable life essence with human primates, but also striking similarities in phenotype. Moreover, both Bantu and gorillas display behavioural commonalities that elicit metaphorical association: they make territorial claims and attempt to control others, which basically violates the sharing ethic of the forest world, and they tend to be loud and aggressive, etc.

Any kind of metaphorical construction involves the combination of similarity and difference, or of continuity and separation. There is, however, an impor­tant distinction between Baka and Bantu metaphoric perception of the world and of each other. The former focuses on context-specific affordances which agents share beyond a generalisable essence of life. The latter essentially dis­criminates, for instance between species and between social agents, and it jux­taposes them in dialectical opposition. There are animals and there are humans, Pygmies and Bantu, chimps and gorillas, parents and children, etc.

Baka Hunting Elephants

Gorillas and chimpanzees are two of the wildlife species currently classified as 'endangered' and on the list for the CITES (Convention for International Trade of Endangered Species) ban on international trade in wildlife products. While Baka and Bantu attitudes to these primates seem, on the surface, to confirm a currently popular image of eco-friendly Pygmies versus Bantu 'eco­bruisers', we need only look at their attitudes to other animal species, in par­ticular to elephants-another highly debated species on the Appendix I listing of the CITES ban-and the picture is further qualified. Baka have, for in­stance, no qualms about knocking down big forest trees in order to get to bee­hives too high up for them to climb, and they have made themselves a great name as elephant hunters, who managed to bring elephants to the brink of ex­tinction in some parts of the forest during the early days of this century.

Elephant meat is culturally highly valued food, both among the Baka and the Bantu. It preserves well, and since the devaluation of the Franc CFA in 1994, it also enjoys a rising popularity in urban communities where it can oc­casionally be found on the black market. [15] Despite their sedentarisation and an increasing participation in roadside agriculture, Baka hunters are still famous for their skills in tracking elephants, and these giant lords of the forest have remained both a culturally and an economically valuable resource providing food, ivory and prestige. Elephant meat and fat are highly appreciated as a welcome change from a more regular diet of small and medium-sized game and constitute 'prestige' food items. Elephant tusks were formerly used as tools, and are nowadays mainly gifted and exchanged in Baka bridewealth transactions. Ivory, and to some extent elephant meat, have also remained central for exchange relationships with the Bantu, through which many Baka obtain cash money and imported consumer goods. Ivory tusks are thus items which combine the values of conceptually distinct economic modes depending on the situation and the exchange partner. They are shared and given among Baka themselves, gifted and exchanged among Baka and with Bantu patrons, and traded and sold to immigrant Muslim merchants. The status of a 'great hunter', 'tuma', is likened by Bantu to that of a 'chief', and although it carries no formal political power, it conveys prestige and authority among Baka. There is, for instance, a correlation of polygamy and 'wa.tuma' status that is linked to the salient position of great hunters in the local economy and in in­ter- and intra-ethnic exchange relationships.

Elephants are mainly hunted, however, in the service of local Bantu patrons or immigrant Muslim merchants, who provide a commissioned Baka hunter with a shotgun and the necessary ammunition, as well as with food and to­bacco. An elephant hunt can take up to a few weeks at a time, and relatively few Baka hunters own a gun and/or are capable of saving up for the initial in­vestment to embark independently on such an enterprise. This is partly due to an egalitarian social organisation and 'demand-sharing' among Baka, but also to a Bantu control of the means of production and an endeavour to keep Baka in dependent relations.

Baka men have probably hunted elephants for centuries, formerly with spears, and they have long been producers of ivory for exchange networks connecting intra-continental trading spheres. They certainly produced ivory for the Atlantic trade, that is, from the early sixteenth centuries onwards. Here, ivory made its way from the interior to the coast through a number of African middlemen to be exchanged for European imports, predominantly guns and powder. By the second half of the nineteenth century, when Euro­pean demand for ivory reached its peak, Baka had become highly specialised elephant hunters, and they have continued in this profession until today.

The whole of French Equatorial Africa (Afrique Equatoriale Francaise, AEF) exported, for instance, more than 100 tons of ivory per year in the pe­riod from 1899 to 1910 (Bruel 1918, cited in Bahuchet and Guillaume 1982), which was the equivalent of about a third of its total export value (Austen and Headrick 1983). During 1896 and 1905, Kamerun (Cameroon) ranked first among the German colonies in terms of its exports: rubber, palm produce, co­coa and ivory. The European demand for ivory was notorious: 'The amount of ivory shipped abroad increased rapidly up to 1905 but then declined abruptly because elephants had been hunted to extinction in large parts of the country' (Stoecker 1986: 72). The German administration of the Ngoko area directly north of Souanke reported in 1905 that the second most important export item of this region after rubber was ivory. Ivory production, however, was in seri­ous decline due to the 'mass murder' of elephants committed by the Pygmy populations, i.e. the Baka, who were said to kill the animals as much for their meat as for their tusks. The report concluded that there were still large quanti­ties of 'old' ivory that could be exported from the area. The local population had apparently amassed great amounts of ivory over time, which they were using as 'money' (Archives Nationales de Yaounde, FA 1/65: 214). Ivory ex­ports from AEF dropped from 29% of total export value in 1905 to 6% in 1927 and do not figure any more in Austen and Headrick's (1983) trade statis­tics from 1937.

World demand and supply of African ivory apparently increased again dra­matically during the 1980s, and a western-run campaign pressuring for the conservation of the African elephant quickly led to the implementation of the 1989 CITES ban on trade in elephant products. [16] There were, however, still an estimated number of 25,000 elephants in the Congo (Brazzaville) in 1989 (Cumming 1989, cited in Kreuter and Simmons 1994) [17] and there has been a limited but steady flow of Congolese ivory to black market centres in neighbouring Cameroon and Gabon. Most ivory is now traded on the black market, and although prices have dropped with the CITES ban, this drop has enabled new, or previously excluded consumers-for instance traditional Af­rican chiefs and bureaucrats-to buy ivory (Barbier et al. 1990).

Baka involvement in ivory trading as producers of this valuable commodity thus presents a different side of their engagement with the forest environment. Elephants represent ancestral figures of the forest and are salient in Baka rit­ual and eco-cosmology. However, in spite of the elephants' ancestral status, the positive effects of their ecological agency, and the perceived links between humans and elephants in mythical, spiritual, and cosmological relations, Baka got involved in a murderous trade of elephant products. The dilemmas of this trade and the perceived Baka exploitation of elephants have, however, entered into current versions of stories about hybrid 'elephant-men', so-called 'mokila', who are thought to engage in organised 'insurgency' against Baka communities. Taking revenge for murders committed amongst their own kind by the Baka, they are said to kill Baka hunters and to kidnap their women and children in the forest in order to replenish their own communities.

   Discussion Top

To conclude: how do western perceptions map onto local attitudes to wildlife and how do we interpret apparent congruencies? Bantu have a comparatively greater and longer-standing involvement in the market, a more direct experi­ence of the modern state and its agents, and, in pronounced distinction to Baka, they have a history of actively participating in its institutions. It is thus not surprising that Bantu environmental attitudes appear to be more akin to ours in their dualisms of bush vs farm, forest vs village, wild vs cultivated, and savage vs civilised. In a sense they reveal themselves as much 'closer' to ours, especially in comparison to those of the Baka who are relative newcom­ers to the world of settlement and formal education, Christianity and capital­ism. After colonial transformations had successfully taken place, most Bantu were finally embracing market-oriented practices of resource exploitation in a way that used to be an unquestioned dogma in the West until two or three decades ago. At present, however, their distinctly 'modern' attitudes to cash cropping and the commoditisation of wild forest resources make them look like the bad guys. My contention is that Bantu forest farmers have become the embodiment of our bad conscience within a currently fashionable discourse of conservation and sustainable development. Conversely, Pygmies are seen as the aboriginal population of an environment that is now deemed highly worthy of conservation or preservation. [18] Due to their unique co-evolutionary adapta­tion to it, including sharing and extensive land-use practices by characteristi­cally small numbers of people, they have refrained throughout time from the often destructive transformation of the land that has been attributed to their farming neighbours. Pygmies thus find themselves at the other pole of our at tention and consciousness, especially with increasingly politicised interna­tional debates on marginalisation and indigenous rights. Conservation efforts now extend not only to the biodiversity of forest environments, but also to the vestiges of a human culture that supposedly originated in it.

This is not to belittle real problems with Pygmy marginalisation and pres­sure on forest environments in areas with a steady influx of immigrant farmers from savannah or forest-fringe zones. But 'living museum' approaches to the conservation of 'ancient' human cultures consolidate existing politics of ex­clusion rather than counter them. [19] Furthermore, concerning the soundness of their ecological attitudes, it is not that Baka are 'closer' to nature than others. It is rather the nature of their engagement with the environment that makes them more likely stewards of it. The Baka 'cosmic economy of sharing' and their continuing emphasis on an egalitarian social organisation make it more difficult to embrace the principles of a profit-motivated economy that tends to be individualising and alienating. At least for the time being Baka are more involved, both in cosmological and practical terms, with their forest environ­ment. The forest directly provides a greater part of Baka subsistence than it does for most Bantu. It forms a more important part of their life-world and, in marked contrast to their Bantu neighbours of today, Baka experience it as a home. The forest is shared with other agents, fellow humans, animals, plants, and spirits, all of which engage in specific forms of subsistence, but by relat­ing to each other. Although the forest holds dangers, it is the source and sus­tenance of life that unfolds in the ongoing exchanges between these agents. Humans are but a part of the forest and, most importantly, they are not its owners, nor can they make legitimate claims to its ownership. Baka are thus less likely to go for the kind of alienated resource exploitation, which Bantu so happily seem to envisage and which treats the world as human property.

One of the paradoxes of conservation is the claim to a world shared by all organisms, in which the decisions about a hierarchy of values and forms of re­source exploitation are, however, made by humans and ultimately in human interest. Moreover, conservation in its current form is based on metropolitan science, be it biology or economics, and dominated by western interests. This was particularly evident in the controversy over the conservation of the Afri­can elephant (see Freeman and Kreuter 1994). The decisive campaigns to im­plement a world-wide ban on ivory were all run outside the African continent, mainly by western conservation agencies in the US and the UK (Bonner 1994), and sound conservation efforts by some African countries have been played down with reference to 'global interests'. The situation only changed in 1997, although many restrictions and tight control prevail.[20] As Shiva (1993: 152) points out, however,

'…[t]he erosion of biodiversity is another area in which control has been shifted from the South to the North through its identification as a global problem. ... But biodiversity is a resource over which local communities and nations have sovereign rights. Globalization becomes a political means to erode these sovereign rights and a means to shift control and access to biological resources from the gene-rich South to the gene-poor North ... [and] to enforce a worldwide sharing of the en­vironmental costs it has generated.'

Local actors whose subsistence strategies do not fit current western paradigms are easily put down with a Kantian appeal to the universal values of conserva­tion. This is evident in the demonisation, particularly of immigrant farmers in African forests. Such views are beginning to change due partly to the insights of 'new ecology' into nonlinear dynamics and the variable temporal and spa­tial scales in environmental transformations. This kind of research is slowly dismantling the idea of a unilinear and all encompassing 'problem' of envi­ronmental degradation. Other valuable contributions to the challenge of west­ern paradigms and the political and ideological context out of which they emerge do come, of course, from anthropology. [21]

   Conclusion Top

So what can we take home from this discussion of an apparent congruence of western perceptions and local attitudes to some wildlife species and not to others? We know that stereotypic dichotomies are too crude. There is a need for a historical context-particularly of the colonial times-and for in-depth anthropological research both into social and cultural configurations and into situated ecological and economic knowledges and practices. The irony may be that on the surface such research confirms preconceived stereotypes, but chances are that it will reveal in some depth why. At least anthropological analysis will give us a finer cut and help us to uncover subtle distinctions within local models, thus bringing out the complexities and underlying rea­sons for particular behaviour.


Research for this article was carried out from September 1992 through to Sep­tember 1994 in the Souanke and Sembe Districts of the Republic of Congo. It was supported by a grant from the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (German Academic Exchange Service, DAAD). I am particularly thankful to two Baka companions, Yeyou Albert and Gbado Maurice, and my then super­visor and mentor at the University of Manchester, Tim Ingold.[69]

   References Top

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