Friday, July 28, 2017

The Emperor and the Elephants

Folowing is a review of The Emperor and the Elephants - A Peace Corps Volunteer’s Story of Life during the late 1970s in the Central African Empire,  Peace Corps Writers, Oakland, CA. 2016.

This memoir of Peace Corps service by Richard W. Carroll, who went on to become a noted conservationist and activist leader of the World Wildlife Fund, recounts his early years in the Central African Empire.  Initially Carroll was a “fish guy” charged with inculcating the virtues of fish farming to rural residents.  This was an active and successful program in the CAE as long as some outside agency - the Peace Corps, the French or the UN - kept funding the production and distribution of fry, i.e. baby fish. Sadly, once the donors left, without new fish coming in at the bottom, the system collapsed. 

But during Carroll’s tenure, it all worked fine.  After a stint as a fish guy, Carroll sought and received a transfer to the nation’s nascent game park Manda-Gounda St. Floris in the far north east. The park was relatively undeveloped and un- assessed. Carroll’s task was to catalog what was there in terms of animals and plants, of which he found a profusion.  His experiences in this wild place are what propelled him onwards to a career as a wildlife professional.

In the book Carroll tells about people, places, animals and birds. He muses about life and its meanings.  His African adventure took place during the bizarre times when the Central African Republic’s tinpot dictator Jean Bedel Bokassa crowned himself emperor. Carroll provides an accurate description of the national scene and observations of what that meant, or did not, to the rural folks he dealt with on a daily basis.  Essentially, it was all dramatic theater that had few repercussions on rural life. The fact that national resources were stolen and squandered by the emperor and his ilk was just how life was. However, the larceny included not just tax money and foreign aid, but also within a three or four year window the slaughter of tens of thousands of elephants for their ivory.  (Hence the catchy title of this book.) Even today, years after Bokassa’s demise, poaching continues apace. 

After his Peace Corps days, Carroll returned to the renamed Central African Republic to do research on lowland gorillas and help found the Dzanga Sanga reserve near Bayanga in the south western forest.  Although Carroll alludes to this time and again in the book, he never really elaborates on what was involved in that much longer experience. I wanted more. 

Finally, included in the memoir are excerpts from several latter day speeches decrying poaching of elephants and rhinos, the bush meat trade, the timber industry, and mining. In the CAR all the rhinos are gone, as are most of the northern elephants. Only the forest elephants remain and they are threatened by poaching and human encroachment. 

In sum the book is sort of a hodgepodge of themes all of which have some linkages one to another. 

Disclaimer:  I too lived and worked in the CAR for a number of years (1974-76 and 1992-1995) from a perch at the U.S. embassy. Carroll and I may have crossed paths for a month or so in 1976. A former PCV myself in Kenya, I was a keen supporter of Peace Corps programs and volunteers and, despite its odd politics, the CAR was a great Peace Corps country. Volunteers had productive and happy tours. I visited both St Floris and Dzanga Sanga on numerous occasions, and found them wild and wonderful. I am saddened by the communal violence that has afflicted the CAR during the past few years and the toll it has taken on the people and their communities, but also the negative impact the violence has had on those special wild places. St. Floris is empty and Bayanga under siege. Carroll’s plea resonates.