In the remote Central African rainforest, two major charities are battling over the future of some 50,000 pygmies, beset by poverty, hunger and alcoholism after they were evicted from their lands to save iconic elephants and gorillas.
As wildlife populations shrink at an unprecedented rate, conservation groups are pouring millions of dollars into efforts to protect their habitats – which critics say often put animals before people.
In Cameroon, Survival International, a group campaigning for the rights of tribal people, has accused the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) of funding anti-poaching guards who have beaten and killed Baka pygmies with impunity.
The charity also says WWF violated international guidelines by supporting the creation of three national parks on Baka land a decade ago without their consent – charges WWF denies.
Since being moved off their ancestral land, most of the largely-illiterate Baka live in huts made of leaves, bamboo and mud-baked bricks alongside southeast Cameroon’s roads, just outside the protected areas that they need permits to enter.
They divide their time between camping in the forest, particularly during fishing, caterpillar and mango seasons – where they often come into conflict with guards – and the villages, where they farm plantain and peanuts.
“If WWF can’t prevent this abuse and can’t get the Bakas’ consent, then it needs to get out,” said Michael Hurran, Africa campaigner with London-based Survival International.
Worldwide, a surge in wildlife poaching, including the slaughter of elephants for ivory, is pitting conservationists, trying to save endangered species, against tribal people, unable to secure rights to land they have depended on for centuries.
Government authorities in Switzerland, where WWF is based, agreed in December to mediate in the Cameroon dispute. In its formal complaint, Survival International submitted more than 20 redacted statements, including handwritten letters by a Baka rights group, detailing allegations of abuse by “ecoguards”.
“On paper, (WWF) supports indigenous people’s rights… but in reality, they don’t,” said Hurran. “Behind the scenes, they support this very repressive human-free idea of what national parks should be.”
WWF’s Africa director Fred Kwame Kumah told the Thomson Reuters Foundation none of the allegations of abuse had been substantiated.
The Baka are one of the ethnic groups that make up Africa’s half a million pygmies, the continent’s largest group of nomadic hunter-gatherers who are usually less than five feet (1.5 metres) tall.
Pygmies have long faced discrimination and mistreatment, from being displayed in human zoos in Europe to enduring enslavement and cannibalism in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Some regard the term as derogatory.
“I personally see the Baka as the solution, and not a problem,” said WWF’s Kumah, pointing out his was the first international conservation group to adopt principles on the rights of indigenous peoples.
“That’s the only way we can secure these places.”
WWF is working to win more rights for the Baka, Kumah said, such as creating Cameroon’s first Baka-managed forest.
An official with Cameroon’s forest ministry said an influx of poachers and criminals from neighbouring Central African Republic (CAR) forced it to boost security in the area – leading to what rights groups said was abuse of the Baka by guards.
At the height of CAR’s civil war in 2013, poachers massacred almost 30 elephants at a world-famous watering hole in the Dzanga Sangha World Heritage Site on Cameroon’s eastern border.
“If enquiries show there are abuses of Baka, the (guards) will be severely punished using the law,” the official said, declining to give his name.
What no one denies is that the transition from forest life to the money economy is proving difficult for the Baka.
“We are losing our culture,” said Messe Venant, who heads Okani, a Baka rights group in Cameroon. “The Baka and the forest are inseparable.”
Exiled from their ancestral lands, Cameroon’s 50,000 Baka people are rapidly losing their culture and traditions, he said.
“In the forest, people were more relaxed, they had everything they needed,” Venant said in a phone interview.
“Now, people want to find somewhere to drink alcohol and then the day is ruined… They are totally lost.”
Venant wants the Cameroonian government, led by veteran President Paul Biya, to let the Baka move back into some national parks to resume their traditional way of life.
Millions of people across Africa have been expelled from their land to create protected areas like national parks, according to Charles Geisler, a sociologist at Cornell University, who dubs them “conservation refugees”.
Protected areas have doubled since the 1990s, according to the World Bank, covering 15 percent of land globally, often displacing indigenous people who lack political clout to resist.
“They will often be regarded as subhuman,” said Rosaleen Duffy, a professor of politics at the University of Sheffield.
“They… are left in this almost destitute situation.”
With few other options, the Baka often hunt illegally in the forests for bushmeat to eat and sell or for poaching gangs.
“They probably get 50 to 80 percent of their calories from the forest,” said Terry Sunderland, principal scientist with the Centre for International Forestry Research.
“If you look at wildlife offtake from the Baka community, it’s tiny in comparison with the other poaching that goes on.”
The Baka and other indigenous peoples would benefit if Cameroon’s laws were amended to allow them to hunt and gather in the forest, he said.
Efforts to crack down on commercial poachers, who are often well-connected and rich should also be stepped up, experts said.
Africa’s elephant population fell around 20 percent between 2006 and 2015 because of a surge in ivory poaching, conservationists said in a report last year.
The illegal wildlife trade is one of the world’s most profitable criminal enterprises, worth up to $20 billion a year, the United Nations says.
Switzerland’s State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) said it will publish any final agreement in the dispute between the two advocacy groups. But it is unclear where talks would take place.
“We insist this should be in Cameroon,” said Kumah of WWF. “The solution is in bringing the Baka people with the government in the same room.”