The Unspoken Abyss
6:45am. Trying to enjoy a quiet breakfast but there is a steady stream of scientific vomit spewing from Dr. Walsh's mouth. Peter Walsh is the researcher who is here for a month and has just completed his controversial measles vaccination program of our gorillas. His internal censor is either missing or broken. It's just too fuggin' early in the morning to listen to his multi-syllabic technical secretions. He has clearly spent far too much time in academia. His core vocabulary has words like trajectories, gradients, variance, and probabilities all in heavy rotation and the sun has not yet breached the horizon. Everything he says is framed and analyzed as a quantitative model or as a cost/benefit ratio. The only actual probability this morning is that I might smite him with my fork.
Peter is the kind of person who enjoys an audience when he speaks. He is always lecturing as if only surrounded by students. He speaks at you, not with you. He enjoys talking about himself and telling his African stories and anecdotes but then he immediately tunes out when anyone else shares theirs. He has a very subtle yet calculated way of trying to impress others by saying things like: "Yeah, I often get invited to be a guest speaker at regional conferences but I really hate attending them." Or another one of his favorites: "I see the same mistakes time and again from conservationists when I get hired for consultancy work." I think he may be incapable of having an actual conversation as a mutual exchange of ideas or information. Occasionally, he tries to do nice things for us here in camp but he always manages to sabotage himself. Today, as the truck was leaving camp to go to Bayanga, he asked me if I wanted anything from town that he could bring back tomorrow. I asked him for fresh bread, sugar, and pack of smokes. He said he would bring the bread and sugar but that he has ethical issues with the cigarettes. Hmmm. He has issues with smokes but he has no ethical issues with darting gorillas with a live virus.
Since the tranquility of breakfast had already been disturbed, I casually mentioned to everyone that I woke up this morning to discover that a few of my condom packages had been opened. Apparently I got laid last night so I asked the girls if they knew who my accomplice was. Immediately, Kat chimed in that just a few days ago, she woke to discover her birth control packaging had been eaten through by mice. Kat's cabin is 40 yards across camp from mine. There must have been a huge mice orgy and they had all scurried about looking for safe sex tools. I had no idea we had such liberal health-conscious mice here in camp. Even if all the local snakes decided to embrace a new vegetarian diet, at least there is responsible family planning being practiced to keep rodent numbers low. Or there's just a bunch of slutty mice around looking for a casual one-night stand.
Over the last weeks, I have been slowly scraping away at the thick impenetrable walls that Bruce has constructed all around him to guard his privacy. For the first month he was here in camp, he was a ghost. Never said a peep (unless someone asked him a question) and was rarely seen outside of mealtime. The man is more machine than man. Both his manner and his locomotion are oddly robotic. He speaks slowly, thoughtfully, choosing his words carefully. And unlike most people, he finishes every sentence to the last word rather than letting his thought trail off into an unspoken abyss. His movement is the epitome of anatomical correctness- a walking erection with perfect spinal alignment. Head held high with full neck extension, shoulders set down and back, and a short gait so his body weight is always evenly balanced below his pelvis. He walks with the same precise pace at all times, never slowed, never hurried. He spends all day, from 7am until 4pm, in the forest and never eats lunch. I figure him to be in his mid-60s and he's in better physical condition than most of the local research assistants in their 20s. He totes an enormous load of photographic gear into the forest every day and hand-carries his baby nurtured close to his breast. A 600mm fixed focal lens with a fast aperture that is worth $10,000usd. He cradles it with a pair of thick gloves to reduce the heat and sweat being absorbed from his hands. A few weeks ago, I went into the forest with him to photograph a dead monkey and he accidentally tripped over a liana on the path. Rather than use one hand to break his fall, he refused to release his grip on his baby. He fell hard directly onto both knees. Without the slightest grimace or wince, he got up and carried on. (Bruce told me later that he actually wears the gloves to protect his hands from being bitten by filaria flies).
On the rare occasions that he does not immediately leave the table after dinner to go work on editing his photography of the day, I take the opportunity to speak with him to learn of his remarkable life. He has amassed a distinguished photographic legacy after 30 years of living and working in Central Africa. He began his career in Kenya, where he was born and raised by British parents, and eventually began inching west across the continent as the job assignments began coming in from Zaire. Bruce has the biggest private collection of independent film on central African rainforests including the wildlife and pygmy tribes that inhabit them. He is sitting on a massive library of footage which includes film on birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals which has never been captured before.
A decade ago, Bruce decided to self-finance a wildlife documentary on gorillas and began filming in Congo's premier national park, Odzala. Around the mid-90s, Odzala's pristine beauty and hordes of wildlife finally caught the world's attention. Prior to that, it was virtually unknown, except of course by local villagers. There is a network of bai's there, the largest of which regularly attracted some 400 gorillas, not to mention dozens of elephants, bongo's, and giant forest hogs. Once discovered by the outside world, ECOFAC (a European Union project designed to assist Central African governments with their forests, wildlife, and rural communities) established expensive camps and infrastructure in order for tourism and research to be implemented there.
Bruce arrived at Odzala in 2002 and filmed there for 3 years until a biological bomb exploded in the region. In 2005, the Ebola virus swept through northern Congo and virtually wiped out the primate population, both human and non-human. It's estimated that 95% of the gorillas who visited the largest bai at Odzala had been killed, including all of the habituated gorillas. Bruce has the only known footage of Ebola actually in the process of killing apes. He somehow managed to capture on film one particular gorilla dying of Ebola over the course of a few days. Due to the tragedy, Bruce chose to change the storyline of his film to include the actual threats that the region faces, including Ebola, the bushmeat trade, deforestation, and habitat loss. He was nearing completion in post-production and had a rough cut ready. He just needed to put a music score to it, add the narration, and then have it polished in a broadcast-ready format.
Bruce approached National Geographic to see if they had any interest in buying the rights to his film. They wanted to buy it on the condition that he cut out all the segments that they considered too gruesome and depressing for the average viewer. They wanted a formulaic feel-good documentary about cuddly gorillas in the bai with a happy ending so people could go to bed feeling warm and fuzzy about nature, blissfully ignorant to the cold hard realities of life in equatorial Africa. Bruce immediately rejected their proposal. The head writer for Nat Geo's wildlife documentary department confided to Bruce that they only make hamburgers there. In other words, original footage submitted to Nat Geo is routinely minced, mashed, and chopped beyond recognition.
The documentary business, like all tv broadcast programming, is all about numbers, ratings, and focus-group testing for audience satisfaction. Executives care less about content and more about profitability.
Documentary's no longer document anything other than the compromises and deception engineered by their producers. They often portray half-truths while omitting the vital issues facing conservation. They are just another form of an entertainment program brought into your living room to amuse you. The age of enlightenment is over. The BBC in ye olde England still produces the occasional quality program but even the British stalwart is succumbing to the global dilution of documentaries from the pandemic infectious television disease.
Bruce has spent $350,000usd of his own money to finance his film. In order to protect his original idea and exacting standard of quality, he wants virtual total creative control of how his footage will be edited, narrated, and ultimately aired. Because no one, including Nat Geo, has agreed to his conditions, he has chosen to park the film. This diamond mine of material has an intrinsic value as a historical record of flora and fauna which far outweighs any price that a tv or film production company could offer him. It remains sealed in his vault. He is smart enough to know that because most of the wildlife and huge tracts of forest will be decimated in a very short amount of time, he will be the only documentarian who has an accurate historical record of nature as it once was. And once we get to that point, which we are marching quickly towards, Nat Geo will come knocking on his door begging to buy the rights.
Bruce is an old-school filmmaker, a true storyteller, who knows his subjects' behavioral repertoire nearly as well as the field biologists. He is not part of the new diluted generation of hired guns- a producer-cameraman team sent off to capture footage but who have no idea of the ecology of their target species. These are the "documentarians" who follow the formula dumbed down to the lowest common denominator so some redneck truckdriver and his stripper wife who live in Reno can enjoy the program. Because of this soul-destroying aspect of the industry, Bruce has stepped away from commercial work. It disgusts him. He's at the stage of his career where he can turn down job offers and just pick the smaller conservation-project NGO work where he is given free reign and retains total creative control as well as the rights to all his images. Bruce is pure artist, with an uncompromising vision, an unbreakable determination, and the tireless patience necessary to capture his art. The more I learn of what makes this machine tick, the more my respect and admiration for him grows.
Six years on from the Ebola epidemic that gutted Odzala, the once-glorious national park has been reduced to a wasteland. At roughly the same time the virus swept through this region of northern Congo, the EU stopped funding their ECOFAC program there. The camps and infrastructure that ECOFAC established there in the mid 90s are now a ghost town, swallowed by the forest. The final nail in Odzala's coffin was hammered in with the construction of a new road which runs down the eastern edge of the park. As partial payment to the government of Congo for logging rights, a timber company offered to build the road. This new access provided easy transport for logging trucks as well as easy access for a new wave of poaching. Within months, daily hauls of bushmeat were being carried out of the national park headed for Ouesso, a market town northeast of Odzala at the Cameroon border and the epicenter of the bushmeat trade.
One of my regrets about Africa is that I did not get a chance to witness this wildlife spectacle during its prime. Odzala had a window of a decade in which it was, as I'm told, the most spectacular park in all of Central Africa. I don't know to what extent it may have recovered but clearly not to its previous level. I won't make that mistake again. Hopefully sometime in the next 3 years, I plan to see another wildlife spectacle which supposedly rivals Odzala in distinction- Loango National Park in Gabon. Hugging the Atlantic coast, Loango boasts the holy habitat trinity: forest, savanna, and coastal ecosystems. This is a wildlife Eden where one can see hippos swimming in the ocean with Humpback whales lolling on the surface of the sea in the distance behind them. And on that same day, it's possible to see elephants and gorillas walking from the forest straight onto the beach! Get there before a virus, a civil war, oil drillers, or timber concessions beat you to it. Get there.