In 1889, an intrepid, 20-year-old American called William Stamps Cherry made a solo voyage up the Congo’s tributaries. His destination was Oubangui-Chari, a remote corner of the French Empire, in what would later become the Central African Republic (CAR).
From the capital, Cherry struck out into uncharted wilderness. He was completely alone, save for a double-barreled rifle. This hunter from Missouri found a land brimming with wildlife.
“There is no way of estimating the number of elephants in the interior,” he wrote in his journal. “It may be five hundred thousand. It may be a million. I think more likely millions.”
Today, more than a century on, the sustained slaughter of elephants has now left fewer than 3,000 in the region, with perhaps just a few dozen in the Chinko reserve, a vast area of wildernesses in the heart of the continent, surrounded by various civil wars.
Fuelled by the demand for bushmeat and ivory, decades of poaching have decimated an extraordinary mix of species. But remnant populations have endured the carnage and habitats remain intact. Conservationists are now battling to restore Chinko’s swaths of rainforest and wooded savannah to their former glory.
The park is managed by David Simpson, a charismatic 30-year-old from England who counts reformed poachers among his team of rangers and trackers. Ongoing conflict, however, complicates their efforts. War erupted in the country in 2013 when the Seleka-coalition of predominantly Muslim rebels-overthrew the government.
The coup sparked clashes between the rebels and vigilante groups known as the Anti-balaka, in which thousands died. Fighting is again on the increase as the Seleka alliance splinters.
Run by conservation non-profit African Parks, Chinko is at the centre of a humanitarian disaster. In March 2017, more than 300 civilians fled into the park to find refuge from marauding militias. Employees at Chinko offered this terrified community food and shelter, setting up a temporary camp for them deep in the savannah.
At last, after more than a year in exile, these internally-displaced people have now returned home.
Poachers, illegal miners and rebel militias all operate with impunity in this anarchic region. Another threat comes each dry season when cattle herders-and their thousands of cows-migrate southwards from Chad and Sudan in search of pasture.
These armed nomads kill game and light uncontrollable fires to clear a path, their herds have been blamed for spreading disease and overgrazing land.
Just a few years ago, cattle had overrun the park. Aerial patrols recorded barely any wild animals. But this bleak scene has changed dramatically.
Chinko has a team of negotiators-many from herding families-who meet pastoralists, offering food supplies to encourage them to bypass the park. Now, a single flight in a bush-plane takes in multiple species.
On one patrol, as the setting sun cast the plains in a purple glow, one of Chinko’s tiny aircraft soared above a pod of hippo, a troop of baboon and, further on, two herds of buffalo grazing close to bounding hartebeest.
Increased sightings and fresh tracks suggest that lions and elephants may be bouncing back, too.
This little-known sanctuary is almost twice the size of Yellowstone-resources are stretched and incursions by poachers persist. But life, finally, is finding its way back into Chinko.
Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting