EASTERN CAMEROON (CNN) -- Looking back on my journey through
the Central African rain forest, there are lingering
memories: near disasters with falling trees, the beat of a
dying aboriginal culture, and a baby gorilla we found in a
village on a logging road.
The young primate, weakened by hunger and tormented by its
human captors, was another tiny casualty in the growing
commercial trade in the meat of wild animals.
The baby was on orphan, its mother shot by a hunter the
previous week. We found an adult male gorilla on the same
road only a few hours earlier, ready to be smoked and sold on
Gorillas and chimpanzees may be closely related to us, but
people here have always regarded them as food.
Now, with a growing number of timber companies punching new
roads into the deep forest, hunters find it much easier to
track down the apes and kill them. Then they capture the
babies and sell them as pets.
In one village, I faced a difficult choice when the man with
the baby gorilla offered to sell it to me.
Rescue center's value questioned
Some people who buy orphaned apes bring them to the Wildlife
Rescue Center at the Limbe Zoo in Cameroon.
If they get enough donations, volunteers at the center will
establish sanctuaries for chimps and gorillas to live in a
semi-wild state. The animals could never survive in the wild
The people at the center get many offers, but I was told they
never buy baby apes from anyone, instead preferring that
people donate the animals.
A few gorillas are saved at the center. But in the forest
their numbers continue to dwindle -- and some say rescue
projects like the Limbe Zoo's only distract from the real
"It is emotional, and it takes one or two species such as
gorillas and chips and it gives the illusion they're actually
doing something to protect these animals," says Steve Gartlan
of the World Wide Fund for Nature.
Forest to give way to people
The only way to truly protect them, I was told, is to protect
the forest where they live. And to do that, we must face a
reality that many conservationists do not yet seem to accept.
Central Africa's human population will double in the next 20
years, and most of the forest will be consumed for fuel wood
and timber exports. Most of its animals will be eaten.
Reality means some of the forest and wildlife can still be
saved if conservationists lower their expectations, stop
wasting efforts on lost causes and focus their attention
instead on achievable goals -- like establishing well-
protected sanctuaries covering just 10 percent of the forest.
Conservation realists say there's no room for sentimentality
in the rain forest, that the demands of human populations in
Africa will overwhelm any attempt to protect most of the
rainforest from destruction.
By trying to save everything, they argue, conservationists
would eventually lose it all.
A realist's choice isn't easy
I'm now a realist, accepting that most of the wild animals in
the forest along the roads we've traveled will probably
disappear in the next decade -- and accepting that, I could
not buy that baby gorilla.
To do so would have encouraged the hunter to go out and
capture another -- and this one was already too traumatized
to survived much longer.
I'm a realist, but I still wonder if I did the right thing.