My curiosity was stirred. He did not want to shake my hand.
It was not through rudeness, the welcome we were receiving was warm and genuine, and he did politely explain that it was to “try and reduce disease transmission”, but I was intrigued. I was a new guest in the only tourist operation in the most unvisited country in Africa. I would have predicted a slightly more conventional welcome. After we had washed our hands at a conveniently located basin just past the entrance, I resolved that Rod was an eco-lodge operator that I wanted to get to know.
His glasses hid a boyish blue twinkle in his eyes and his face told a story of a lifetime spent outdoors, much of which had clearly been spent smiling. He stood just under six foot, dressed head to toe in khaki. With long grey hair tied in a pony tail and a tumbling grey beard that almost hid the binoculars hanging around his neck, Rod looked like the quintessential bird-watcher-cum-hippie; imagine that Gandalf has decided to go on safari and you’ll get the idea.
We had arrived at Sangha Lodge. Perched on a rocky promontory on a bend of the Sangha River, seven simple, but well fitted cabins welcome any guest determined enough to get here. Rod has been accepting clients for the last six years. The majority are people who come to visit the Dzanga-Sangha National Park, 40km away, which ironically is exactly where we were trying to get away from for our Christmas break.
We were ushered into a traditionally constructed wood and grass hut. I say hut, the size of a small barn the building functions as a communal open-plan living area for guests. The open sides of the building mean that you can see right through to the balcony, with fantastic views of the forest and the river. Under a high grass ceiling there are wicker chairs, cushions and coffee tables. Along one end, already laid for dinner, was a long dining table with wine glasses, side plates and an African print tablecloth. Rod was stood behind an elegant bamboo and ebony construction that serves as his bar.
We watched the sun sink into the river and the sky exploded into an orange haze caused by dry-season dusts blown down from the Sahara. Rod makes me a Gin & Tonic. This is not an experience I expected to have this year.
Rod is South African and the son of Irish immigrants. He served in the South African Army, seeing action in Angola during the brutal Namibian war. He worked as a museum curator, ran a woodworking factory and was a naturalist on a couple of expeditions to Antarctica. But his real love has always been the natural world. He has spent most of his life running bird watching tours all across sub-Saharan Africa.
He fell in love with this particular part of the Congo Basin because of the biodiversity.
“I can see more bird species here in a single day, than are resident in the entire British Isles. When I got the chance to buy this place, I seized it and never looked back,” he said.
The site is an old hunting camp. Some of the buildings were already here, but Rod has spent thousands of man-hours and Euros to transform it into a luxury eco-lodge. He now runs the only serious tourist operation in a country the size of France. However, the country is war-torn, remote and difficult to get to. Every citizen on the planet is “advised against all travel to the Central African Republic” by their Governments. There is no real rule-of-law to speak of, so he has no asset security. Neither does he have any real protection from the endemic corruption that pervades every aspect of public life. The local people are poorly educated and untrained, making finding staff difficult. The tropical climate provides endless challenges and his location means that his supply chain is a logistician’s worst nightmare.
I started to understand his unconventional greeting. You do not survive out here unless you are practical and resourceful. To create a bubble of comfort and luxury in the middle of such chaos, you need to think differently. You need to be adaptable but tough. Not shaking my hand, was a small way to reduce infection and help keep the unknown out of his camp, protecting the pocket of comfort that he had created. A small example that you cannot take anything for granted out here.
Rod’s passion for nature, and his life’s work as an African tour guide, has led him to not only become one of the best naturalists and “birders” on the continent, but also to be incredibly well informed on conservation efforts in Africa. After several more G&Ts and a satisfying dinner, we animatedly discuss the state of the natural world.
“What is conservation?” Rod challenges.
Considering that I have recently decided to embark on a career in the sector I feel that my answer should have been a little more fluid, less hesitant. I mumble something about safeguarding nature, managing national parks, protecting wild animals and plants.
Rod doesn’t disagree with this, but he questions the scope of my answer.
“The biggest problem faced by every national park in Africa, is that they are surrounded by impoverished people. These people are poor, they have no money. They are struggling to feed their families and next door in the national park rhino horn is worth more than gold. Do the math. You don’t have to be a genius to work out what happens next,” he said.
This would be true whether it is rhino horn, elephant tusk, bush meat or mahogany trees. There is a powerful economic force that drives people to illegally exploit protected wild places. Even in the face of extreme, shoot-to-kill anti-poaching policies.
The concept of getting local people on board with conservation efforts is not a new one, it is central to most conservation strategies. Though what was a revelation to me is what Rod said next:
“I am a conservationist. This lodge is a conservation project,“ he said.
“I employ twenty staff on this site, all of whom go home with a proper wage in their pocket. They can feed their families. They understand the link between people visiting this area, the national park and the money they get each week. That spreads out to others in their community. That is how you protect wild places,” Rod enthuses.
His perspective on this problem gave me a moment of revelation. The idea that NGOs, charities and governments do not have a monopoly on conservation was startlingly new. It is a very simple proposition: small, private businesses have a key role to play in conservation. They can do this through wealth creation: improving the lives of local people by giving them jobs. This sounds obvious, but this is not something that I have found regularly discussed in conservation circles. Indeed, business often comes off as the bad guy. Logging companies, bush meat markets and private smuggling cartels: so often the language of enterprise and private business is negative and is associated with conservation problems. It doesn’t have to be this way.
It goes to show that you can read something over-and-over again in a textbook, to the point where you know it so well it becomes a mantra: “involving local people is key to conservation efforts”. But not enough time, imagination or business acumen is applied to asking: how? To see it actually done and to have it explained to you by the guy who has done it, makes you stop, catch your breath and question what you thought you knew.
By this point we have made a sizeable dent in the bottle of gin. It was time to retire, but if tonight’s conversation was a benchmark, then the decision to stay here for a week over Christmas was looking like a very good one indeed.
As we collapsed into bed, the moon was full, bathing everything in a silver blue glow, cicadas were humming and the gentle sound of the river stretching south into to the Congo Basin floated up into the room.
I reflected that we had now been out here for eight weeks. We had totted up thousands of new experiences, worked for weeks on end in the field and spent many hours talking to conservation experts. But, as I drifted off to sleep, it dawned on me that I had probably learnt more about conservation in the last two hours, than I had in the entire of the last two months.