“I am a Fang woman.” A powerful statement in a country where the culture is dominated by President Teodoro Obiang, a leader of the Fang tribe.
Fang people serve in government positions and other influential posts in Equatorial Guinea, while the majority of the rest of the population of the small West African country, and especially the people on the small island of Bioko, belong to the more mellow Bubi people.
Photographer Joel Sartore, a National Geographic contributor and Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP), discovered the tribal differences as he tried to shoot some provocative images of primates being sold at the municipal bushmeat market for the recent RAVE (Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition) cosponsored by CI and National Geographic.
The women at the market became highly agitated. Luckily, Sartore was accompanied by a Spanish woman who is married to a Fang man and therefore is considered Fang, despite being white herself. “I am a Fang woman,” is all she had to say to restore order and to permit Sartore to make his images.
The small country of Equatorial Guinea, where the RAVE took place, was blessed with unexpected wealth when oil was found just offshore from its coast on the Gulf of Guinea. New wealth, sadly, also translated into an increase in the consumption of “fresh meat,” as wildlife meat is locally known. Fresh meat, or bushmeat, as opposed to frozen beef or pork brought in from other countries, has become a serious conservation issue in Equatorial Guinea, and particularly in Bioko, where the capital city of Malabo is located.
PARTNERSHIP: CI works with many photography partners to showcase the world's biodiversity.
The recent RAVE was designed to show the world the magnificent diversity of wildlife found in Bioko. In addition to Sartore, three other National Geographic contributing photographers – Tim Laman, Christian Ziegler and Ian Nichols – and writer Virginia Morell accompanied the expedition. They were led by Dr. Gail Hearn, founder and president of the Bioko Biodiversity Protection Plan, a small NGO that collaborates with the University of Equatorial Guinea (UNGE) and the University of Arcadia in the United States to study and protect Bioko’s wild treasures.
As I flew into the Malabo airport, I saw from the airplane window that there is still a fair amount of forest remaining on Bioko. This still largely forested island is an impressive repository of unique and threatened wildlife, including seven species of primates found nowhere else on Earth.
President Obiang, as it turns out, had the foresight to create a system of protected areas in Bioko that covers 40 percent of the island. Unfortunately, he has failed to invest in the necessary infrastructure, human and physical, to ensure the survival of this amazing biological heritage.
This lack of governance coupled with an increased appetite for fresh meat and a more affluent population, has become a disastrous combination for Bioko’s primate populations.
The market stalls are filled with unique wildlife, including beautiful red colobus monkeys and powerful drills, duikers (forest antelopes), crocodiles, colorful birds, pangolins and snakes. Limp and lifeless, the once vibrant creatures now await their turn at the “torching table” where jovial young men char fur, scales and feathers using a flame torch.
There is nothing that can prepare for you for the smells, the sounds and the sights of beautiful wildlife being charred, sometimes while still alive. My first encounter with the torching table confronted me with my own cowardice.
I could see from a distance what was going on but I was too afraid to approach the table and face the horror. Instead, I sent my taxi driver and asked him to tell me if there were any monkeys being “prepared.” But the best catches are brought in at daybreak and we didn’t arrive until 9 a.m.
I left with nothing but the resolve to come back the next morning and behave like a real journalist.
Continue to read more of Cristina's experience in the Bioko bushmet market in part II of this series.
Cristina Mittermeier is Executive Director and a fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers. The views expressed here are her own.