Hunters or poachers? Survival, the Baka and WWF

Survival’s recent press release denouncing the brutal persecution of Baka “Pygmies” by anti-poaching squads in Cameroon, and calling on WWF to stop funding them, has elicited a huge public response.

WWF has reacted angrily, denouncing Survival’s campaign as, inter alia, “absurd”, “finger-pointing” and “self-serving”. Here are the facts behind the headlines.

Can you briefly tell us the background to this controversy?

Over the last 15 years, large parts of southeast Cameroon have been turned into national parks. Other areas have been set aside for safari hunting. But much of this region is the ancestral homeland of the Baka “Pygmies”, who have lived in these forests for centuries.

Trying to protect the rainforest sounds like a good thing?

The problem is that this model of conservation – turning indigenous people’s lands into national parks – turns the very people who have looked after the forest into criminals. They’re often evicted from their former homes, or banned from hunting and gathering. Or these activities are heavily restricted. So they’re no longer able to feed themselves, and end up at the bottom of the pile, destitute, with terrible social problems – the kind of thing we see time and time again in American Indian reservations, for example, or Aboriginal communities in Australia.

How is WWF involved?

WWF was a key backer of these parks’ creation, and since 2000 it’s been funding the anti-poaching squads who patrol the region and enforce the anti-poaching laws. And it’s acted as consultant to a logging company which also operates in the Baka’s forests.

Is WWF actually funding these anti-poaching squads?

Yes, WWF has provided direct support to these squads, in the form of cars, drivers, and fuel, and even built them bases to operate from. It’s also provided indirect support, via Cameroon’s Ministry of Forests and Fauna. Its help is vital – without it, the squads couldn’t operate.

WWF says you’ve only recently made it aware that the anti-poaching squads have been attacking the Baka, and that you haven’t helped it investigate the allegations?

We first wrote to WWF International’s Director General in March 2014, and wrote another three times before he finally replied on October 16, over six months later. But in fact WWF has known about all this for far longer – a decade ago, two researchers were so concerned that they flew to WWF’s HQ in Switzerland to personally tell the then-Director General what was happening. And besides the Baka themselves, many academics, researchers and organizations have also told them. These include Survival, the Forest Peoples Programme, and organizations in Cameroon such as the Centre pour l’Environnement et le Développment, and the Centre pour l’Education, la Formation et L’Appui aux Initiatives de Developpement au Cameroun.

WWF says it supports your call for an investigation?

In fact it took WWF more than two months to do this, at which point it suggested that the Ministry of Forests and Fauna investigate itself. It didn’t even want the results to be published. WWF didn’t appear to think it had any responsibility, as the key funder of the anti-poaching squads, to commission an independent inquiry into these crimes.

Shouldn’t you and WWF be working together?

WWF has known that the anti-poaching squads are persecuting the Baka since 2003, but it simply hasn’t done anything about it. And it’s been aware of the underlying issue of tribal people being evicted to make way for conservation zones for far longer. Take a look at for instance, which suggests little has changed since 1997. Survival first expressed our concern to WWF about the threats posed to Baka by conservation initiatives in 1991.

WWF says that you don’t really know what’s happening on the ground, whereas it has an office in Cameroon.

We’ve been visiting the Baka and other “Pygmy” peoples for many years. We’ve been publicizing their plight since 1975. We have collected dozens of testimonies of Baka people denouncing their treatment, and asking for this issue to be made public. What reason would these people have to make all this up? They’re not looking for money, they just want the persecution to stop.

WWF says that some Baka are poachers?

Baka hunting in their forests to feed their families are usually considered “poachers” under Cameroonian law. WWF itself has acknowledged that this is discriminatory.

But the Baka and their neighbors continue to bear the brunt of the abuse, while the real problem – commercial poaching – goes largely unaddressed.

WWF also knows that the Ministry of Forests and Fauna condones the use of torture to obtain “confessions” about poaching.

It may be true that some Baka are occasionally used by organized poaching gangs to guide them in the forest. That must not however be used to condone gross and systematic human rights violations which have gone on for years, and which are funded by a conservation charity.

Are you just criticizing WWF because you want to get publicity?

Well, we are indeed trying to get publicity, because a decade of meetings, correspondence and reports seems to have changed almost nothing on the ground. Many Baka want this issue to be publicized as widely as possible, in the hope that they will no longer be criminalized for feeding their families, and that WWF and the anti-poaching squads will radically change their attitude to them.

What do you want to happen?

Simply for the Baka’s basic rights to be respected, so they can live in and from their forests as they wish, without fear of persecution. This may sound straightforward, but in fact implies a radical shift in the attitude of conservation organizations like WWF towards the tribal people who have looked after these rainforests since time immemorial. The Baka have the right to the collective ownership of their traditional lands.

Additional Information

You may also be interested to see this letter, sent to Prince Philip (then President of WWF) by Martin Cradick of Global Music Exchange in 2003. Mr Cradick had been working with Baka people on music projects for ten years.

He was alarmed that the Baka “only knew of the WWF as a European body who was trying to throw them off their traditional hunting grounds”, and that “the activities of the Eco guards paid for by WWF affect the lives of the Baka to a far greater extent than the lives of the Bantu population [the local non-”Pygmy" population].

He warned that “a generation of Baka” are being “terrorised” by the anti-poaching squads.

See here for WWF’s replies.

For further information:

Note: “Pygmy” is an umbrella term commonly used to refer to the hunter-gatherer peoples of the Congo Basin and elsewhere in Central Africa. The word is considered pejorative and avoided by some tribespeople, but used by others as a convenient and easily recognized way of describing themselves. Read more: