William Thatcher Dowell
On the road from the Thai border back to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, we used to stop at a restaurant that displayed a monkey’s corpse crucified to a wooden frame. We called it, of course, the Endangered Species Restaurant. The monkey, along with body parts of other unidentified animals, made up the lunch menu.
“Looks mummified, doesn’t he?” said my companion.
“Or maybe a Christian?” I offered, eyeing the splayed corpse.
I’d first gone to Cambodia in the 1970s, when I was covering the Vietnam War. By the 1990s, when I returned, Pol Pot had been driven out and while there was an ostensible government, its reach was limited to the capitol. The countryside was a free for all. You never knew if a band of mercenaries would attack you on the road, or whether you’d find a village you’d once known reduced to ashes.
When I say an ostensible government, I mean barely functioning. Thieves were ripping off pieces of the Angkor Wat temple complex to sell to smugglers. The national museum was infested with bats. Not all bad, since the curators were selling the guano as fertilizer to finance the museum. With Cambodia in disarray, bandits and Khmer Rouge irregulars intermittently shooting up the place, a restaurant serving monkey was barely worth remarking on.
I was Time magazine’s Southeast Asia bureau chief in those days, and what qualified as news was war and, less frequently, peace. When I look back at those trips, I realize that another war was going on, the war ecologist Raymond Dasmann called World War III, industrial man’s war on nature. The casualties were all around us.
By the 1990s, conservation biologists recognized that extinction was accelerating, largely because of human population growth. Despite the emotional response to cute animals, extinction is a hard sell to the public. Yet it is a threat equal to climate change. In fact, extinction and climate change act synergistically, and at current rates, threaten global ecological collapse.
Covid-19 alerted people to, a more present danger: 75 percent of all emerging infectious diseases are “zoonotic” which means they are transmitted from animals to people: Ebola, HIV, SARs, and most likely, Covid-19. These diseases spread when humans intrude into wild areas, coming into contact with animals that had once lived their lives undisturbed, or relatively so.
The things that kill you are never what you expect them to be. While the Ebola virus means almost certain death, it is so virulent that it kills the host that it depends on for its own survival, ultimately triggering its own extinction. Covid-19 is more subtle. So many of its early victims were elderly or infirm, the illusion was that if you were young and healthy, there was not much to worry about. That was a false assumption. To date, the global death toll from COVID-19 — not to mention the worldwide economic disruption — stands at nearly 7 million, and the pandemic is not over. In contrast, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that total deaths from Ebola stand at slightly more than 11,000.
It almost seems as though evolution is experimenting until it finds the perfect weapon to level at human beings. The vector that carried the Covid-19 weapon — you could say, the gun that fired the fatal bullet — was wildlife, the endangered species that so many people expressed concern over but did little or nothing to protect. It was this wildlife that I had regarded with only the mildest interest on my trips as a foreign correspondent. As Americans debated the origin of Covid-19, I thought about why it is so difficult to stop that war against nature, the one I’d encountered all those years ago, even though I hadn’t recognized it.
In 2001, Time laid off a lot of us at the foreign bureaus. Still living in Hong Kong, I talked my way into an assignment from Talk magazine, the short-lived publication headed by Tina Brown.
I had heard through contacts at the United Nations that the Uruguayan Navy was about to dispatch a peace-keeping force to clear the Congo River of pirates. Some years before, I had met Paul Kagame, the narrow-faced bespectacled general who had ended the 1994 Rwandan genocide at the head of a Tutsi army.
The price of peace was externalizing the remnants of civil war. Rwandan Hutus had spilled into the eastern Congo, which had become a battleground between Rwanda’s warring factions, as well as Congolese tempted to seize power from the relatively weak government in Kinshasa.
Talking to my contact at the UN, I had flashbacks to Heart of Darkness, reviled by Chinua Achebe and others as racist and colonialist in recent year, yet still possessing an archetypal power. The novel, I was to find, was firmly based in Joseph Conrad’s four months as a merchant seaman in Congo. He had gotten the geography right, according to my source.
“The Congo is so vast,” a friend at the United Nations explained, “that the river is the only way you can move supplies. There are no roads, and if you fly, you need to carry enough fuel with you to get back to Kinshasa.”
He added, just in case I didn’t know, that the Congo had played a far more strategic role in world affairs than most people realized. “The uranium that went into the atom bomb that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki came from the Congo,” he said. “If you’ve got an iPhone, chances are that the rare earth minerals that make it work came from the Congo.”
“Go for it!” the editor at Talk said.
Malcolm Linton, a Time contract photographer who had more experience and knew Africa better than I did, came with me. He liked the fact that Africans still had a sense of humor. In light of the general atmosphere of depression that had descended on the Time-Life Building, the Congo, despite its perennial troubles, looked pretty good.
In addition to scaring up freelance work in the wake of our layoffs, I had personal reasons to take the trip. My wife’s had father worked as a bush doctor in the Congo in the 1950s and I had been immersed in the stories of her childhood and their rushed departure from the country.
Michèle was born in Kivu, in Manguridjipa, a tiny village in Eastern Congo where her father, a Belgian national, had worked as a bush doctor. When the war for independence began to take shape in the late 1950s, the tribal chiefs had gone to Michèle’s father. They explained that they planned to kill all the whites in the province except for two families, hers and one other.
“But we will have to take you as a hostage,” the chief added, rather apologetically.
The family’s rapid move to Europe proved to be a jarring cultural shift that Michèle never really got used to. I was interested in seeing the land of her childhood, and the Congo promised a brief chance to get back to the field. The Congo had a certain magic, one of the legendary blank spots on the map romanticized both by Conrad, and later, the American conservationist Aldo Leopold (“'What avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?’) This was an all-expense-paid way, I thought, to explore a place where nature still had a chance.
When we got off the plane in Kinshasa, I noticed an African in a dark blue suit talking animatedly on a cell phone. A number of other phones dangled from his belt. I guessed this was intended to project an image of technological sophistication in darkest Africa. “No,” Malcolm said, “The reception here is lousy. You never know which phone will actually work.”
Kinshasa, formerly Leopoldville, looked like a dystopian ruin. Homeless people had moved into abandoned government buildings and were managing cooking fires in the hallways. The window frames no longer had any glass and the edges were charred black from the smoke. The streets were spotted with potholes that looked pretty much like bomb craters. Next to each, you’d see a middle-aged black man dressed in T-shirt and boxer shorts.
“They ask passing cars for money and then they agree to fill in the holes,” Malcolm explained.
At a few intersections, we spotted motorcycle policemen in blue and yellow uniforms wearing motorcycle helmets and directing traffic. They had no motorcycles, but at least they had the uniform.
We checked into the UN compound, had some iced tea, and watched a tennis match on the compound’s courts. We weren’t going to spend a great deal of money, so we checked into a hostel run by an evangelical Christian sect. The other guest at the hostel was a Belgian who explained that he was here to buy diamonds. Why else would anyone come to the Congo?
The UN arranged a flight to Mbandaka, halfway up the river. The town had been known as Coquiilehatville when it was still a Belgian colony. “The Uruguayans are stationed there, and they’ll be clearing the rest of the river from that point,” a UN officer explained.The flight was on a nearly empty Soviet-era Antonov transport plane. A crew member, I guessed from Chechnya or some other former Soviet saatellite, sat sphynx-like in a chair next to the cockpit door. Next to him was a nearly life-size pin-up of a blonde in a bikini.
Kinshasa spreads out from its tumultuous waterfront as far as the eye can see. Its sibling, Brazzaville, on the opposite bank is much the same. In contrast, Mbandaka resembles a rash from a mosquito bite, or more probably, a tsetse fly. A gathering of twenty or so houses cling tenuously to the riverbank.
The first thing that struck me after seeing the river was that to try to reach the shore, you had to cross 10 or 20 yards of tangled, half-submerged roots. Given the gnarled wood and dense vegetation, my guess is that you would never make it. Islands of floating vegetation passed by. The river was not only imposing, it seemed limitless, the shore inaccessible.
Malcolm and I ventured forth. In the market, we noticed, the locals happily wolfed down live caterpillars doused with red pepper. A woman held one out for me to try, but I shook my head.
UN headquarters was in a white hotel that had most likely been built by Belgians before independence. The Uruguayans seemed determined to convert their patch of jungle into a little Uruguay. They had set up their own FM radio station and were broadcasting Latino songs out over the jungle. The officers wore starched blue UN uniforms, and every one of them seemed to have his or her own thermos full of maté. They clutched the thermoses close to their bodies as though they contained life-giving oxygen. Maybe it was just a memory of home, I thought. In Conrad’s account, when you lost those moorings, madness followed.
Malcolm and I checked into what had been described as a sort of local motel. In fact, it was a long building with a number of concrete cells. Each cell had a cement basin holding water, a bed, and mosquito netting. It could have passed as basic prison accommodations for any convict serving a life sentence, but it offered a certain protection from an onslaught of insects and other wildlife ready to eat anyone who might be foolish enough to venture outside at night. The trick was to get under the mosquito net before four or five of the micro-beasts could slip in with you.
I asked the white owner if he were Belgian or Congolese. “Belgian!” he snapped. I later discovered that he was pretty much a man-of-all-trades and was also the local agent for Air Afrique (formerly known as ‘Air I Freak’). He lived in an impressive villa with a Congolese wife who was quite beautiful. He had created a tenuous paradise for himself and seemed determined to keep a low profile, lest anyone try to take it away from him.
On the way there, I’d run into a UN delegation from New York, being led by the then-Secretary General, Kofi Annan. A number of the group clutched copies of Adam Hochschild’s book, King Leopold’s Ghost, which recounts the horrors of the colonial period. I gathered that the team from New York was striving for an instant understanding of what they were looking at during the whirlwind trip. In Mbandaka, out of curiosity, I asked a number of ordinary Congolese what they thought of the Belgians.
“We wish they’d come back,” was the answer. I understood what they were trying to say. No one wanted a return to colonialism, but what had followed that period had been considerably more violent with not a lot to recommend it.
On the second day, we tracked down the Uruguayan Navy commander, who bore a striking resemblance to Kevin Spacey. After explaining that the Congo was a chance to up his resume and experience a little adventure, he assured me that he was eager to talk to the press. “We’ll go out on the river, tomorrow,” he promised.
On the river, whatever romantic ideas I might have had about nature were rather quickly unromanticized. The boats we hitched rides on were crammed to the gills with refugees. Pigs rooted in the garbage at the riverbank. As we traveled along the river, the pirogue’s crew feasted nightly on bits and pieces of a small crocodile, smoked until it was pitch black and twisted into a scaly ring so that it appeared to be biting its own tail.
I remember flinching, recalling that one of my father-in-law’s tasks was to inspect meat in the local market with a sharp eye for anything that looked vaguely human. No cultural snobbery here. It happens. As one might recall, it happened in California, when the Donner Party was stranded.
Returning to the Covid outbreak for a moment, it’s worth noting the extraordinary breadth of the wildlife trade. In Latin America, between five to eight million people rely on bushmeat as a primary source of protein. In Asia, the number is harder to determine but thought to be even larger. In Central Africa, including Congo, where Malcolm and I traveled, more than two million tons of bushmeat is consumed each year, causing Empty Forest Syndrome: forests that look normal but are devoid of wildlife. Interpol estimates the illegal wildlife trade at $20 billion annually, just behind guns and humans.
The Covid-19 crisis focused attention to this problem. In the short term, conspiracy theories aside, scientists are fairly certain that the coronavirus outbreak started in an outdoor food market in Wuhan, China. These "wet" markets are where poor and working-class Chinese often get their food. But they are also where rich Asians, not only in China, but Vietnam and Korea, obtain illegal wildlife.
As news of the pandemic broke, China issued a temporary ban on wildlife markets where animals such as civets, live wolf pups, and pangolins are kept alive in small cages while on sale, often in filthy conditions where they incubate diseases that can then spill into human populations. The National People’s Congress issued rules against trading in wild animals and limited, but didn’t ban, their consumption. President Xi Jinping emphatically declared, “We can’t be indifferent anymore!”
That was mostly public relations. The rules are there, and international restrictions on trading in wildlife and endangered species have been on the books for decades. Enforcing them is a different story. Consider the pangolin. Early reports indicated that COVID-19 was spread by a pangolin in the Wuhan market, although the latest thinking is that a rare species called a raccoon dog acted as a middle creature. Nevertheless, the pangolin shows how ineffective and inadequate efforts to control the wildlife trade have been.
All eight species of pangolin are considered critically endangered. China outlawed the sale of pangolins in 2007, yet TRAFFIC, which monitors the global trade in wildlife, reported that around 90,000 were smuggled into China over the next nine years. The conservation group Wild Aid estimated that a million pangolins were poached over that decade.
If anything, the rules and regulations against trafficking pangolins probably made pangolins more valuable as a semi-clandestine delicacy, promoting the status of anyone capable of offering pangolin meat in a hot pot.
In 2020, it almost seemed as if an international outcry might result in real change. Dr. Anthony Fauci, then chief medical advisor to the U.S. president, called for shutting down wet markets. The United Nations biodiversity chief, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, also called for a global ban on wildlife markets. But Mrema’s statement came with a caveat.
"It would be good to ban the live animal markets as China has done and some countries," she said. "But we should also remember you have communities, particularly from low-income rural areas, particularly in Africa, which are dependent on wild animals to sustain the livelihoods of millions of people. So unless we get alternatives for these communities, there might be a danger of opening up illegal trade in wild animals which currently is already leading us to the brink of extinction for some species.”
Science writer David Quammen put it in perspective, writing in The New York Times about “…7.6 billion hungry humans: some of them impoverished and desperate for protein; some affluent and wasteful and empowered to travel every which way by airplane. These factors are unprecedented on planet Earth: We know from the fossil record, by absence of evidence, that no large-bodied animal has ever been nearly so abundant as humans are now, let alone so effective at arrogating resources. And one consequence of that abundance, that power, and the consequent ecological disturbances is increasing viral exchanges — first from animal to human, then from human to human, sometimes on a pandemic scale.
“We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbor so many species of animals and plants — and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses. We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”
By 2023, when wet market bans had been all but forgotten, the war in Ukraine had displaced the pandemic as the crisis du jour. Yet the war’s less visible toll was a deepening of environmental decline. Russian attacks on Ukrainian harbors where ships departed to transport grain to Africa threatened food supplies. Forty-five percent of Africa is already desert, and climate change is wringing out more land. The demand for bushmeat will follow the curve of scarcity, ironically, in a continent that is rich beyond imagining in natural resources.
The Congo is one of those African countries suffering from what economists call “the resource curse,” the instability that accrues when a country with a weak government finds its natural resources in high demand. These days, the hot commodity, as my UN source had reminded me, is coltan, a mineral used in cell phones. But there are also diamonds.
At the appointed hour, Malcolm and I accompanied the Kevin Spacey lookalike commander in an inflatable rubber Zodiac. We drifted out into the river. The Uruguayan sailors looked incongruous and slightly ridiculous in their blue helmets and bulletproof vests. The Congolese were wearing cutoffs and were mostly shirtless, which made a lot more sense in the climate. The river was huge, but it was still just a river. The boats circled a few times and then their captains decided to go back. The Uruguayans didn’t seem too interested in actually finding any pirates.
“What am I going to do with this?” Malcolm asked in desperation. “There’s no story,” Malcolm repeated, “and there certainly aren’t any pirates.” I had to admit that compared to the other stories we had worked on, this one lacked drama.
Back at our concrete bungalow, a contract worker, a tech specialist from India, rushed up. “Did you hear?” he said. “What?” I asked. “The World Trade Center!” he said. “They just blew it up.”
I found a satellite phone and called Michèle in New York. “It’s terrible here,” she told me. I said something to the effect that maybe now Americans would understand what the rest of the world has been dealing with all along. “I’d be careful about saying that,” she said. “This is different.”
With New York, the Pentagon and most of the U.S .in full panic mode, a bunch of Uruguayans circling the water in a motorboat was, to put it mildly, not much of a story. We decided to keep going, for reasons that now seem obscure.
Malcolm disappeared into the crowd and came back a few minutes later. “I rented a dugout with a motor,” he said, “and we have a crew to run it.” The crew was a young man, Paté, and an older man whose name I never got, but who apparently knew motors. We threw our packs into the canoe and headed downstream.
In late afternoon, we pulled up to the riverbank in a village named Gombé. Belgian nuns were running a clinic, which consisted of thatched mud huts.
“You had better see the district commissioner,” we were told as we arrived. We were led to a ramshackle ruin of a house that might once have served as a villa for a Belgian colonial administrator. \We were ushered inside. There was no door and the windows were gaping holes.
The commissioner, however, was a dapper, gray-haired man in pressed slacks and a crisply ironed, white button-down dress shirt sitting behind a wooden desk piled high with papers. A vicious-looking dagger with a handle carved from the bones of some unidentified animal lay next to a pile of papers on his desk. He saw that I had noticed the knife and deftly covered it with a sheaf of papers.
“What do you think of our village?” he asked.
“Picturesque,” I said.
“It’s a ruin,” he said.
“It could be improved,” I admitted.
“No, it can’t,” he said. “That would require money, and we have none.”
Sunlight broke through holes in the collapsing roof. Straw had been wedged into the rafters. Feathers floated slowly toward the commissioner’s desk. I guessed some birds had stashed their nest there.
The next morning we took off downriver in the canoe. Around a bend, we came across a Congolese Navy post. A plump, but seemingly good-natured man in civilian clothes introduced himself as a major, obviously in intelligence. He invited us to breakfast, which we happily accepted. He had heard about the attack on the World Trade Center.
“You Americans must be destroyed,” he said. I said that the casualties had been less than 3,000, and the U.S. had a population of nearly 350 million.
“We are shaken,” I said, ”but I hardly think that we are destroyed.” He nodded. “And besides,”I said. “The Congo has a population of around 60 million people, and more than two million have been killed in fighting over the last two years. You are not destroyed.”
“Yes,” he said, “but we are Congolese. We are used to it.”
The next week was equally uneventful. We found a barge. The passengers told us stories and hit us up for money. As we docked one night, an evangelical pastor prayed loudly at midnight, leading his followers into the river, a Biblical scene from John the Baptist. Perhaps God would protect them, I thought, recalling a woman I had seen in the market. She was selling a huge electric catfish capable of delivering a 300-volt shock. Cowardly, perhaps, but I never got into the water after that, even when it was brutally hot. The river had secrets that I would rather avoid and the catfish, I assumed, was only one of them. Malcolm snapped a few pictures.
Still, no pirates. The captain’s foreman, a pleasant-looking, slightly rotund man in his mid-40s approached us. Motioning us away from the others, he spoke in a low voice. “Are you interested in diamonds?”
Malcolm and I had some great pictures, but not much about the pirates. We went through the motions of submitting the story to Talk, but for the next six months, no one could talk or think about anything except 9/11. Despite the media frenzy, hardly anyone seemed to spend any time thinking of why someone would want to attack the U.S.
I was asked to work on a film for PBS Frontline on the religious implications of the attack. We were tasked with answering the question: How could God let such a thing happen? At a story conference, I mentioned that, in fact, a similar occurrence is mentioned in the Bible. The destruction of the Tower of Babel was a retaliation for man’s arrogance against Nature and God.
It was not only the World Trade Center building that resembled the original tower, I said, but it was really the economic system that the building represented. In producing record profits, our economic system had ravaged the planet and encouraged inequality, exploitation, and the destruction of anything that stood in its way. That might have been easy to ignore until now, but to continue along this path was clearly unsustainable, morally, politically, and ecologically. Not surprisingly, the suggestion received a less than warm reception.
I suppose there is a grim sort of hope. In H.G. Wells’ turn-of-the-century science fiction thriller, War of the Worlds, an invasion by seemingly invincible aliens is defeated by the common cold. It turns out the advanced aliens have no immunity against the planet’s lowliest, single-cell biological entity. As we encounter more animal species previously shielded by impenetrable jungles and rain forests, we may find ourselves in a similar situation, only this time, we are the not-quite-invincible aliens.
As a foreign correspondent, it was easy to become immersed in political squabbles and the senseless carnage that results from man’s apparent inhumanity to man, and easy to overlook quieter dangers that are ultimately likely to prove fatal.
I stand by the notion that 9/11 was not exceptional, a word we like to use about America, just another in a long line of attacks and murders I reported on. The attack was a one-time event for Americans, but atrocities in the Congo continue as they have for decades now, largely ignored by the Western media.
The animals? They're still eaten, of course. In places where people are struggling for survival, basic needs must be met. Most efforts to save the environment are just paper, empty policy statements, or, worse, luxuries to make people in the West feel better about themselves.
Nobody seems to be able to stop any of it.
From the Congo at Mbandaka, a woman selling an electric cat fish, which delivers 300 volts.
A Goliath Tiger fish, the only fish capable of killing a crocodile, Congo.
On the Congo River
Wet market in Xian.
Vintage photo, Congo.
William Thatcher Dowell was a staff correspondent for Time based in Paris, Cairo, Hong Kong and New York. From 1993 to 1995, he lived in Hong Kong, working as Time's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief. He covered the Arab world and Iran from 1989 through 1993.
All photos are his own, unless otherwise noted.