December 3, 2002 - Des Moines Register: RPCV Michelle Wieland combats poachers in Central African Republic

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RPCV Michelle Wieland combats poachers in Central African Republic

Read and comment on this story from the Des Moines Register about RPCV Michelle Wieland who is a member of a group that calls itself Africa Rainforest and River Conservation, or ARRC. The leaders of ARRC, featured in last month's issue of National Geographic Adventure, secured the blessing of the president of the Central African Republic in August 2001 to work on protecting animals and people in the nation's eastern third. Read the story at:

Ex-Iowan combats poachers*

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Ex-Iowan combats poachers

The former W.D.M. woman helps preserve African wildlife in a nation rife with civil unrest.

Register Staff Writer
Iowa City, Ia. - Michelle Wieland left the land of cattle and hogs and joined a battle to protect elephants, lions and other animals in Africa.

The former West Des Moines resident's two-year stint with the Peace Corps led her to an ambitious conservation effort in the Central African Republic.

In a nation where civil unrest is high and government stability low, the effort has pitted a small, mostly American group against the poachers who reportedly have devastated the area's animal population and terrorized villagers.

"It's unlike any other African country I've been to," said Wieland, 27, who extended a brief visit to her family in West Des Moines after hearing of a coup attempt in the central Africa nation. "There were Jeeps full of soldiers everywhere, the presidential guard was everywhere and Libyan soldiers at the president's house had something like rocket launchers on the back of their trucks."

The U.S. State Department issued a travel warning on Oct. 31 recommending that Americans avoid the Central African Republic and ordering U.S. government personnel to leave. Rebel forces were battling government troops in the capital city of Bangui, according to the State Department.

The group Wieland joined calls itself Africa Rainforest and River Conservation, or ARRC. The leaders of ARRC, featured in last month's issue of National Geographic Adventure, secured the blessing of the president of the Central African Republic in August 2001 to work on protecting animals and people in the nation's eastern third.

"It was agreed then that a project would be set up to do anti-poaching, but also, and more importantly, to help the local people and set up a good conservation project," said Wieland, who earned a degree in animal ecology from Iowa State University.

The disappearance of much of the wildlife from the eastern third of the country was what first caught the attention of Dr. Bruce Hayes, a Wyoming physician and organizer of wilderness trips who now directs ARRC.

"There used to be thousands of elephants and lions and every type of animal you can think of," Wieland said. "When Bruce went down the river in 1999, the group was expecting to see lots of animals, and they didn't see a thing, or very little wildlife."

They investigated more by visiting villagers in the remote region around the Chinko River and heard stories of Sudanese poachers.

"They found out that hundreds of people were coming into the area and slaughtering the wildlife and taking the meat, ivory and skins out of the country on horseback, camels and donkeys," Wieland said.

Wieland's boyfriend, Dave Bryant, a South African she met during her Peace Corps service in Malawi, was brought in to oversee the anti-poaching work.

"It's the government's policy to kill poachers, but it's not ARRC's policy," Wieland said. "We've sent them a message saying, "We are here. Now don't come around." If we come across them, we aren't going to shoot first."

The group plans to train 100 to 200 local citizens to help protect the animals.

Wieland is in charge of ARRC's community development work. She wants to help the villagers help themselves.

The villagers didn't have trouble with the poachers when the wildlife was plentiful because the poachers offered them meat of the animals they killed and took the tusks, horns or skin, she said.

Once the rhinoceros, elephant and other wildlife began to disappear, the poachers changed.

"They would capture women or children and hold them hostage until the parents smoked the meat. They would take slaves and make them carry the meat back to Sudan," Wieland said. "Or they would rape the women - they still do - and shoot those who go against them."

As a result, the villagers have bigger concerns than just protecting the area's ecosystem.

"They aren't going to be interested in animals. They are interested in whether I'm going to see tomorrow and are my kids going to be educated," she said. "In helping them, we can help protect the wildlife."

The group is working to raise enough private donations to continue their work. That was part of the reason for returning to the United States for a visit, she said.

She plans to return to Africa in early 2003 to continue her work if the battles and bombing associated with the recent coup attempt settle down.

"I just love the job," she said. "I feel like I'm doing something hands-on that really helps conservation."

More about African Rainforest and River Conservation

Read more about African Rainforest and River Conservation at:

African Rainforest and River Conservation


The tropical forests of West and Central Africa hold an immense wealth of biodiversity and knowledge. Nowhere in the world can such a diversity of large mammals and vascular plants be found living together. But political instability, multi-national resource extraction and widespread poverty have pushed these wellsprings of life to their brink. While the damage to these forests and their inhabitants varies widely across the region, all of Central Africa's natural diversity is in imminent danger. West Africa's forests have been heavily logged, leaving only a small percentage of original, old growth rainforest. The Democratic Republic of Congo's (DRC) forests are healthier, but the Congolese war has left in its wake a climate of severe political and economic instability. Many of these forests have been isolated by war and disease for decades. But the international business community knows full well the value of Africa's resources and is moving quickly, taking advantage of young, cash-hungry governments. These forests hold a daunting wealth of knowledge in medical cures and natural processes as yet undiscovered. Saving them will require immediate action.


Poaching is an old problem in Africa. What has changed is the scale. With automatic weapons readily available, the wholesale destruction of wildlife is now common. In the 1970's, poaching became a widespread international commercial venture. Between the illegal animal parts trade and the commercial bushmeat trade, wildlife has grown into one of Central Africa's biggest exports. Today, poachers regularly travel across International borders to pursue this tragic business, often working in conjunction with corrupt officials. In the 1990's, once impenetrable forests began falling to vast clear cuts, opening convenient travel routes to poachers where access was once non-existent. Enormous logging camps now feed many of their crews by hiring poaching teams to kill forest animals for meat.


Logging, like poaching, has grown to a devastating scale. Where small pit saw operations were once the status quo, multi-national corporations now negotiate or buy huge logging concessions, often clear-cutting indiscriminately. With international conservation efforts so focused on South America's and Southeast Asia's tropical forests, logging companies have now shifted much of their attention to Tropical Africa. Mounting international debt, poverty, greed and political corruption have driven many African countries to sell their natural resources for a pittance, sacrificing long-term economic health for short term gain.


Tropical Africa has a wealth of mineral resources, with the DRC being the continent's richest country in hardrock mining potential. Gold, silver, copper, diamonds and col-tan are just a few of the many resources. Although these mines are predominantly small-scale operations, international attention is increasing. Surrounding countries’ attempts to steal these resources has largely perpetuated the 4-year Congolese war. Armies from Uganda, Angola, Rwanda and Zimbabwe all have occupied portions of Congo, often controlling hardrock mining and using it to finance their interest in dividing up Congo. As these mining projects grow around critical forests, watershed degradation, road building and poaching will undoubtedly increase.

Political instability

Political instability is the rule and not the exception in Central Africa. As colonial powers pulled out of Africa in the mid to late 20th century, old tribal grievances and systems redefined the political structure. Coup d'etats, rebel uprisings and corruption have left many Central African countries without political continuity or international recognition. As a result, few scientists or conservationists are willing to risk their time, money or personal safety to protect these imperiled forests. A new conservation paradigm needs to be developed; one where the social, political and natural landscape are treated as a whole. If scientists and conservationists do not learn to operate effectively in these often dangerous places, vast tracks of biodiversity will be lost.

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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; What RPCVs are doing; Special Interests - Wildlife; COS - CAR



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