BAYANGA, Central African Republic -- The menacing mimicry of animal cries echoes through tangled rain forest from a band of diminutive human predators.
Suddenly, frantic squeals ring out as a scrawny, wide-eyed antelope gets tangled in a net trap. A woman clobbers it with a stick. Two other antelopes meet the same fate this morning, a modest take compared to those of yesteryear.
As they have done for more generations than anyone can remember, the Pygmies of the BaAka tribe are on the hunt.
Legendary people who rarely grow to more than 5 feet tall, several million Pygmies once roamed the rain forests of Africa, hunting wherever and whatever they pleased.
That began to change when taller and more powerful Bantu warriors and farmers forced them farther into the woodlands. Then poachers using guns and deadly wire snares depleted the herds, and loggers attracted by mahogany reduced the forests.
'Pulled out from under them'
An estimated 250,000 Pygmies from various tribes remain, with about 3,000 BaAka eking out an existence in shabby camps around Bayanga in the southwestern corner of the Central African Republic.
"The forest was being basically pulled out from under them like a rug," says Richard Carroll, director for West and Central Africa and Madagascar at the Washington-based World Wildlife Fund. "Once the forest is depleted, then who cares about the Pygmies? They are left marginalized in roadside camps with no means of support."
Slowly, and with mixed feelings, the BaAka Pygmies are abandoning their age-old ways of hunting and foraging.
The instrument of change is the Dzanga-Sangha Project, an initiative to promote wildlife conservation, rural development and tourism. It offers the Pygmies a chance to save a substantial amount of the natural resources on which they've always depended.
Predatory nature denied
Dzanga-Ndoki National Park was a prime hunting ground for the BaAka Pygmies. It now is off limits to any pursuit of game. Hunting is confined to a forest reserve, where Pygmies are encouraged to use only traditional weapons such as nets and spears.
As the park project, which is sponsored by the World Wildlife Federation and the German Technical Cooperation, marks its 10-year anniversary, the Pygmies are still trying to come to terms with its impact. Their lifestyle has become more settled, and many Pygmies cultivate small plots. But there are constant requests for the boundaries of the national park to be altered to allow hunting.
"It's not easy to work with forest dwellers because they are naturally predators," says Georges N'gasse, a local environmentalist. "They believe natural resources are for their use. That is why the strategy for conservation needs time."
In an effort to win over the Pygmies, the project recruits them as trackers, seed experts and guides for tourists who want to try net-hunting or search for medicinal plants.
The amount of tourism is minuscule. Reaching parts of this most inaccessible of regions may require an awkward waddle waist-deep through water turgid with elephant dung and rife with snakes and leeches, followed by a trek through masses of twisted undergrowth.
Salaries paid to project staff members, who work as guides and trackers, typically are much higher than those for any of the few other jobs available in Bayanga. As a reward for adhering to good conservation practices, Pygmies are offered health and education programs. Many can neither read nor count, and few know their age.
"In the long term, you can't protect wildlife if you have an opposing population in the area," says Allard Blom, a conservationist with the WWF who was previously based in Bayanga. "You have to convince the majority of people in the area that it is to their benefit."
Guards take weapons, meat
Many Pygmies pine for the days when they could hunt gorillas, leopards, elephants and giant pangolin, a scaly anteater. Not all have accepted the need for conservation. Project guards have confiscated and destroyed almost 50,000 cable snares over the past 10 years, and several large-caliber elephant guns and illegal shotguns.
Preventing illegal hunting has been an uphill battle because the trade in bush meat and ivory is lucrative. Project guards have confiscated more than 17,000 pounds of bush meat since 1990.
'King of the Pygmies'
One man who is not trying to change the Pygmies is Louis Sarno, a 6-foot-tall white American and a self-described lousy hunter. For 14 years, the New Jersey native has lived among the BaAka, documenting their customs, studying their language and recording their music. Friends affectionately call him "King of the Pygmies," though he bridles at the title.
Although some academics dismiss Sarno as an amateur and social misfit, others consider him an unrivaled authority on the life and ways of the BaAka. Miles away from modernity, Sarno, 45, has found his niche in a roadside camp called Batali.
'It's his passion'
"I feel more at home here than I do when I go to the States," he says.
Despite his obvious physical differences from the BaAka, those who know Sarno marvel at his ability to assimilate.
"He's become a Pygmy," says Andrea Turkalo, an American elephant research scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society. "Even his mentality is Pygmy-like. They love him. And Louis knows [the BaAka]. He's really interested in them. It's his passion."
Drawn by music
A love for the high-pitched, polyphonic compositions of BaAka music is what initially spurred Sarno to head to Africa. He first heard the sounds on a radio show while living in the Netherlands with his wife at the time, who was Dutch.
"I became obsessed with it," recalls Sarno, who studied comparative literature at graduate school in Iowa and left the United States for the Netherlands in 1979. "I just had to come and make my own recordings."
A book he wrote on Pygmy music, called "Song From the Forest," was published in 1993. A compact disc featuring tracks that he recorded soon followed shortly.
Prefers his new continent
Sarno's home is a mud-and-thatch hut. He uses a kerosene lamp for light, cooks with wood and charcoal and has grown used to a traditional BaAka diet of leaves of the cassava (a yam-like vegetable), cocoa vines, palm nuts and bush meat.
Local delicacies include steaks of duiker -- a small antelope -- and porcupine stew.
Batali has no phones, no television, no running water, no electricity. But Sarno, who lives off financial support from friends, relatives and well-wishers, says he doubts that he could ever again live permanently in the United States. "When I go to America," he says, "I see a lot of energy and money wasted on what I see as triviality."
He helped raise a Pygmy boy whose mother had died and whose father was alcoholic. He speaks the BaAka language fluently and has proved his mettle by surviving several diseases, including hepatitis B, malaria and leprosy.
Sarno was married to a Pygmy for more than two years, a union that ended when illness forced him to leave the country for a while.
Leon Bouanga, echoing the sentiments of many of the other villagers, says, "I consider him one of the BaAka ... our chief."