Published: September 26, 2006

The first thing they tell you here is not to play with the gorillas or the elephants.
A young male elephant gored a young Italian woman here when he attempted to play with her. And if you creep too close to the gorillas, a 375-pound silverback will charge you and, if you’re lucky, stop inches from you and slap the ground in rage.
But even if you can’t play with the animals, you can ogle them — and there are few places in the world as good for that as this remote jungle where the Central African Republic, Cameroon and the Congo Republic come together. And now the three countries have joined forces to preserve this jungle by establishing adjoining national parks that cover an area the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined.
It’s part of a growing trend that deserves strong support from the West: poor countries seeking economic opportunities by protecting nature rather than pillaging it. The grandest and most unlikely of these experiments is this one, for the Central African Republic may be the single most wretched country in the world: life expectancy is 38, and every year it falls by another six months. One-fifth of children die by the age of 5. Outside the capital, government is only a rumor.
Yet while many national parks in Africa exist primarily on paper, this one is real. Game wardens patrol vigorously: they pursue poachers across international borders, and seized 70,000 snares last year alone.
This is the only place in the world to see western lowland gorillas (even more elusive than the mountain gorillas of Rwanda). Casey Parks, the student journalist traveling with me, and I spent two hours with 13 gorillas.
We stayed at least 30 feet away to avoid being charged, but there was one moment when our guide froze and whispered to us that a female was asking the silverback to charge us. Fortunately, the silverback adopted a typical husband’s approach in dealing with a demanding wife: he pretended he didn’t hear.
The World Wildlife Fund is nurturing this attempt to develop ecotourism. It has a team, including American student volunteers, hanging out with gorillas all day every day, habituating them so that tourists can see them.
It’s a delicate balance, for the tourists could bring diseases that would kill gorillas. It may also be more difficult for a silverback to entice females into his harem if humans are around. Yet if the gorillas can lure rich Westerners here, ecotourism could become a more sustainable economic pillar than slash-and-burn logging. For now, fewer than 1,000 foreigners visit the park each year.
Many Africans resent the parks, partly because they allocate vast resources to saving animals for rich foreigners to enjoy — in regions where humans routinely die for lack of a few dollars.
“That’s where conservation got it wrong in the past,” said Chloe Cipolletta, an Italian who has lived with the gorillas for the last nine years. It’s crucial, she said, that conservation programs benefit people as well as animals, and so the WWF has hired 31 of the local Bayaka Pygmies as trackers and guides, and others earn money by showing tourists how to catch antelope with nets.
The first night I arrived here, crossing a river from Cameroon in a canoe and then jouncing over ruts to get to a Pygmy village, I was led to somebody I thought was a local chief — and then he stepped from the darkness and turned out to be a tall white man who greeted me in very American English. Louis Sarno, originally from New Jersey, explained that he once heard Pygmy music on the radio and was so entranced that he made a visit 20 years ago — and stayed.
Mr. Sarno married a local woman and learned the language. He endures bouts with malaria, goes on weeks-long hunting trips in the jungle with the others, and fits in remarkably well (except that he’s a lousy spear hunter).
Now he has become a fierce advocate for the “forest people,” as Pygmies often prefer to be called. Mr. Sarno notes that logging has benefited corrupt leaders while doing nothing for the villagers, and so he welcomes the ecotourism experiment as a last best hope for local people.
Africa can be a grim continent, and the news usually focuses on genocide, corruption and disease. But in the audacious dream to preserve this rain forest and the way of life of people in it, you see Africa’s glory, fighting to survive.