On The Hunt With Central Africa’s ‘Lost’ Shark-Toothed Pygmy Tribe

Paula Froelich with one of her pygmy guides in the Sangha Tri-National Protected Area in the Central African Republic. Image: Paula Froelich via New York Post

In a small corner of the civil war-ravaged Central African Republic lives a tribe of strikingly small people struggling to keep their ancient culture intact.

The Ba’Aka, rarely seen by Westerners, stand between four and five feet tall and live a semi-nomadic life in the impenetrable jungles of the Dzangha-Sangha National Park, located in the Tri-National Protected Area that abuts Cameroon and the Republic of Congo.

Last year, I had the opportunity to go hunting with members of the tribe.

The Ba’Aka are legendary trackers with an encyclopedic knowledge of the forest, which has safeguarded them for thousands of years.

“Their knowledge helped them escape slave traders and evade conflicts [in the past],” explained Alon Cassidy, whose family runs the nearby Sangha Lodge and the Sangha Pangolin Project, which works to save the world’s most trafficked animal — the pangolin, a type of anteater — from extinction. “When people would attack or invade, they would just disappear back into the forest.”

The competition to hunt with outsiders is fierce, as it not only provides the Ba’Aka a ride into the dense jungle but added resources as visitors pay a fee for the “cultural activity”.

Only 100 people visited Dzangha-Sangha Park in 2019. When the trucks holding me and four others pulled into the small town of Mossapula, the fighting was fierce to get picked: Within seconds, our trucks were swarmed with Ba’Aka, all armed with a machete and a hunting net.

Christion Bangala, a Bantu guide and interpreter, chose around 20 of the Ba’aka hunters — as many as could fit on the trucks, including men, women and children — and we set off down the main dirt road. The roads are basic to say the least, and it was post-rainy season. After a mile or two, the lead truck blew a tire. It was fixed, but a little later our path was blocked by a downed tree, forcing us to walk part of the way.

After about a mile, the leader picked a spot and we entered the bush, trying to follow the Ba’Aka who easily disappeared into the foliage. At some points, we could only follow them by sound as, unlike Western hunters, the Ba’Aka make as much noise as possible, singing songs as they wield machetes through the thick, confusing growth.

“It scares the animals into being still and trying to hide,” Bangala explained as we ran to catch up.

Once a suitable spot was chosen, the Ba’aka unfurled their nets and wandered into the center of the large trap, yelling, beating bushes and stomping to flush out any hiding animals.

After several tries, no animals were caught so the Ba’Aka decided to call it a day.

“They will go out again tomorrow,” Cassidy explained. “They will hunt several times a week as needs dictate, and sometimes leave for up to six months to collect meat to sell in the bush markets.”

For almost 4,000 years, the isolated Ba’Aka pygmy tribe has led an autonomous life hunting and gathering in this area known as the “Lungs of Africa.” For those lucky enough to come across them, they are instantly recognizable, not just for their short stature, but their physical appearance.

A Ba’Aka leaf hut sits in the foreground of Bantu homes in the village of Mossepula, in the Central African Republic. Image: Paula Froelich via New York Post

While both genders have tattoos, only women mark their face by slicing their flesh with sharp knives in and rubbing a certain forest leaf on it that turns the skin blue, black or green on contact.

The men and women carve their top teeth into sharp, shark-like points. The procedure, which usually takes place when at nine or 10 years of age, involves them biting down on a stick while their teeth are chiseled into shape by a rock or a machete.

“It’s very painful,” said Bangala, 46. “When they are out hunting for long periods of time in the forest [the pointed teeth] help with biting into meat. It also is for beauty and it shows they can withstand great pain and are courageous. [Long ago,] if you didn’t have sharp teeth you couldn’t get married and were considered weak.”

The tribe subsists by hunting mostly small antelope called duiker and wild hogs but also small rodents, porcupines, birds, monkeys and almost anything that gets caught in their nets. But certain animals are more important than others.

“If you want to marry a girl, you have to bring her parents the meat of a red river hog,” Bangala said. “It is a delicacy.”

While some of the meat the Ba’Aka hunt is unpalatable to Western culture, “This type of hunting is sustainable.”

The tribe supplements their diet with honey, nuts, forest fruits and vegetables, and water found inside jungle vines that grow liberally in the forests.

These forests, full of old-growth, 1,000-year-old trees are now under threat due to illegal logging, meaning the Ba’Aka. way of life is also at risk. After the creation of the national park in 1990, many of them now live in semi-permanent homes along the road leading into the small town of Mossapula, albeit still in their traditional round, igloo-like huts made from twigs and leaves.

They have their own distinctive language, and their hypnotic polyphonic music has was recorded by the anthropologist Louis Sarno in the 2000 album “BOYOBI: Ritual Music of the Rainforest Pygmies.”

“Things are changing now,” Bangala said. “But for these people, like is almost the same as it has been for thousands of years, except they wear Western clothing instead of leaves and bark like they used to.”

While it might seem primitive, we could learn a lot from the Ba’Aka. In these times of #MeToo, the ancient Ba’Aka culture is one of the most gender-neutral cultures in the world, with almost no differentiation between male and female roles. Childcare is split almost evenly, with men feeding and watching young children as much as the women do. Men will often stay home with babies while women find work on nearby plantations.

Both sexes hunt, clean and gather necessities from the forest, and there is only one non-negotiable gender-specific task: house building.

“That is women’s work,” Bangala noted. “Men will not build the house.”

The Ba’Aka also have deep respect for their elders. “The family will all hunt together. If the children are school age, grandparents will take care of them while the parents hunt,” Bangala said.

“They are holding on to 70 to 80 percent of their culture right now,” he added. At least until the forest disappears.