BAYANGA, Central African Republic
The cutest primates on earth may be Inguka and Inganda, gorilla toddler twins who playfully tumble over each other here in the vast Dzanga Sangha rain forest, one of the best places to see gorillas, antelopes and elephants play.
The only risk: They are so heedless and unafraid of people that they may tumble almost into your lap — and then their 375-pound silverback dad may get upset. His name is Makumba and he expresses displeasure with a full-speed charge, hurtling toward you until he’s only inches away.
This area where Central African Republic, Cameroon and the Republic of Congo come together is one of the wildest and most remote parts of the world, and the three countries have established bordering national parks. I also visited a forest glade filled with 160 elephants and a large herd of bongo antelopes, plus a few African buffalo. It was like a scene from a Disney movie, and I felt myself melting.
Yet when I turn sentimental at the majesty of wildlife, I sometimes feel uneasy. I wonder: Does honoring animal rights come at the expense of human rights?
One study found that research subjects were more upset by stories of a dog beaten by a baseball bat than of an adult similarly beaten. Other researchers found that if forced to choose, 40 percent of people would save their pet dog over a foreign tourist.
When the shooting of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe attracted far more outraged signatures on a petition than the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by a Cleveland police officer, writer Roxane Gay tweeted, “I’m personally going to start wearing a lion costume when I leave my house so if I get shot, people will care.”
Years ago, I visited a rain forest camp where a couple dozen young Americans and Europeans were volunteering in difficult conditions to assist gorillas as part of a conservation program. It was impressively altruistic — but these idealists were oblivious to Pygmy villagers nearby dying of malaria for want of $5 mosquito bed nets.
So are we betraying our own species when we write checks to help gorillas (or puppies or wild horses)? Is it wrongheaded to fight for elephants and rhinos (or farm animals at home) while 5 million children still die each year before the age of 5?
It’s a legitimate question that I’ve wondered about over the years. But I’ve come to believe that on the contrary, conserving rhinos or gorillas — or speaking up for tortured farm animals at home — is good for humans, too.
At the broadest level, it’s a mistake to pit sympathy for animals against sympathy for humans. Compassion for other species can also nurture compassion for fellow humans. Empathy isn’t a zero-sum game.
Overseas conservation organizations have also gotten much better at giving local people a stake in the survival of animals. The World Wildlife Fund, which helps manage the Dzanga Sangha Protected Area, supports a health clinic and is starting an education initiative. The refuge hires 240 local people, from rangers to trackers who locate the gorillas and get them habituated to people.
“These efforts are good for us,” said Dieudonné Ngombo, one of the trackers. “We work and get a salary, and then our kids live better and we sleep well.”