THE ITURI FOREST, Congo — They emerge from the stillness of the rainforest like a lost tribe of prehistoric warriors forgotten by time — a barefoot band of Mbuti Pygmies wielding iron-tipped spears.
The men come first, cloaked head to toe in coiled hunting nets shaved from the liana vine. Then the women, lugging hand-woven baskets filled with the same bloodstained antelope their ancestors survived on for thousands of years.
And waiting anxiously in the middle of their smoke-filled hunting camp: a horde of village traders who've come to buy as much bushmeat as the Mbuti can bring.
Time has long stood still in the innermost reaches of northeast Congo's Ituri Forest — a remote and crepuscular world without electricity or cell phones that's so isolated, the Pygmies living here have never heard of Barack Obama or the Internet or the war in Afghanistan. But the future is coming, on a tidal wave of demand for game meat that's pushing an army of tall Bantu traders ever deeper into Africa's primordial vine-slung jungles.
It's a demand so voracious, experts warn it could drive some of Africa's last hunter-gatherers to eradicate the very wildlife that sustains them, and with it, their own forest-dwelling existence.
Over the last few decades, that existence has been vanishing at astonishing rates across the continent, as forests are ripped apart amid soaring population growth and legions of Pygmies are forced into settled lives on the outskirts of society.
One place — Congo's Okapi Wildlife Reserve — was supposed to be a bulwark against the onslaught, a place where commercial hunting is banned. But an Associated Press team that hiked two days to join one Pygmy band found the thriving bushmeat trade penetrating even into the protected zone.
Here — where water is still scooped from glassy streams and drunk pure from curled leaf cups, where Pygmies still scamper up treetops to savor the golden delight of raw honeycomb — lies a frontline where this continent's future is slowly erasing its ancient past, one antelope at a time.
From the window of a plane, Central Africa is an infinite ocean of treetops that unfolds as far as the eye can see, from the steamy jungles of Gabon on the continent's western coast to the rolling hills of Rwanda in the east.
This is the world's second-largest rainforest, home to Africa's estimated 250,000 to 500,000 Pygmies, according to Survival International, an organization which monitors their plight.
Every year, it grows smaller.
According to the United Nations, Africa is losing 10 million acres of trees annually — an area the size of Switzerland — because of uncontrolled logging, mining and mass waves of migrants desperate for land.
The fundamental problem: Congo's population — 70 million people and counting — is about three times what it was three decades ago. By 2020, it could reach 120 million.
And it needs to eat.
Bushmeat — animals like monkeys and especially antelope — has been a staple of the African diet for millennia. But it has never been consumed as much as now: at least 1.1 million tons each year in the Congo basin alone, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Other estimates put the figure at five times that.
The result: the forests still standing are growing emptier by the day.
Some have suffered 90 percent drops in wildlife, stripped so bare, hunters have been reduced to eating their own hunting dogs, says John Hart, an American conservationist who first lived among the Mbuti in the 1970s.
The shortage of game elsewhere is part of what makes the Okapi Reserve so valuable — and so attractive to traders looking for bushmeat.
Carved out of a pristine swath of the Ituri Forest in 1992, it is unique among most wildlife parks in Africa because the people living inside it — 20,000 Pygmies and Bantus — were not kicked out and were allowed to keep hunting non-endangered species for subsistence.
Only the Pygmies do so with masterful efficiency, however, giving them a near monopoly on selling off the reserve's dwindling fauna.
Zaire Njikali, an elderly Pygmy clan leader, is kneeling bare-chested in silence, staring into the kaleidoscopic wall of forest beyond.
To his rear, 15 men have carefully laid a waist-high net in a mile-long arc through the shrubbery.
To his front, a surreal wall of sound is approaching: a polyphonic deluge of multiplying tubular intonations that sound a bit like water dripping from a faucet. The noise is coming from the female hunters in his clan, who are driving animals toward the net, where they'll get tangled, tackled and speared.
Nets are cast like this almost every hour for a working day. And on a good one, Njikali's clan will return to camp with as many as 15 antelope, or more.
There, traders buy the meat, preserving it on smoking racks until they can ship it out of the forest where it's consumed as a delicacy.
The exchange between Bantus and Pygmies is nothing new — Pygmies have always been dependent on cultivated farm foods and split their time between camps both in the forest or near villages outside it — but the trade has changed in fundamental ways over time.
When Njikali was a boy, Bantu traders never stayed overnight in his clan's camps. Their numbers have risen steadily over time, though, and today they are a permanent presence. Besides the 20 Pygmy couples and a smattering of children, the AP counted 14 traders — nearly a quarter of Njikali's camp.
Decades ago, the Mbuti typically sold about half the meat they captured; now they sell nearly every carcass, saving only the prized entrails and heads for themselves. The hunt, in essence, has devolved into an all-out commercial endeavor, staged not for subsistence, but to feed growing regional markets.
And the impact is clear.
Surveys conducted within the Okapi for the Wildlife Conservation Society between 1995 and 2006 showed major drops in all populations of antelope, the most commonly hunted bushmeat animal. The number of blue duikers dropped 26 percent; larger red duikers 42 percent; the even larger yellow-backed duikers 59 percent.
Those percentages have almost certainly grown since Chinese road crews refurbished the dirt highway that slices through the reserve a couple of years ago. Traffic jumped from a couple of trucks per month to more than 1,000, leading to "a huge increase in the illegal bushmeat trade," says Conrad Aveling, a British environmental consultant who has worked sporadically in Congo for decades.
The problem, says Aveling: "the forest just doesn't produce enough to meet the demand." And by depleting their most precious resource for short-term gain, he says, the Pygmies "are sawing off the branch on which they're sitting."
Longtime Congo expert Terese Hart put it this way: "They're overexploiting the forest in a way that's making their own way of living impossible."
But Pygmies welcome traders with open arms, because their presence enables the Pygmies to stay longer in the forest without having to return to the village for necessities — rice, cassava flour, plantains, salt. Traders also sell items that slowly erode culture and tradition: manioc wine, trinkets, Chinese watches, flowery kanga wraps, cassette radios blaring Congolese music, and used clothes, which long ago replaced bark loincloths and animal skins.
A trader, meanwhile, can buy a blue duiker for five dollars and sell it outside the reserve for 15, or less by simply holding it up by the road for sale. With the profit, a father can send his kids to school, feed his family.
Combating the trade isn't easy. The 5,400-square-mile reserve has just 90 rangers and guards — many of whose relatives are trading bushmeat themselves. People in the region have few economic options, apart from manual labor in sun-blasted fields, says game warden James Mapilanga.
Reserve authorities are trying to educate people nevertheless, Mapilanga says, to tell the them: "'Your ancestors hunted game. You should be able to hunt game forever. But if wildlife is over-hunted, it's going to disappear.'"
The word Pygmy is derived from the Greek word Pygmaios, meaning literally, the distance from the elbow to the knuckle.
In some countries it is considered pejorative; but there is no other term that adequately describes the disparate groups scattered in pockets across equatorial Africa whose adult males are among the shortest on earth — on average 4 feet 11 inches tall.
Their first known mention in recorded history was cast in a tombstone letter around 2300 B.C. by an Egyptian explorer who claimed he'd discovered a race of "dancing dwarfs." Aristotle speculated they were intermediaries between apes and humans.
In 1904, one Pygmy was infamously put on display at the World's Fair in St. Louis, then later at the Bronx Zoo. And during Congo's 1998-2002 war, armed rebels-turned-cannibals hunted Pygmies "as though they were game animals," according to one victims' representative.
Today, they often suffer discrimination from Bantus, who typically see their shorter brethren as primitive, ignorant and inferior.
Over the last generation, their lives have changed dramatically. Travel the dirt highway east from the Okapi, and the abundant verdure quickly fades away. One stretch, John Hart says, used to be a Pygmy heartland. But today, with no forest, no animals, "the Pygmies have been marginalized in little slums on the edge of towns, working as day laborers."
Every day, more Pygmies attend Bantu-dominated primary schools in villages outside the forest, more are born in hospitals instead of huts. And more work on plantations — harvesting crops, clearing land, willingly cutting down their own forests for cash.
After weeks of hunting in the same spot, the game has notably thinned, and Njikali's clan moves on.
They assemble their belongings in backpacks made of sticks and vines and set fire to the traders' meat-smoking racks so, Njikali says, "sorcerers don't use them to roast human flesh."
On a two-hour trek, they drop to their knees to gather berries and yank wild mushrooms from the forest floor.
On arrival, the women construct tropical igloos, weaving fantastically sized waterproof leaves — which double as cups, plates, lunch-bags and umbrellas — through skeleton domes of arched sticks. The men head out for an afternoon hunt, netting fish from a stream, returning with four blue duikers tied and slung from their shoulders like purses.
By dusk, amid wafts of marijuana smoke — the Pygmies are frequent tokers — the band boasts food, shelter, and tiny campfires outside every hut. (The Mbuti do not use matches; instead, they keep small log embers burning eternally, like Olympic Torch flames).
By morning, their children are swinging on a newly built jungle playground of dangling vines — until one elder abruptly pulls the plug. The long-awaited honey season is approaching, he warns, and all the noise is disturbing the bees.
The sun has set, and Njikali is standing on the orange ribbon of tree-lined road that cuts through the Okapi.
Somewhere at the other end of the rural highway, millions of Africans are scuttling to day jobs in suits, tapping out e-mails on smartphones, shuttling up and down elevators in the bowels of electrified skyscrapers.
Here, though, there is only silence and stillness and the mind-numbing chorus of the cicadas.
The genteel clan leader does not want to talk about the change sweeping the continent, or the dangers of over-hunting. "The forest will always be there," he says. "For the forest to disappear, for the animals to disappear, the world would have to end first."
Njikali had promised the rest of his hunting band he would rejoin them deep in the forest days ago. But as the last rays of light leak through the trees, he announces he's not going back tomorrow, either.
The night is young, and Njikali is sporting a pair of rumpled brown moccasins on his no longer bare feet, faded jeans on his hips, a dark blue wind-breaker on his back (teen size, 14).
He opens a brown women's faux-leather purse that's slung over his shoulder and pulls out a small, empty bottle of cheap alcohol — a gesture intended to highlight his need for another.
Wooden cane in hand, he walks away — smile heavy with drink — down the road toward one of his clan's permanent camps near the village.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.