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Human-Gorilla and Gorilla-Human: Dynamics of Human-animal boundaries and interethnic relationships in the central African rainforest1

Homme-gorilles et gorille-hommes : dynamiques de la frontière homme-animal et relations interethniques dans la forêt d’Afrique centrale
Takanori Oishi


Dans un premier temps, cet article décrit les perceptions du gorille des plaines de l’ouest (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) par les habitants de la forêt du sud-est du Cameroun. Dans un second temps, il examine les relations humains-gorilles en se focalisant sur les théories populaires relatives aux êtres hybrides humains-animaux dans lesquelles le gorille est profondément impliqué, ce qui permet d’aborder les aspects symboliques et sociaux des relations entre chasseurs-cueilleurs et agriculteurs. Les chasseurs-cueilleurs Baka de la frontière sud-est du Cameroun-Congo vivent avec leurs voisins agriculteurs Bakwele. Ils considèrent ces derniers comme des hommes-gorilles susceptibles de se réincarner en gorilles après la mort. Réciproquement, les Bakwele considèrent les Baka comme des hommes-animaux capables de se transformer en petits animaux afin de voler les récoltes, et croient en l’existence de gorilles-hommes (dzil-elizaliza) présents parmi les gorilles sauvages, dont le corps est gorille mais dont l’esprit est celui d’êtres humains. Il y a deux catégories de dzil-elizaliza : le revenant, gentil et paisible, et le sorcier, dangereux, malveillant et qui fait du mal aux gens. La nature duale de dzil-elizaliza est l’expression d’un contraste entre le mangeur d’hommes contrôlé par un sorcier et l’ancêtre affectueux réincarné en gorille-homme. Cette ambivalence semble également refléter des variations de l’image de soi chez les Bakwele. Ainsi, on peut dire que les Bakwele et les gorilles partagent des propriétés qui circulent à travers une limite humanité/nature prenant la forme d’un hybride humain-animal. Les récits locaux montrent que les gorilles ne sont pas seulement le sujet de constructions culturelles reflétant les conditions socio-culurelles des habitants de la région ; ce sont également des acteurs susceptibles d’intervenir concrètement dans les relations sociales. Ici, l’interaction entre hommes et gorilles est en partie bidirectionnelle. Bien plus qu’une nourriture ou un symbole, les gorilles sont les homologues ontologiques des humains. Dans ce système, les gorilles occupent une position unique qui traverse tant les limites interethniques entre les Baka et les Bakwele que les limites interspécifiques entre humains et animaux. Le maintien des relations entre humains et gorilles est significatif sur le plan des pratiques culturelles des groupes locaux et la séparation des deux espèces n’est pas désirable. Cet article est une version révisée d’un chapitre d’ouvrage publié par Oishi, en japonais en 2012.

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Soumis 2 mai 2013. Accepté 30 septembre 2013

Texte intégral

1 Introduction

  • 1 I am grateful to the Baka and the Bakwele of southeastern Cameroon. The fieldwork and manuscript pr (...)

1Primates occupy a “privileged” position between humans and nature because of their similarity to humans (Haraway, 1989). African great apes (chimpanzee, bonobo, and gorilla) especially show an enormous similarity to humans not only in external appearances but also in internal traits (behavioral and emotional expressions), which attracted the pioneers of field primatology. Field study of African great apes based on long-term direct observation has developed since the 1960s to produce a great deal of scientific knowledge about great apes in their natural environment.

2Our knowledge of local peoples’ perceptions of and interactions with African great apes, however, remains poor (e.g. in central Africa, see Lingomo and Kimura, 2009 [bonobo]; Giles-Vernick and Rupp, 2006; Köhler, 2005 [chimpanzees and gorilla]; Lewis, 2002 [gorilla]) as compared with the enormous amount of scientific knowledge produced by primatologists. Local peoples, such as the Pygmy hunter–gatherers who are autochthonous to the African tropical forest and some of west Bantu farmers have coexisted with African great apes for hundreds to thousands of years. In the context of modern conservation, however, local people are considered as only harmful in terms of the survival of wild animals, although a few environmental sociology studies have considered them from other points of view (for example, Yamakoshi and Leblan (2013) look at human-chimpanzee politics by analysing how indigenous and scientific concepts of landscape management for wildlife conservation oppose one another). In other ecoregions such as marine coral ecosystem, many attempts have emerged to apply local traditional ecological knowledge to the field of modern conservation and natural resource management (Drew, 2005; Drew and Henne, 2006; Fraser et al., 2006). However in central Africa, local people have still been regarded as poachers or potential poachers in the context of conservation practices. Their hunting activities are considered to be a major factor in the potential extinction of African great apes. However, we should also recognize that most cases of accelerated decrease of great apes have occurred as a result of local people’s forced involvement in drastic socioeconomic changes brought about by external powers. These changes include the rapid commoditization of bush meat driven by mining and logging operations, as well as severe food crises caused by civil wars and armed violence (Ichikawa, 2008).

3This paper aims (1) to describe the perceptions of the western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) by forest dwellers of southeastern Cameroon and (2) to reconsider the sociocultural dimension of human–ape relationships and its reflections on human-human relations (i.e. farmer and Pygmy hunter-gatherer interactions) based on the ethnography of the gorilla–human and human–gorilla concepts.

2. Research area, people and methods

4Southeastern Cameroon, a part of the Congo basin forest, is covered by dense tropical rainforest with an annual rainfall of 1500-1600mm. The research area is located on the international border between Cameroon and the Republic of the Congo, 650 km southeast of Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon (Fig. 1). Four gorilla sub-species are known to inhabit central tropical Africa today: the mountain gorilla (G. g. beringei), the eastern lowland gorilla (G. g. graueri), the western lowland gorilla (G. g, gorilla), and the Cross River gorilla (G. g. diehli). The southeastern Cameroonian tropical forest constitutes a part of the western lowland gorilla habitat. Recent studies revealed similarities and differences in the ecology and sociology between eastern and western gorillas. Earlier studies on eastern gorillas revealed the multi-male/multi female free ranging goups (Yamagiwa, 1999). Western gorillas form similar social group units to those of eastern gorilla in size and structure, but show differences in group transition and fewer multi-male groups (Robbins et al., 2004). For diets, western gorillas are more frugivorous than eastern gorillas (Breuer et al. 2008).

5Southeast Cameroon holds 3 National Parks (Lobéké, Boumba-Bek and Nki) and a part of the Dja faunal reserve where wild animals are strictly protected. Dupain et al. (2004) reported a high density of chimpanzees and gorillas in both protected and nearby non-protected areas whereas Muchaal and Ngandjui (1999) claimed high hunting pressure on wildlife, such as duikers, in the hunting zones in the reserve area. Most parts of the forest in the regions other than the Dja reserve and the other National Parks experienced selective logging since 1970s. Gorillas avoid most recent logging areas, but they nest in all sorts of forest vegetation including young secondary forest (Arnhem et al. 2008). Willie et al. (2013) also demonstrated western gorilla’s remarkable preference for habitats rich in herbaceous plants such as light gaps, swamp forests, and young secondary forests.

6Diverse ethnic groups inhabit the study area: Baka hunter-gatherers, Bakwele farmers, and Hausa, Bamileke, and Bamoun merchants. In this paper I focus on the Baka hunter–gatherers and the Bakwele farmers, who have a longer history of living in the area than the other peoples.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Location of the study area.
Localisation du terrain de recherche.

7The Baka are Pygmy hunter–gatherers living in southern and eastern Cameroon, northeastern Gabon, and northwestern Republic of the Congo (Hewlett, 1996). Baka’s population in southeast Cameroon is estimated at around 30,000 (Tegomo et al., 2012). They are in transition, however, and began to adopt a more sedentary and agricultural lifestyle in the 1950s (Althabe, 1965; Hewlett, 1996). The Baka of southeastern Cameroon cultivate plantains as a staple food (Hayashi, 2000; Kitanishi, 2003). Since about the 1970s, they also cultivate cacao trees as a cash crop (Oishi, 2012a). Most of the Baka, however, have not yet abandoned hunting and gathering activities in the forest (Yasuoka, 2006), and many currently participate in both a sedentary farming life in villages and a seminomadic foraging life in the forest (Hayashi, 2000; 2008).

8The Bakwele number about 12,000 and live in northwestern Republic of the Congo, northeastern Gabon, and southeastern Cameroon (Lewis et al., 2013). Although their subsistence economy is primarily based on shifting cultivation, they also regularly engage in fishing activities during the dry season (Oishi, 2010; 2014).

9The Bakwele and the Baka historically developed a pseudo-kinship system in the form of patron-client relationships between certain lineages of both ethnic groups (Joiris 2003), but these relationships have deteriorated considerably (Oishi, 2010, Oishi and Hayashi, 2014). They do not share the same native tongue; the Baka speak the Baka language from the Adamawa-Ubangian family, whereas the Bakwele speak a Bantu language. Official marriage between the two is rare: 1% for Baka women and 0% for Baka men in the study area (Oishi, unpublished data). The two groups have ambivalent attitudes about each other, varying from mutual hatred to cooperation (Bahuchet and Guillaume, 1982; Takeuchi, 2005).

10Most of the narratives and other evidence considered in this paper were obtained through participant observation among the Baka and the Bakwele from 2002 to 2012. Intensive field research took place in January and February 2012. I conducted (1) semi-structured interviews on gorilla ethnozoology, and (2) open-ended interviews about experiencing encounters with gorillas, with Baka and Bakwele informants, most of whom were adult males. Each interview was conducted individually. Throughout the research, I used the Baka, Bakwele, and French languages, with Baka translation assisted by a Baka research assistant.

3 Ethnoecology of human/ape encounters

3.1 Elements of gorilla ethnozoology

11Fifty-six species of wild mammals are locally recognized by both the Baka and the Bakwele. There are no differences in the recognition of mammal diversity between them. In Baka terminology, humans and animals are expressed as bo and so, respectively; for the Bakwele, the terms are mot (plural form: bot) and tit (plural form: be-tit). So and tit both also mean meat. Terrestrial animals are loosely classified into nine categories in Baka: so na yu (hunting net animal), so na mbenga (spear animal), so na ye (arboreal animal), so na tolo (ground animal), and so forth. Among these classifications, apes (gorillas and chimpanzees) are classified into an independent category, so na susu (hairy animal). This category is clearly distinguished from kema (the group that corresponds to the monkey species of the Cercopithecus genus).

12The generic names for gorilla are ebobo (Baka) and dzil (Bakwele). The Baka have at least 10 terms for specific types of gorilla, depending on sex, age, and companionship status (Table I). The only other animal with a similarly large number of descriptive terms is the African forest elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis), the most important Baka hunting game species in terms of symbolic thinking and cultural identities (Joiris, 1998; Köhler, 2000: 63; Hayashi, 2010). Experienced Baka hunters, who are referred to as tuma in Baka language, recognize that gorillas form groups known as bufa, which consist of a silverback leader (ngille), several young males, several females of different age categories, and children. Gorillas make nests every day from plant materials of tree twigs and herbs. Te-ebobo, which can be translated as “gorilla village”, indicates areas in the forest where gorilla nests are concentrated. The Bakwele also have several terms to classify gorillas of various types, but they are less detailed than those of the Baka (Table I).

Table I

Table I

Baka and Bakwele terms for gorilla individuals of different sex and age.
Terminologie Baka et Bakwele pour les individus gorille de sexe et âge différents.

13Baka hunters share an understanding of single-male/multi-female or multi-male/multi-female gorilla groups, which is consistent with that of primatologists (Breuer et al., 2008; Robbins et al., 2004). The hunters recognize that gorilla groups change with the development of juveniles as well as with the aging of dominant males. For example, an adult male living and foraging alone (ndonga), which seems to correspond to the “solitary male” in modern primatology terms, is considered to be an old ngille (mature silverback) that has been driven away from his troop by younger adult males (mokolo a ngille). These Baka hunters’ narratives demonstrate that they have also accumulated their own empirical knowledge (Richards, 1993; Hattori, 2007), although some of the knowledge is consistent with modern primatologist’s findings and some is not (e.g., primatologists have a different interpretation of the solitary male phenomenon).

14Apes are also objects of symbolic thought for the Baka. Although no diseases that would prohibit people from eating apes’ meat have been recorded (Sato, 1998), many Baka, especially women, avoid eating gorilla and chimpanzee meat. When they are asked the reason, they often reply that “apes are so similar to the Bakwele, our Bantu neighbors” or simply because “the apes have hands” (Hattori, 2008; Hayashi, 2010). Gorilla body parts are usually named in composite forms of words referring to those of humans, such as botekpa-ebobo (“palm” of gorilla) and njo-ebobo (“head” of gorilla). Gorillas also play an important role in Baka traditional song stories (likano). Most of the main characters of likano are animals, including gorillas and chimpanzees. Apes in these stories practice the same activities as the Baka (e.g., raising children and gathering food) and are endowed with human emotions (Hattori, 2008: 87–89). Bakwele men and Baka men share the circumcision ritual of bεka (Joiris, 2003: 62-63). Dzil and ebobo terms are also used to refer to circumcisors (i.e. the operators of circumcision who cut off the foreskin of the penis). Bakwele also use the term dzil to refer to a midwife. Circumcisor and midwife are both considered to be with special skill and puissance.

3.2 Human and gorilla habitats

15Gorillas depend on terrestrial herbal vegetation, which can easily be found in agricultural fields and young secondary vegetation (Willie et al, 2013). Secondary vegetation is also a preferred habitat for local people’s daily hunting and gathering activities because densely vegetated forest floor is adequate to set snare traps (Fongnzossie and Oishi, 2010; cf. Wilkie, 1989). Thus habitats of humans and gorillas overlap and this increases the frequency of encounters with gorillas. Frequent encounters between local people and gorillas might not be only recent phenomena as we can easily find such examples in oral tradition as well as in historical documents written by European tourists or colonial officers (for example, the sous-préfet of Moloundou, a city near the research site, recorded the appearance of a male adult gorilla on the grounds of his office in the 1950s (Rigo, 1951)). Furthermore, gorillas are crop raiders who prefer food crops, especially plantain stems. Following the other small animals such as rodents or cane rats, elephants and gorillas can severely damage the small-scale shifting cultivation that the Bakwele and the Baka practice (Naughton-Treves and Treves, 2005). Elephants frequent areas near National Parks and other conservation areas and can completely destroy farms in a short time (Hagiwara, 2005). I observed a case that a single gorilla damaged more than 50 plantains in one night at a farming extension camp close to Nki National Park. Bakwele farmers use several methods to try to keep gorillas away from crop fields, including making sounds by hitting metal pots and firing blank shots. Such attempts, however, often have little to no effect. Gorillas also cause damage at cacao farms, which contribute precious cash income to the local people. Gorillas like sucking the sweet fruit pulp of cacao beans, much like human children do. Gorillas also disperse cacao seeds into the forest far beyond the village, and tiny patches of cacao trees can be found in remote primary forest far from the sedentary villages where cacao farms are located. Local Baka and Bakwele informants state that these cacao trees are not planted by humans, but by gorillas, so that they can taste cacao bean pulp in their home forest.

3.3 Danger and excitement of gorilla hunting

16Gorillas have been hunted by both the Baka and the Bakwele for generations but the frequency of gorilla hunting has declined over the years (Hattori, 2007). Gorillas are not targeted. Hayashi (2008) reports that only one adult gorilla was killed by 5 gun hunters during 55 days of direct observation of a migratory hunting camp at the research area. Gorilla hunters use dogs to help track gorillas and use guns or spears to kill them. When a hunter finds traces of gorillas, the hunting dogs follow the scent to find the target. Once located, the dogs bark loudly, and the hunters run in direction of the spot. When a Baka hunter approaches the animal and identifies it as a gorilla, he touches his thumb and index finger to form a circle and places that hand on his eyebrow to indicate it is a gorilla to the other hunters (Fig. 2). This sign is said to be an imitation of a gorilla’s bulging brow.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Sign indicating gorilla at hunting scenes (photograph by Takanori Oishi).
Signal de gorille à la chasse (photographie de Takanori Oishi).

17Baka boys start to hunt rats using bow and arrows, crossbows, and small traps at about 5–6 years of age. Then they gradually move on to hunting small- to medium-sized animals. Only experienced hunters (tuma) hunt large and dangerous animals such as gorillas and elephants (Hayashi 2008; Hayashi 2010).

18Yamagiwa (2005, 2008, personal communication) described the advantages of hunting gorillas using guns: (1) the group composition, (2) the large body and terrestrial residence, (3) the sleeping ecology (land nesting), and (4) the adult male’s approaching behavior towards humans. Especially, male gorillas which perform drumming behavior in a standing position provide an easy target for hunters with a gun.

19Despite the use of these hunting techniques, Baka hunters do not think that gorilla hunting is an easy task. They believe the gorilla is a dangerous, strong, and intelligent animal, and the roles of the hunter and the hunted can change quickly. In addition, some gorillas are particularly aggressive and attack people unexpectedly in the forest. Koji Hayashi, a fellow researcher at the study site, has conducted research on Baka elephant hunting since the late 1990s (Hayashi, 2000; 2008; 2010). In 2002, he collected a detailed narrative from a Baka hunter (Billy, a pseudonym) about his experience being attacked by a gorilla (Fig. 3).

Figure 3

Figure 3

A Baka hunting expert recounts his experience about a gorilla fight. The scar on his nose is the result of a gorilla bite (photographie de Koji Hayashi).
Un maître de chasse raconte ses expériences de combat avec les gorilles. La balafre sur son nez résulte d’une morsure de gorille (Photographie de Koji Hayashi).

Case 1: A Baka hunter and the attacking gorilla

20Billy is a tuma, as was his father. Once, when Billy was sleeping at a forest hunting camp, he woke suddenly as a gorilla approached his mongulu (a traditional mobile Baka dwelling made of Marantaceae leaves). He tried to drive it away, but the gorilla held him down and repeatedly bit him on his face and hands. Although he survived, he was seriously injured and scarred for life. Since the attack, he has hated gorillas and desires to kill them. Tuma hunters are usually most proud of elephant hunting, but Billy puts much more efforts on hunting gorillas (Koji Hayashi, personal communication).

21A gorilla can injure and kill a human in many ways, as well as kill hunting dogs. Some hunters, such as hunter Billy, had a strong hatred of gorillas beause of these personal experiences with them. The gorilla is generally perceived as the most dangerous animal after the elephant. Gorilla hunting with a spear puts the hunter’s life at risk, implying that successfully hunting a gorilla in this manner raises the hunter’s prestige in the eyes of others (Hattori, 2007). Baka hunters use gorilla and chimpanzee skin to make daily necessities, such as a sawala container that holds flint fire-making kits and other miscellaneous items. These types of objects can be seen as a sign of the hunter’s expertise (Hattori, 2008).

22Most Baka in general emphasize the “danger” and “ill nature” of gorillas. Gorillas are different from chimpanzees in that they are not afraid of encounters with humans, even those armed with machetes, spears, or guns. They try to keep people out of their territories (cf. Köhler, 2005: 419-420). They pay special attention to human odors, and make loud sounds in attempt to scare them away when they sense them approaching. As stated previously, they also sometimes ambush humans unexpectedly. Thus the Baka are very careful to avoid unwanted encounters with gorillas. They often stop walking and listen for any unusual sounds in the forest when they detect any suspicious changes in the environment. This careful avoidance of gorillas is especially true for Baka women and children who carry a special plant medicine to drive gorillas away, even more so when they enter the forest without a male adult (Giles-Vernick and Rupp, 2006; Hattori, 2007).

23In addition to acknowledging the dangers of gorillas, Baka hunter’s narratives often refer to their intelligence and cognitive abilities. Gorillas are “clever” and “cunning” by comparison with the other animals, including chimpanzees. For example, gorillas recognize individual hunters and provoke only specific hunters during some encounters. Gorillas also set traps so that a hunter will follow a fake trail on the ground only to be attacked by the gorilla from above. Baka hunters are aware of gorillas’ abilities to move both on the ground and through trees and that they can baffle their pursuers by changing the mode of locomotion. Baka hunters become very excited when discussing these types of intelligent behaviors, and their narratives often present hunting gorillas as an intellectual game. In Baka hunting tales, gorillas are often portrayed as personal agents who hold individual characteristics.

4 Ethnography of gorilla–human and human–gorilla

4.1 Farmers as gorilla–humans

24Two hunter-gatherer groups in central Africa, the Baka of Cameroon and the Aka of the central African Republic, have traditions that regard neighboring farmers as apes (hereafter referred to as gorilla-humans) and believe that they will be reincarnated as gorillas. Hattori (2007: 136) recorded an interesting episode of a gorilla killing event by a Kounabembe (farmer) hunter that was popular among her Baka informants of southeastern Cameroon. They laughed excitedly when telling the story, saying “Look! A gorilla [i.e. gorilla-human] killed another gorilla!”. Takeuchi (2001; 2005) also described how an Aka informant described the death of a mutual farmer friend by saying “he became a gorilla”.

25The Efe of the Democratic Republic of the Congo believe that they will move far inside the forest and continue hunting and gathering after death (Sawada, 1998). The Baka also believe that the dead continue to live in the forest and sometimes emerge in living people’s dreams to give them ideas about new plant medicines or songs (Tsuru, 2001). However, the Baka do not think neighboring farmers move to the forest in the form of a human after death. They regard the Bakwele as reincarnated gorillas. The Bakwele look like men when they are alive, but return to their gorilla state, which is their essential nature, when they die (Takeuchi, 2005).

26When Baka informants point out the similarities between gorillas and the Bakwele, they often refer to physical traits and gestures. Bakwele and gorillas share common attitudes, gestures, and behaviors against the Baka; for example, they are both loud when they become excited, and they are both harmful. The Baka consider the Bakwele’s posture of “sticking out their chests” and their “patronizing” way of walking to be comparable to those of gorillas. The silverback’s standing position against a hunter is considered to be especially similar to that of the Bakwele looking down on the Baka. In addition, the danger of Bakwele sorcerers is perceived to be as harmful as the killer instinct of gorillas.

27The Bakwele regard the Baka as half-human and half-animal. This can be seen from the Bakwele term for the Baka, mo-titt, which literally means “meat–human” or “animal–human”. The Baka move camps after someone dies, and the Bakwele believe that the dead Baka is reincarnated as a yellow-backed duiker (Cephalophus silvicultor) and hides near the abandoned camp. Because of this belief, many Bakwele avoid eating this species.

28Baka hunter–gatherers and Bakwele farmers not only use terms to negatively represent each other. They also consider each other as occupying the borderline between human and animal. But such discriminatory stigmas attached to ethnicities are not equally expressed in everyday relationships between the Baka and the Bakwele because the latter tend to consider the former as subordinate to themselves (Takeuchi, 2005).

29Jerome Lewis, who has conducted field research among the Mbendjele Pygmies in the northern Republic of the Congo, reported a different type of interaction between hunter–gatherers and farmers concerning gorillas (Lewis, 2002). The Mbendjele use “ebobo”, a local name for gorilla, to refer to neighboring farming villagers (bilo is the plural form) among them. When a Mbendjele hunter killed a gorilla, the dead gorilla was referred to as “milo”, which means “villager”. Most of the Mbendjele don’t eat gorilla meat because they consider the gorilla to be a metamorphosed farming villager. In a camp where both the Mbendjele and villagers live together and do wage labor for a logging company, Lewis observed how a Mbendjele hunter shared gorilla meat with villagers. The Mbendjele hunter continued to refer to the butchered gorilla meat as milo in front of the farmers. Farmers were troubled, but they did not complain because they were getting the meat for free (Lewis, 2002).

30The Aka, who live next to the Mbendjele, depend on farmers’ agricultural output for staple foods (Takeuchi, 2005), while the latter in Lewis’s research site depend on Mbendjele hunters for animal protein. It is likely that these opposite manifestations of interethnic representations can be explained by the different balance of power in terms of ecological interdependency between hunter–gatherers and farmers.

31Among the Baka, even children share the image of the farmers’ gorilla nature. I often bring sketchbooks for fieldwork, and both the Baka and the Bakwele like drawing, so sometimes I let them draw whatever they want. One day in February 2008, a 10-year-old Baka boy gave me some penciled drawings. Among them, I found something quite similar to a human child (Fig. 4).

Figure 4

Figure 4

Drawing of a gorilla by a Baka boy.
Dessin de gorille par un garçon Baka.

32I asked him about what he drew and he replied innocently, “ebobo” (gorilla) and then added “kaka” (a derogatory term for farmers) in a quiet voice. Figure 5 shows more drawings of animals by another Baka boy of almost the same age. An image of a gorilla with a human-like face and human male genitals is drawn among various other animals. These drawings provide clues as to the Baka’s physical conceptions of their farming neighbors.

Figure 5

Figure 5

Drawings of animals by a Baka boy. The third one from the top is the “gorilla” with human features.
Dessins d’animaux par un garçon Baka. La troisième figure en partant du haut est le “gorille” avec des caractères humains.

33Stephanie Rupp, who has conducted fieldwork in the Bangando area adjacent to my research area, reported that some Baka think that they will be reborn as the “ the whites” (Westerners) after their death (Giles-Vernick and Rupp, 2006). International organizations and NGOs recently came to recognize the Baka as an indigenous minority, and many development projects financed by the Western countries, such as nature conservation projects and social welfare improvement programs, have limited benefit recipients to the Baka. Giles-Vernick and Rupp suggested that the Baka discourse of their reincarnation into “the whites” may reflect the recent changes in local power relationships between hunter–gatherers and farmers caused by the outside world’s biased commitment to local peoples (Giles-Vernick and Rupp, 2006). Jerome Lewis described another variant of the reincarnation tale among the Mbendjele of northern Congo. The Mbendjele believe that “the whites” may reincarnate into red river hogs (Potamochoerus porcus), which can be sold at good prices. This view may be a representation of the monetary economic value brought into the society by Westerners (Lewis, 2002).

34Axel Köhler noted that the Baka and their neighboring farmers (Bakwele, Njem, and Fang) in the northwestern Republic of the Congo believe in each other’s reincarnation into different species of apes: the Baka into chimpanzees and the farmers into gorillas (Köhler, 2005). Köhler’s Baka informants believe that gorillas and chimpanzees are quite different in their behavioral manifestations towards humans despite their similarities. Contrary to chimpanzees that tend to avoid human territory, gorillas are curious about humans and challenge humans to claim territories. These perceived characteristics of gorilla behavior can be interpreted as comparable to those of authoritarian farmers, whereas the chimpanzee’s behavior aligns with the more timid attitudes of the Baka, who behave in a retiring manner when interacting with the others (Köhler, 2005).

35As briefly reviewed above, folk theories of human reincarnation into wild animals seem to be a cultural stereotype throughout the northwestern Congo basin. These folk theories demonstrate both contiguity and opposition between humans and animals as well as between different groups of people. Symbolic thought behind these folk theories have been shaped by human–animal and human–human interactions in people’s everyday lives. In previous studies, these types of human–animal mixtures have been treated as comparable to post-colonial “zombie” tales. They have been regarded as local representations reflecting people’s experience with the wider world in relation to past colonialism and forced labor (Geschiere, 1982) and to development projects conducted by external actors such as Catholic missions, logging companies, and conservation NGOs (Giles-Vernick and Rupp, 2006). The considerable variation of man–animal reincarnation folk theories has also been interpreted as a culturally constructed phenomenon that sensitively reflects social changes among local people under the influence of interventions brought by the outside world (Lewis, 2002: Chapter 7; Giles-Vernick and Rupp, 2006).

4.2 “Crop raiding” by animal–humans

36Conflict between hunter–gatherers and farmers intensifies over the hunter–gatherers’ “thefts” of farmers’ slash-and-burn field crops (e.g. Wilkie and Curran, 1993; Hanawa, 2004). The Baka have developed a variety of hunting ritual associations based on the relationship to tutelary game spirits (Joiris, 1996). Baka hunters enter those ritual associations to develop a privileged relationship with the game spirits which may teach them how to “walk side by side” with the animals, and only the initiates and their family can metamorphose into game spirits (Joiris, 1996). According to the Bakwele, the Baka have sorts of elizaliza (which refers in Bakwele to a witchcraft ability to metamorphose into wild animals). Different from the Azande (Evans-Pritchard, 1937), the Bakwele and the Baka have a sole term for super-natural powers, elieeb and mbu respectively, which corresponds to the French word “sorcellerie” in its use and includes all of witchcraft (spontaneously acquired, unconsciously harming other people), magic (acquired through intentional learning of a special kind of knowledge), and sorcery (magic which brings bad effects). The Bakwele and the Baka believe that it can dwell inside the human abdomen (Oishi, 2008; cf. Hewlett et al., 2013 for the Aka Pygmies and the Ngandu farmers of Central African Republic). Hereafter I use witchcraft to refer these concepts globally, but also sorcery and magic when it is evidently the case.

37The Baka transform themselves into various animals, such as cane rats, monkeys and elephants to deceive farmers and steal field crops in the night, early morning and evening. Bakwele informants described many cases of gun-fire accidents between Bakwele men and crop-raiding animals (the transformed Baka). The following case illustrates this.

Case 2: Monkey crop raider and a strange cry

38One day, a Bakwele man passed in front of his field during the evening. He found a colobus monkey eating his maize in the field. He hurried home to get a gun and returned to the field. The monkey was still there, and the man shot the monkey. The man then heard a strange cry. When he approached the target, he could not find the monkey and instead found a Baka man moaning in pain. Fortunately, the Baka was merely injured, and the farmer brought the Baka to the hospital in a nearby city.

39Elizaliza is considered to be a sort of magic employed to trick animals when hunting, deceive plot owners to steal crops, and attack one’s enemies in the forest. It is necessary to possess a power of witchcraft, known as elieeb in Bakwele, to exercise elizaliza. Elizaliza allows its holder to retain his or her human body when the holder is transformed. It is the holder’s spirit that enters the forest or a crop field and behaves in the form of an animal. If the transformed spirit is injured or killed while in the form of an animal, the holder’s human body would also be damaged. A Bakwele informant said that many of the Baka with disabilities were injured when they had been transformed. One of my Baka friends has a disability in his right leg. A Bakwele informant gave the following account of the circumstances surrounding the injury.

Case 3: Mangabey crop raiding and a Baka man’s disability

40The Baka man spent his boyhood in a village adjacent to the village of the research site where he lives now. One day, the Baka man transformed himself into an agile mangabey (Cercocebus agilis) to steal maize from a field belonging to a Bakwele man. The Bakwele man became aware of the mangabey eating his crop and shot it in the leg. The wounded mangabey then disappeared into the bush. Several days after the event, the Baka man became very sick in his right leg and had a high fever. The effects persist to today.

41The Bakwele believe the Baka have supernatural power and are afraid of it. Such anxiety is reflected in the Bakwele’s perception that the Baka raid crops by transforming themselves into animals. This also suggests that the Bakwele perceive their conflicts with the Baka over field crops as comparable to those with other animals. The Bakwele regard the Baka as half-human and half-animal and are trying to keep interethnic borders with the Baka by emphasizing differences between their humanity and the animal nature of the Baka.

4.3 Ethnography of the human–gorilla

42According to the Bakwele, wild gorilla populations include human–gorillas (dzil-elizaliza) whose body is gorilla but whose spirit is human. There are two types of dzil-elizaliza: some are revenants and known to be gentle, kind, and tranquil, whereas others are transformed withches and are considered as dangerous, malicious, and violent.

43The Bakwele believe that any individuals who have elizaliza will reincarnate into revenant human-gorillas. When such individuals die, their spirit still lives in a gorilla body through the power of elizaliza and will revisit locations with which he or she was familiar with before death. It will appear fearlessly in people’s everyday lives and practice mischief, but otherwise does not harm people. Once a gorilla has been perceived as a revenant human-gorilla, people avoid killing it, and it remains free from any human action upon it. In forest encounters, it is difficult for a hunter to immediately distinguish a human–gorilla from other gorillas every time. A revenant human–gorilla does not roar against the dead person’s kin (i.e., it is not aggressive). If a human–gorilla is killed, its blood resembles human blood, and the meat may taste very bad, which is another distinctive sign.

44Interviews with local people conducted near the research site and in the wider region (within approximately 50 km) revealed 6-8 encounters with human-gorillas over the past 20 years. The three following cases exemplify these situations.

Case 4: Deadly fight with a witch-transformed dzil-elizaliza

45An adult Bakwele man Henry (pseudonym) was seriously injured in a fight with a witch-transformed dzil-elizaliza. Henry lives in his natal village, which is located on the Congo side of Cameroon and Republic of the Congo border. He earns a living by cultivating cacao.
Early one morning in October 2009, Henry found an owl perched on top of a wooden pole that children were using as a goalpost to play soccer. In many societies of central Africa, the owl is a strongly avoided animal that is thought to be a messenger of sorcerers. The owl had a large outstanding projection on its throat. Henry was immediately reminded of an old woman from his neighborhood who was famous for being a witch because she also had a projection on her throat. Henry decided that the owl was the transformed old woman. Henry asked employees Alan and George to shot the owl. When the owl was killed, the old woman cried and screamed “Henry killed me! Henry killed my owl!” and became sick shortly thereafter. After she recovered, a bullet wound was found in her upper left arm.
Sooner after the owl killing, people reported frequent problems created by a female gorilla just outside of the village. Henry sensed danger and thought that the old woman transformed into a dzil-elizaliza to attack him. Henry then had Alan and George chase the female gorilla. They shot at the gorilla more than 10 times, but the gorilla escaped. Over the next couple of days, the gorilla continued to emerge and to wander close to the village, but any attempts to kill it failed. The old woman teased Henry by telling him “Your hunters are useless. It’s pitiful that you can’t kill an animal walking in the village that isn’t even hiding.” Henry got angry hearing the old woman’s words and decided to follow the gorilla himself. Henry encountered the gorilla in a banana plantation. Feeling frightened, Henry shot twice as the gorilla charged him and knocked him down. Henry could no longer use his gun and was repeatedly bitten on his arms, thighs, and calves. As Henry was about to be killed by the gorilla, another villager arrived with a shot gun and shot it in the neck, and it finally died. Henry was seriously wounded but recovered (Fig. 6). The gorilla was then butchered, and the meat shared among villagers. Everyone ate it except for the old woman. Five days after the attack, the old woman disappeared and suddenly returned 3 months later.

Figure 6

Figure 6

The wounds of a Bakwele man (Henry in the case 4) two weeks after a gorilla attack (photograph by Ryota Yamaguchi).
Blessure d’un homme Bakwele (individu Henry du cas 4) deux semaines après une attaque par un gorille (photographie de Ryota Yamaguchi).

46The emergence of dzil-elizaliza is often related to the practice of witchcraft and sorcery. Case 4 is a typical example in that its emergence was identified as being caused by a specific person’s sorcery. When talking about the absence of the old woman, inhabitants of the village said that she might have gone to a witch doctor to have the bullets removed from inside her body. They also speculated about why Henry had been attacked. He had gained benefits from rental contracts of cacao plantations with other villagers and had many friends among the merchants of a nearby city. People hypothesized that the old woman was afraid that the “development” brought to the village by Henry would harm the traditional practice of witchcraft.

Case 5: A gorilla calmly staying at a water source in an old village

47Around 1985, a farmer was living at the forest camp Diwala as a logging company’s employee, along with with several Baka colleagues. Diwala is an abandoned village where the Bakwele and the Baka used to live, but there were no permanent residents at that time. They encountered a gorilla every morning at the water source. When they fetched water, the gorilla turned its back to the people and stayed calm. The gorilla was not afraid at all. People in the camp thought that it must surely be a dzil-elizaliza and decided not to kill him.

48Encounters with the revenant human-gorilla usually happen around villages after someone’s death, but this case was somewhat unusual because it occurred in the forest. Diwala had been abandoned since about 1950 and was covered by forest vegetation at the time.

Case 6: A gorilla waved his hands and danced at a funeral ritual

49In 1988, Baka man Bernard (pseudonym), the “son” (in terms of traditional pseudo-kinship) of Bakwele man Daniel (pseudonym), died. As people gathered in front of Bernard’s house to prepare dance ceremonies for the funeral ritual, a gorilla appeared. The gorilla wandered around and then entered the baaza (men’s gathering space) and waved its hands. The gorilla was immediately recognized as a dzil-elizaliza, the revenant human-gorilla of the dead man Bernard. When a drum was played, the gorilla danced to the beat. People left the gorilla alone because it was a dzil-elizaliza. The gorilla stayed around the village for nearly a month after the funeral and then disappeared suddenly.

50Gorillas that appear soon after people’s death tend to be perceived in an especially personified way. They repeatedly appear close to the places, things, and people with which the dead person was familiar. Case 6 is unique in that it shows that some dead Baka are also thought to be reborn as human–gorillas by the Bakwele. Unlike the Bakwele, the Baka do not think that they will reincarnate into gorillas. Daniel’s family is one of a few Bakwele lineages that maintain pseudo-kinship relations to a particular Baka lineage, in this case Bernard’s family. In this example, the Bakwele informant applied the folk theory of dzil-elizaliza to the Baka man. Although the Bakwele usually emphasize what differentiates them from the Baka, they sometimes include the Baka in their cultural practices.

51As these examples show, there are considerable variations in the ways in which human–gorillas appear. Witch-transformed human–gorillas are viewed as dangerous and causing intentional harm to humans. Bakwele informants also say that witch-transformed dzil-elizaliza can kidnap females and children. Bakwele parents are very cautious of kidnapping by such malicious dzil-elizaliza. In contrast, revenant dzil-elizaliza are viewed as humorous human-like creatures.

52The gorilla is a unique and special animal, not only in the eyes of the Bakwele but also for other Bantu and Oubanguian speaking farmers along the Sangha river system, which is part of the northwestern Congo basin (Giles-Vernick and Rupp, 2006). Human–gorilla tales have been reported for the Mpiemu of southwestern Central African Republic (Giles-Vernick, 2002; Giles-Vernick and Rupp, 2006) and the Bakwele, Djem, and the Fang of the Souanké district of the Sangha Department of the Republic of the Congo (Köhler, 2005). Giles-Vernick and Rupp noted that the emergence of the human–gorilla concept is related to the farmers’ notions of witchcraft, and its liminal manifestation at indistinct position between human and animal may represent the concerned person’s ambiguous position in the local society (Giles-Vernick and Rupp, 2006).

53Killing a dzil-elizaliza is thought to be equivalent to a homicide by the Bakwele. Closer family members of the dead may feel strong affinities with the revenant type dzil-elizaliza and, at the same time, are the only people who can kill one. This paradox may reflect the Bakwele’s view of family relationships, because they believe that killing a person by witchcraft is easier as the level of kinship is closer. As a mirror of human society (Mullin, 1999), these ambivalent characteristics of dzil-elizaliza seem to reflect variation of Bakwele’s self-image (Oishi, 2010). It is difficult to distinguish dzil-elizaliza from other gorillas, a situation which echoes relationships in Bakwele society where it is difficult to identify who practices witchcraft such as elizaliza. In theory, all gorillas could be dzil-elizaliza, and all Bakwele individuals may be witches (hold elieeb). In this context, the Bakwele view the gorilla not as an animal but as a human being, whereas the Baka view the Bakwele as approximately equivalent to gorillas.

5 Conclusion

54The dynamic social-emotional relationships of Pygmy hunter–gatherers and farmers are complex and are poorly understood (Kitanishi, 2010). Both groups manifest strong dislikes of each other while at the same time regularly interacting and depending on each other (Bahuchet and Guillaume, 1982; Takeuchi, 2005). Whereas hunter–gatherers behave on an egalitarian basis and do not accept coercion or control over by other people, their farming neighbors regard them as subordinate and often try to influence their behavior (Takeuchi, 2005). Hunter–gatherers relationships with farmers can be beneficial to them so that they generally try to keep them as fluid as possible (Lewis, 2002; Hanawa, 2004; Takeuchi, 2005).

55Both hunter–gatherers and farmers want to maintain differences between them. The mode of coexistence they each seek is, however, very different. Farmers want to maintain and reproduce hierarchical relationships with hunter–gatherers, whereas the hunter–gatherers do not accept this imposed structural hierarchy. Their strategies of coexistence are almost completely opposite, and the interethnic dichotomy is maintained on an equilibrium between equality and inequality.

56According to Lewis (2002; 2010), the Mbendjele Pygmies treat neighboring farmers in a similar manner as wild animals. The Baka do the same when confronted by the Bakwele who do not understand their egalitarian way of living, communicating, and sharing. The Bakwele also apply their own strategies of dealing with wild animals to the Baka. The Bakwele regard the Baka, who do not accept a farmer-centered world view and the crop-field ownership system, as if they were wild animal crop raiders.

57The two peoples’ modes of coexistence with wild animals and neighboring peoples intersect with each other. The cases of human–gorilla (dzil-elizaliza) incidents and the perceptions discussed here showed that gorillas are not only the subject of cultural constructions that reflect specific people’s sociocultural conditions, but that they are also active actors that sometimes intervene in people’s actual social relationships. Thus the human and gorilla interaction is partly bidirectional, making humanity and nature indistinct. As human’s ontological counterparts, gorillas are much more than a food or a symbol for humans. The position of humans (and gorillas) in nature, and the position of an individual in culture are determined and redefined at every encounter. In this system, the gorilla occupies a unique position that crosses both the interethnic boundaries between the Baka and the Bakwele and the interspecies boundaries between humans and animals. From the local people’s worldview, maintenance of human and gorilla relationships occupie a significant place in their cultural practices and separation of the two species (human and gorilla) is not desirable. Such nature-culture entanglements should not necessarily be regarded as a barrier for conservation or community-based resource management, but as a potentially positive resource which can contribute to move from conventional top-down conservation efforts to approaches which reflect local concerns.

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1 I am grateful to the Baka and the Bakwele of southeastern Cameroon. The fieldwork and manuscript preparation was financially supported by a Grant-in-Aid for scientific research by the Japan Society for the Promotoion of Science (Nos. 30528724 and 24251019). Dr. Koji Hayashi and Mr. Ryota Yamaguchi of Kyoto University, both of whom are fellow researchers at the research site, kindly gave me permission to use their photographs in this paper.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1
Légende Location of the study area.Localisation du terrain de recherche.
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Titre Table I
Légende Baka and Bakwele terms for gorilla individuals of different sex and age.Terminologie Baka et Bakwele pour les individus gorille de sexe et âge différents.
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Titre Figure 2
Légende Sign indicating gorilla at hunting scenes (photograph by Takanori Oishi). Signal de gorille à la chasse (photographie de Takanori Oishi).
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Titre Figure 3
Légende A Baka hunting expert recounts his experience about a gorilla fight. The scar on his nose is the result of a gorilla bite (photographie de Koji Hayashi). Un maître de chasse raconte ses expériences de combat avec les gorilles. La balafre sur son nez résulte d’une morsure de gorille (Photographie de Koji Hayashi).
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Titre Figure 4
Légende Drawing of a gorilla by a Baka boy. Dessin de gorille par un garçon Baka.
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Titre Figure 5
Légende Drawings of animals by a Baka boy. The third one from the top is the “gorilla” with human features.Dessins d’animaux par un garçon Baka. La troisième figure en partant du haut est le “gorille” avec des caractères humains.
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Titre Figure 6
Légende The wounds of a Bakwele man (Henry in the case 4) two weeks after a gorilla attack (photograph by Ryota Yamaguchi).Blessure d’un homme Bakwele (individu Henry du cas 4) deux semaines après une attaque par un gorille (photographie de Ryota Yamaguchi).
Fichier image/png, 133k
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Takanori Oishi, « Human-Gorilla and Gorilla-Human: Dynamics of Human-animal boundaries and interethnic relationships in the central African rainforest », Revue de primatologie [En ligne], 5 | 2013, document 63, mis en ligne le 28 février 2014, consulté le 13 juillet 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Takanori Oishi

46, Shimoadachi-cho, Yoshida, Sakyo 606-8501, Kyoto, Japan, Center for African Area Studies, Kyoto University, Japan
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