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.”
Martial Yvon Amolet of the Center for Human Rights of Bayanga, which is supported by the Dzanga Sangha Protected Area, says that the BaAka Pygmies appreciate the conservation efforts “because for BaAka, the end of the forest is the end of their culture and identity.”
Luis Arranz, a Spanish wildlife biologist who runs World Wildlife Fund efforts in Central African Republic, adds that the conservation programs depend on the support of local people to watch out for poachers. There are still one or two elephants killed a month here, but the toll would be far higher without watchful eyes in the community.
Last year, 200 foreign ecotourists came here, up from zero in 2015. While other parts of Central African Republic are wracked by conflict, Dzanga Sangha is far from the fighting. Arranz hopes to get 700 visitors this year, but the potential is far greater.
Simply put, one of the most important resources some poor countries have is wildlife. Northern white rhinos are on the verge of extinction because of poaching to feed Chinese demand for rhino horn, with the last male in the world dying recently in Kenya. When the animals are gone, economic prospects for humans diminish as well.
So compassion for elephants or rhinos or gorillas is not soggy sentimentality, but a practical recognition of shared interests among two-legged and four-legged animals. Go ahead and embrace animal causes without a shred of guilt.
“What’s good for the animals is also good for the Pygmies,” Dieudonné Kembé, a Pygmy working in Dzanga Sangha, told me. Without conservation efforts, he said, “the animals would be gone, and we might be gone, too.”
Nicholas D. Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach him at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 620 8th Ave., New York, NY 10018. © 2018 New York Times News Service