He Aims to Save

updated 06/02/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/02/2003 01:00AM

They could have died so many ways—poisonous black mamba snakes, man-eating crocodiles, rampaging rapids, even the Ebola virus. Yet 3½ years ago, when Bruce Hayse and his team of seven took a 300-mile boat ride down the Chinko, a perilous river in the Central African Republic that had likely never been traversed by outsiders, the menace that worried them most was other humans—specifically, violent poachers. "We're talking about an invading force," says Hayse, 54. "At the end of the trip, the villagers all said, 'Finally, you've come to help us.' "

A medical doctor by profession, Hayse saw firsthand during that expedition the extent to which poachers have decimated the wildlife in one of the last unspoiled places on earth. For the past decade, marauders armed with machine guns and rocket launchers have roamed the lush forests and grasslands of the Central African Republic (known as the CAR), slaughtering animals for their meat, skins and ivory. They have also been known to brutalize local villagers. So far, poachers have come close to wiping out all the rhinos, elephants, buffaloes, giraffes and giant elands in the area. "If it isn't stopped," believes Dave Bryant, a CAR-based antipoaching expert now working with Hayse, "every large species will be extinct here within five years."

Not if Hayse has anything to say about it. According to Hayse, in August 2001, Ange-Félix Patassé, then the president of the destitute CAR, took the extraordinary step of allowing him to patrol the 60,000-sq.-mi. Chinko River basin and endorsing his controversial plan for ending the pillage: training and arming guards and villagers to confront and, if necessary, kill the poachers. "I don't believe in using violence, but you are dealing with people who are well-armed," says Hayse, who with fellow conservationists formed the African Rainforest and River Conservation (ARRC), which will implement his plan. "You could choose to walk away, but then you're living in a fantasy world."

Hayse's strategy has caused some squeamishness among environmental groups like Conservation International, which turned down a grant request from the ARRC, and the World Wildlife Fund. "The WWF does not endorse or condone private militias using lethal force against poachers anywhere," Richard W. Carroll, a WWF director, said in a statement. Yet negotiating with the poachers won't work: At a sit-down last May, they vowed to keep plundering and "said they look forward to killing me as well," says Bryant, who heads ARRC's operations in the CAR. Hayse, a rugged 6'2" with a bushy mustache he hasn't shaved in 35 years, shrugs off the controversy. "These conservation groups put on a good face," he says, "but when it comes down to doing the real work, they pee their pants."

Hayse, on the other hand, thrives on danger. Raised in Burns, Ore., by stepfather Joe, a civil engineer, and Laura, who stayed at home with Bruce's younger sister and two brothers, Hayse "spent as much time in the mountains as I could," he recalls. He studied medicine at the University of Oregon and now has his own family practice in Jackson, Wyo., but the outdoors is his passion. In 1979 he cofounded the activist group Earth First!, which sometimes resorted to extremist measures such as disabling logging machines. Several times a month he hikes or skis in largely untrampled spots across Wyoming, in addition to his yearly trips to often dangerous regions in Africa. "Yes, it worries me," says his wife, Jan, 55, who met Hayse in college and now helps run his practice (they have two grown daughters). "But Bruce is not a rash person. He knows what he's doing."

On a 1998 descent of the Ivindo River in Gabon, Africa, he saw the destruction caused by loggers and became involved in a movement that pushed Gabon to protect its lands. Inspired by that success, he formed ARRC. Fighting the estimated 700 poachers in the Chinko River basin, however, won't be as easy. So far, he and Christian Guier, an orthopedist in Jackson and a cofounder of ARRC, have spent $350,000 of their own money to get things going. But they will need to lobby aid groups and State Department officials to raise the $3.5 million required over the next five years to arm and deploy 400 guards.

Raising funds is one thing. Picking up a gun and fighting the poachers himself is something else. "I would do it if necessary," says Hayse. "I'm not after glory. But we come into this world, and we have the responsibility to do what's right."

Alex Tresniowski
Jason Bane in Jackson

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