Published: September 2005

Mbuti Pygmies

Pygmie Skirt

Who Rules the Forest?

The Mbuti Pygmies of Congo's Ituri forest have survived a brutal civil war and chaotic aftermath. But peace—with its inevitable land rush—poses an even greater threat.

By Paul Salopek
Photograph by Randy Olson

The hunt

Rain forests are light-struck places. This comes as a surprise. Countless books and movies would have us believe otherwise. The world beneath a jungle canopy is neither dim, nor gloomy, nor monochrome. It glows with the light of some alien order—a light so improbable it has a dreamed quality, the way colors in dreams can possess actual weight, or create sound, or stop time.

I have looked up, startled, from my notebook to see the forest suddenly electric white: suffused with the calm, almost glacial cleanliness of a fluorescent-lit office. A few moments later, or merely a few steps away, the jungle turns metallic. Falling rain, leaf shadows, the bloodied pelt of an arrowed monkey—all appear dipped in shivery tones of silver. Once, on the steamy banks of the Ituri River, I saw the twilit undergrowth erupt in unearthly constellations of fire: Sunset burned through the pin-holed canopy, and its deep, red laminar shafts spattered the sodden leaves like flecks of lava. Rain forests, everyone knows, are valued for biodiversity. But few credit the kaleidoscopic richness of their light—ethereal and hallucinatory, filtered as though through antique glass, unlike any other in the world.

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