Joseph Sourét crept carefully through the lush tropical vegetation on the jungle floor, each footstep placed deliberately to avoid any sound that might alert the prey he sought. He scanned ahead, toward the twittering of the monkeys he could not yet see high in the branches ahead. He knew them as singe blanc-nez, white-nose monkeys, owing to the bright white spot that stood out on their otherwise dark faces. He carried his small-caliber rifle at the ready, knowing his opportunity for a clean shot would be fleeting. He did not want to waste it after investing several hours trudging fruitlessly through the stifling tropical heat.
Joseph maneuvered soundlessly through the undergrowth peering up at the thick foliage above but seeing nothing. The monkeys’ chattering grew less frequent, but seemed closer. Perhaps, he thought, they’d found a fruit tree where they would linger to stuff as much as they could hold in their cheek pouches for later consumption, as was their habit. As bushmeat, monkeys were prized and Joseph knew if he managed to bag one it would make him a handsome profit, more than making up for the futile and miserable three hours spent in the hunt so far. Leaving the village this morning, his hopes ran no higher than a cane rat or perhaps even a duiker, but a singe would bring far more at the market. He was elated at the prospect of it and smiled, but he was also disciplined; he forced himself to be patient, to be cautious with each step, each movement. As he neared the range of his small rifle he would have to be especially careful. The monkeys were always alert and wary, and he knew the troop would bolt at the slightest sign of danger, deeper into the forest. And once alerted, they would not abide a second stalking.
Joseph scanned the forest canopy ahead, straining to catch their movement. In the thick, windless jungle air the leaves hung motionless. Although he still couldn’t spot them, he felt certain that he was now within the limited range of his .223 calibre rifle, the favorite of bushmeat poachers like himself. Powerful enough to bring down the small game popular with bushmeat customers, but quiet enough to not draw attention to his illegal poaching.
A large kapok tree stood between Joseph and the source of the monkeys’ vocalizations, blocking his view. Silently, Joseph stepped to his left and realized too late that he had unmasked himself. A lookout spotted him immediately and barked a warning. A sudden cacophony rose from the dozen or so monkeys in the group as they scattered in all directions. Joseph snapped his rifle to his shoulder and took aim at one of the little monkeys scampering from branch to branch in a panicked escape. Just as it leapt to an adjacent tree, Joseph fired. He watched as a bit of wood just below the monkey was blasted free. Untouched, the monkey flew into the dense foliage and disappeared.
Joseph cursed in French, the language he had been forced to use in school, and which he preferred for the purpose—his native Baoulé was relatively barren of colorful epithets, an oddity he never understood given the many conflicts in the region over the years. He felt the sharp sting of disappointment. There was no point in pursuing the troop; they were now aware of his presence and long gone in any event. He would have to hope his luck improved on the return trek back to Sanniquellie. Perhaps a duiker or porcupine would cross his path.
As Joseph turned to head back, a bit of movement caught his eye. A single singe had not fled in the earlier panic. In fact, it had been so frozen in place that Joseph had not even noticed it in the agitated explosion of escaping monkeys. Now, it stared across the intervening space, baring its teeth, oblivious to the danger it faced. Joseph was initially stunned into inaction but quickly recovered, realizing that the monkey’s bizarre behavior was a gift from Allah. Joseph needed this shot to count so he moved the rifle to his shoulder cautiously, slowly, fearing any sudden movement would cause this singe to take flight like the others. The monkey stood up on the branch, raising its body to its full height. It began screeching loudly at Joseph as he sighted the rifle on the monkey’s heart and fired. The slug entered the monkey’s chest just above its heart, severing the aorta. The singe tumbled backward from the branch, dead before it hit the jungle floor.
If possible, the journey back to Sanniquellie was even more miserable than the slog across the border into Guinea, where Joseph had done his poaching. For generations, his family had made most of their meager living hunting and selling bushmeat, and borders, parks, and nature preserves had little meaning for them when hunger and survival were what drove one’s actions. It had been many months since Joseph had even seen a singe, much less had a chance to sight his rifle on one, so lugging the 18kg beast in the cloth bag thrown over his shoulder was a burden he was glad to bear. Even if the extra load left him drenched in sweat and his muscles screaming.
Two days later, in a corner of Sanniquellie where the local gendarme turned a blind eye on Tuesdays, the illegal bush market was enjoying a lively stream of buyers. The weather was mild and the looming rainclouds had not opened up yet but had served to keep the temperatures in a comfortable range. Joseph and his wife displayed the trophy that he had bagged, laying it out on their best groundcloth as though it were asleep. Joseph had splurged on a double block of ice and had kept the prize fresh in the homemade cooler he regularly kept his carcasses in until market day. Today, the singe was presented as the unique offering he knew it was. Joseph was proud. There had not been a singe in the market in many months, so he anticipated a nice reward from it—if Allah brought the right buyer to the market today.
After several hours of swatting away flies in the growing heat and turning down offers that were far too low, Joseph wondered if that special buyer he needed would appear. He considered butchering the carcass on site, making it easier for buyers to stomach what he would ask for a leg or a head or heart. At last, though, through the throngs of shoppers he spotted the person he’d impatiently been anticipating. It was easy to make this judgment: the man carried himself with authority, was dressed far more elegantly than anyone else he’d seen that morning, and he was accompanied by two toadies who pushed aside anyone who might obstruct the progress of their principal. Joseph’s wife also saw the small coterie approaching and reached over the singe, vigorously shooing away the hungry flies with a brightly colored bandana.
The distinguished visitor stopped at their small display, which today held only the single corpse of a singe blanc-nez. In a surprise to Joseph, the man spoke in the native Baoulé, more common in the rural areas than in the city where French was dominant and from where this visitor surely must hail.
“A singe…very nice,” he said matter-of-factly. “I will not ask you where you were fortunate enough to collect this beautiful creature.” He spoke in a deep, evenly measured tone. Joseph suddenly feared he may be a policeman of some kind and began creating a fiction in his head to account for his possession of the illegal animal. “I assume it is for sale?” Joseph relaxed. If this visitor was police, Joseph would already be in handcuffs.
“Yes, sir. All or any part you wish to purchase today. It has been on ice for several days and I assure you it is fresh.”
“I want all of it,” the man said without hesitation. Joseph was taken aback. He had expected to sell it piecemeal, due to the price it could command.
“Of course, but the price—”
“I will pay what you ask,” the man said.
Joseph’s wife could not stifle her joy, so she covered her face with the bandana to hide her glee. After a very brief discussion about the cost, the price was set at sixteen thousand Liberian dollars—roughly eighty U.S. dollars—for the carcass. Money that would set up Joseph and his wife very well for months. The singe was wrapped in newspaper and loaded into a large new plastic garbage bag, which one of the man’s handlers took following the payout in cash, the most money Joseph and his wife had ever held at one time.
As the small entourage departed the area, one of the other sellers rushed to Joseph’s side and congratulated him on the sale.
“Did you know who that was?” the man asked.
“I don’t. Should I?” Joseph said.
“If you want to make another sale like that,” the man said. “That was Mbutu Chalbé,” he said as though that should explain everything. Joseph didn’t know the name and it showed.
“Mbutu Chalbé! He’s with the government now, in Monrovia, but he is from here, from Sanniquellie. You need to show him respect, my friend. He’s well-known here and is very powerful. And now, very rich.”