Rod Cassidy is an avid birder and conservationist, owning and managing Sangha Lodge in the Central African Republic together with his wife, Tamar. Rod and Elza Gillman from Congo Conservation Company got together for a virtual coffee and unpacked some of the history of Sangha Lodge, as well as his views on conservation and his love for the rainforest.
Q: What first drew you and Tamar to the Central African Republic?
A: I was an adventure traveler and guide doing tours into Gabon and Congo – this is well over 20 years ago. Unfortunately, the outbreak of Ebola had a huge impact on these areas in 2001, which forced me to look at other options within the Congo Basin. In 2004, I found Dzanga-Sangha National Park within CAR, which was perfectly positioned and offered an abundant forest experience. From 2005 to 2008, I was running regular guided tours into this area and came across a hunting lodge, which was quite abandoned at the time.
Q: Sangha Lodge used to be a hunting lodge, so what future for the lodge did you envision when you first saw it?
A: The initial intention was to just rent the lodge during the non-hunting season for eco-tours. However, after meeting the owner in South Africa, it was clear that he had other, more lucrative business interests and that he would be willing to sell the lodge for a nominal amount. It was a bonus for us to be able to convert the hunting concession into an eco-tourist destination.
Q: How long did it take you to renovate the lodge?
A: We worked flat-out on the lodge renovations for about a year. I recall one day, while I was standing on top of a water tank tower that we were busy constructing, I suddenly felt weak and dizzy. It then dawned on me that I had not eaten in 3 days! We were just so busy that almost nothing else mattered at the time.
Q: What is the most challenging aspect of renovating a lodge in such a remote region?
A: The hardest part was working on a shoestring budget and not always having the necessary funds for the work that had to get done. The rest of the challenges you can overcome.
Q: What would you say is your family’s favorite part of running a lodge together in the Dzanga-Sangha region?
A: We live in paradise! It is a beautiful region with incredible biodiversity – the birds and wildlife are just stunning.
Q: What are yours, Tamar’s and Alon’s passions and strengths? (one signature trait for each of you)
A: In terms of traits, I can only speak for myself and would say that I am very tenacious (or hard-headed if you like!). My passion is birding and the same goes for Tam – that is how we first met. Our son, Alon, is an exceptional guide with a wonderful insight into the surrounding eco-systems.
Q: How does Sangha Lodge work together with local communities? (i.e. how to have the two integrated)
A: The most pertinent role that we play in the community is an economic one by being the 3rd biggest employer in the Bayanga area. We have permanent employees at the lodge, but also use temporary workers on specific projects, support the local technicians from the village and buy fresh produce locally. We also support three schools in the surrounding area and as a general rule, we do our best to continuously contribute to and assist the local community when they come to us with specific requests.
Q: What does conservation mean to you?
A: Conservation is everything. It is not optional. It is something that we all have to do to ensure the survival of the human race. It is about living properly and stopping excessive consumption and wastage.
Q: How has conservation shaped the experience at Sangha Lodge?
A: Sangha Lodge is an eco-lodge with basic, rustic infrastructure. Even if it’s unrealistic to be completely non-consumptive, we aim to adopt practices that make ecological sense within our environment. We have been asked in the past why we use wooden fires to make warm water for guests (using a donkey) instead of solar power. The reality is that solar power systems and batteries have their carbon footprint, and given that we are in the forest, there just is not enough sunlight to make this a feasible alternative. We have an abundance of dry wood from the surrounding areas without ever needing to cut down any trees, so it’s a solution that works within our context.
Q: Can you tell us a little about the Sangha Pangolin Project, the vision behind it, and how it came into being?
A: During the worst of the civil war in CAR that disrupted our lodge activities for at least five years (2013-2017), there was a notable increase in pangolin poaching. Where possible, we started rescuing pangolins from the markets to release them back into the forest. We rescued about 50 to 60 pangolins over the first two years. The ambassador for the project is Pangy, a baby pangolin that we rescued in December 2004. We learned how to hand-raise a pangolin and Pangy became part of the family. From then onwards the project become more formalized, and we got volunteers on board to help collect more data on pangolins after their release back into the forest. The Sangha Pangolin Project is funded by generous donors that make it possible for us to keep going. Maja Gudehus is the project coordinator and works daily with the volunteers and trackers to perform in-depth research on pangolins. We’re very excited about the publications coming from this project.
Q: What are your favorite aspects of the experience to share with your guests?
A: I love for people to discover and understand that the equatorial rainforest is not a traditional African safari. The forest is not only about gorillas and elephants – it’s a whole experience for all the senses where you can discover orchids and mushrooms, parrots, and hundreds of butterflies. There are massive, amazing trees that are thousands of years old. Very few people get to walk in these landscapes, so it is a privilege to share this experience when guests come to Sangha Lodge.
Q: If you had to give a future guest one piece of advice when they book to visit Sangha Lodge, what would it be?
A: Don’t expect your deposit back! (laughter) On a serious note, my one piece of advice would be to come with an open mind. Leave behind the checklist and all your expectations. Come to absorb the reality of the vast array of things that the forest has to offer.