Odzala’s Western Lowland Gorillas

Our first trek to see the Western Lowland Gorillas started at six in the morning after a cup of coffee and a rusk at the main dining area. Daniella discussed what we were going to do and what was expected once we got close to the gorillas.

“Gorillas are brave and loyal. They help each other. They rival elephants as parents and whales for gentleness. They play and have humor and they harm nothing. They are what we should be. I don’t know if we’ll ever get there.” ~ Pat Derby

There were strict rules, and rightly so, about how to behave when you were close to the gorillas. No sudden movements, no talking, and you had to wear face masks. Gorillas are susceptible to all the human diseases such as tuberculous and ebola so face masks are a necessary preventative measure.

“Animals are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time.” ~ Henry Beston

The walk to the gorillas took just over an hour. It was uphill along a maze of paths through the marantaceae thickets. Our Tracker took us to the area the troop had last been seen the night before. Gorillas are diurnal so they go to sleep at night. They make a nest of leaves and branches in which to sleep. This means that the trackers know where they slept during the night and were not likely to have moved too far by the time we got to the area just after 7h00. The paths we followed were through the forest and marantaceae thickets in the under-story and proved to be somewhat of an obstacle course due to the fallen trees. Gabon was our guide and he was incredibly well tuned into the sounds of the forest and knew where and in which direction the gorillas were moving.

“Chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans have been living for hundreds of thousands of years in their forest,living fantastic lives, never overpopulating, never destroying the forest. I would say that they have been in a way more successful than us as far as being in harmony with the environment.” ~Jane Goodall

After about a hour of walking, Gabon signalled us to stop. He listened intently and indicated that the troop was likely to cross the path some distance ahead. We put on our face masks and waited for the troop of gorillas to cross the path. Gabon accurately estimated where the troop would cross the path which was about 20 metres ahead of us.

As a photographer, wearing eye glasses, I was quite unprepared for the constant misting up of my glasses. By now we were drenched in perspiration, and the face masks forced our hot breath up, misting up our eye glasses to the point where I could not see at all, so had to put my camera between my legs and clean my glasses, repeatedly. This turned out to be a real problem and was very frustrating because I could not see what I was doing. It was exciting to see the gorillas…. when I could see them!

Guests are allowed to spend around one hour in the morning with the troop. As you can see from the images the light was low so the photography was challenging, but it was what we had been expecting.

“All sentient beings should have at least one right—the right not to be treated as property” ~ Gary L Francione

Members of the troop being naturally inquisitive, and not threatened, stopped in the path once they saw us. The youngsters played, while the older members sat and rested, being careful to watch where the others were going.

This was the first time I had ever seen a wild gorilla. I was mesmerised by their eyes. To me their eyes revealed great sentience. There seemed to be a distinct recognition of who we were and, due to a degree of habituation, they were relatively relaxed with our group.

Our group consisted of Gabon our Ngaga tracker, Daniella our Odzala guide, and Ann, Andrew and myself. One of the magical aspects about this sighting is that we are alone with troop.

“Gorillas are still wild creatures. That’s made very clear when you observe them in nature. They charge and perform other displays that are terrifying by design. But they don’t attack unless they feel threatened.” ~ Andy Serkis

Humans share 98.3% of our DNA with gorillas and around 99% with chimpanzees and bonobos. This makes me question why people kill gorillas for bush meat.

Apart from fleeting glimpses of the gorillas, another challenging aspect was the high contrast in overall low light. The leaves of the marantaceae have a sheen which reflects the available light expanding the dynamic range.

Our first hour with the gorillas ended all too quickly, especially as I spent most of my time with my camera between my legs cleaning my glasses! I was going to have to make another plan for the trek the following morning.

On our walk back to camp, Daniella showed us the incredibly varied and complex world of insects, fungi and unique flora along the path. Daniella was impressively knowledgeable and opened up a new world for me.

Daniella’s story about the Ghost butterfly caught my imagination. We found a male and female Ghost butterfly flying together. They are called Ghost butterfly because their wings are translucent so appear white in light and are see- through in deep shadow. When the female stopped to rest on a leaf the male would fly back and forth above her spraying pheromones over her to “hypnotise” her into allowing her to mate with him. Not only was he persistent but I was fascinated to see the male butterfly flying forwards and backwards over the female. I had never (before) seen a butterfly fly backwards.

Along the path through the forest we found several Ground Pineapples (Thonningia sanguine). They occur on the ground among the tree roots system and looked like little gems in the dark understory.

A climbing species of marantaceae in a fold of the tree which is covered in moss. The marantaceae is part of the Prayer Plant family of the Ginger order which comprises 31 genera and 550 species.

A Robber fly perched on a marantaceae leaf. This fly hunts flying insects.

After a wonderful lunch and some editing of the morning’s images we went for a walk around mid-afternoon. Every activity around Ngaga camp is done by walking. The paths through the forest are open and bordered by marantaceae thickets in the understory. Streams of sun light do find their way through the thick forest canopy but for the most part the light is low close to the forest floor.

Daniella explained the difference between ants and termites and showed us termite tunnels and termite nests on the trunks of many trees. Andrew was intrigued and put his Sony mirrorless camera to good use. The termites build their cities on the tree’s outer bark and do not kill the tree. It becomes apparent very quickly that there is at least as many fascinating smaller things close to or on the forest floor as there are large better known mammals and trees.

The termites are remarkable architects. They build their cities with perfect drainage employing overlapping protruding ledges to facilitate water runoff. The high level of moisture sustains moss on these ledges.

Termites, unlike ants, do not tolerate sunlight, so build earth tunnels up the tree trunk to provide highways to their elevated cities.

We found a patch of the forest, close to Ngaga camp, where the canopy opened up and allowed more sunlight through to the understory.

Instead of fighting the low light, Andrew encouraged us to play with our shutter speed and camera movement. This is an example of a low shutter speed with a partial radial twist of camera.

“Nature is so powerful, so strong. Capturing its essence is not easy – your work becomes a dance with light and the weather. It takes you to a place within yourself. ” ~ Annie Leibovitz

In the same location, with a slower shutterspeed and a quick vertical lift of the camera gave quite different look. The idea was to play and try to get different effects out of the same scene.

With a slow shutter speed and rotating the camera quickly creates an unique tunnel effect giving that enchanted forest feel.

Again in the same spot with a slow shutter speed and this time quickly zooming out gives the sense of high speed movement through the forest.

After playing for a while, time was moving on and what light remained was beginning to fade signalling it was time to begin heading back to camp. We walked down a steep path to a ample stream below Ngaga camp. To our surprise there, in the middle of the clear flowing stream, was a magical setting with Clem, the other Ngaga guide, in animated consversation with his family happily, enjoying sun-downers while sitting in the middle of the stream.

After a drink spiced with animated conversation, is was getting dark. We made our way bare foot back to camp which was only a few hundred metres up the hill next to us. The camp staff had put out paraffin lanterns for us to see along the path. It cooled somewhat in the evenings but was still warm.

Once we had freshened up we all met at the camp’s main lounge and dining area. There we were privileged to meet Dr Madga Bermejo. Madga explained the scope of the research efforts she and her team were undertaking. Magda also gave us some insights into the behaviour and social interaction of the three gorilla groups they were studying. Magda talked to us for about an hour. Not only was it fascinating but only then did I get a sense of how much sustained detailed effort her research team put in to better understand the gorilla troop dynamics and sociology.

“Our greatest human adventure is the evolution of consciousness. We are in this life to enlarge the soul, liberate the spirit, and light up the brain.” ~ Tom Robbins

The research was being undertaken to shed light on the social dynamics of the western lowland gorilla. Three breeding groups were being studied, one control group not exposed to people and the other two which were exposed to visitors. Magda’s team were exploring inter-group interactions of three breeding groups which were habituated to the presence of observers and were monitored daily in Ngaga Forest. This was one area where a dense population of gorillas still thrived and had not been affected by Ebola outbreaks in the last decade. The social structure and dynamics between groups is thought to also play a major role in spreading infectious diseases such as the highly infectious Ebola virus.

So ended a fascinating first day in the Odzala-Kokoua rainforest. A good nights’ sleep with the sounds of the forest all around would see us refreshed for another day of exploration and adventure.

“Seeing a gorilla for the first time in the wild was shock. I was like being in an evolutionary time warp. I was struck by the sentience in their eyes and their self sustaining way of life. My first encounter left me with more questions than answers.” ~ Mike Haworth

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

9 thoughts on “Odzala’s Western Lowland Gorillas

  1. What a marvellous experience. Despite your initial difficulties with eyeglasses and camera, you have produced some excellent photographs.

  2. As I understand things, gorillas are herbivores and do not have a desire to kill or eat flesh. When Harambe, a male, had that little boy in his enclosure, it seems that he was only trying to protect the boy, not inflict intentional injury. Jambo the gorilla, a male had the same situation. Video footage shows that he stood guard over the boy when he was unconscious, placing himself between the boy and other gorillas in what ethologists analyze as a protective gesture. Binti Jua, a female was faced with a similar situation.

    • Hi Ragnarsbhut – I am no expert on gorillas but they are are vegetarians. The males do display to show their dominance in a group. Given the sentience of these creatures I would be surprised if the male would harm a child in his enclosure. The gorilla might be perceived as too rough for human senses but they seem to understand their overwhelming power and strength. What shocked me when I saw these western lowland gorillas for the first time is that people kill them for bush meat. When you look into a gorilla’s eyes it is like looking into a humans.

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