Odzala’s gorilla gorilla gorilla

Odzala-Kokoua National Park sits in the Congo Basin in Central Africa and forms part of the second largest rainforest on earth.

“A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself. Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.”
~Franklin D. Roosevelt

The first camp we visited in Odzala was Ngaga Camp which is located just outside the park boundary in the Ndzehe concession. The camp overlooks an open glade of marantacae within the primary forest above a forest stream. Ngaga is situated within the overlapping home ranges of several groups of western lowland gorillas, two of which are habituated.

There are two gorilla species, the Eastern and the Western. The scientific name for Eastern Gorillas is Gorilla Berinngei, and for Western Gorillas is Gorilla Gorilla. There are four gorilla subspecies. The two western sub-species are the Western Lowland (Gorilla Gorilla Gorilla) and the Cross River (Gorilla Gorilla Diehli). The two eastern subspecies are the Eastern Lowland (Gorilla Beringei Graueri) and Mountain (Gorilla Beringei Beringei).

The size and colouring of the two species is slightly different. The western lowland species appears slightly smaller but may be because the eastern species has much longer hair to keep warm at the higher altitudes. The western gorilla subspecies is also a brownish-gray, while eastern gorilla subspecies tend to be blacker. The two species live in Central Africa, separated by a vast swathe of rainforest.

Both species are listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. The western lowland gorillas are more common than their relatives, the mountain gorillas. With the western lowland gorillas living in deep rain forests it is more difficult to estimate their population because they are harder to follow. They are known to exist in Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

To give you a sense of how thick the rainforest can be, this was the main road from Odzala to Gabon. The track was wet because there had been a heavy afternoon shower a little earlier.

“Healthy rainforests absorb up to 10% of man’s carbon emissions each year.”

There are two types of forest structures in Odzala-Kokoua, the first being a closed-canopy forest with an open understory and second an open canopy with a very dense marantaceae understory. We walked through the second forest structure to find the gorillas.

Western lowland gorillas are the main species of wildlife and are the main attraction around Ngaga Camp. They are tracked on foot from the camp itself. There are no fewer than seven groups totalling 105 individual gorillas in the extended 30 square kilometre (11.5 square mile) Ndzehi forest area around Ngaga camp.

The Ngaga research team follow three gorilla groups every day. Two of these groups, Nepuno and Jupiter, are usually observed by guests while a third, Pluton, is a control group observed primarily for research purposes. There are also a number of unhabituated gorilla groups but they tend to be skittish and are not often seen.

The permanent research team at Ngaga has three highly skilled Mbeti trackers, Okoko Zepherin and Okele Gabin, and one other whose name I cannot remember. Our tracking expeditions usually ranged around 4 to 6kms on the out leg and lasted around three to four hours, including the one hour spent observing and photographing the gorilla group. Gorilla viewing is strictly permitted and follows IUCN guidelines, meaning the maximum viewing duration of any gorilla group is one hour. The gorillas may only be observed in groups up to four persons, and the maximum proximity is seven metres (we usually view from around 10 to 15m). 

It was clear the the Mbeti trackers were highly skilled and finely tuned to the signs and sounds in the forest. They were able to interpret barely visible tracks and signs, and stopped regularly to listen for vocalisations. These trackers had an remarkable ability to anticipate the gorillas’ direction and speed through the Marantacae thickets. Each time they got us into good viewing positions.

As usual we assembled for coffee and a rusk at 5h45 to leave camp by 6h00. Our tracker led us up the hill and through a now familiar section of the forest. After our experience the day before we now knew what to expect. It was still a healthy walk along the forest paths and over fallen logs, enough to ensure that by the time we got close to the gorillas our clothes were soaked in sweat by 7h00 in the morning.

After the difficulties encountered during the first day of photographing the gorillas, the second morning held greater promise. For starters after some discussion, it was agreed that we could pull our masks down to just below our noses so as to cover our mouths. That way my glasses would not mist up as much.

“Rainforests are made of carbon. When the forest is destroyed, this carbon is released as climate warming CO2. The world’s forests store 638 gigatonnes of CO2 “

The movements of both groups are dictated by the seasonal availability of different forest fruits and other forage such as marantaceae leaves and stems.

Our tracker, Zepherin, beckoned us to stop and be still so he could listen for the gorillas. We could hear them moving through the marantaceae thicket. This time is was not just a case of waiting for them to cross the path. This time our guide set off into the marantacae with his panga and secateurs. We followed the troop through the marantaceae for what seemed like half and hour. Finally we got to an opening deep in the marantacae thicket. Sure enough the gorilla troop came to the opening and lingered there for about half an hour.

The open area had been cut by the research team to be able to observe the gorillas otherwise it would be impossible to see them and observe their behaviour and socialisation in the thick marantacae. The whole troop moved into and around this clearing. It was not long before we saw this female gorilla stand up and start walking.

Gorillas are able to walk on their hind legs but they are built to be knuckle walkers. The reason why this female was walking is that she had a broken or crippled hand so found it difficult to knuckle walk. Gorillas (plus chimps and bonobos) are specialised knuckle-walkers. This is not because they can’t carry their weight upright – they can walk bipedally when necessary.

We had quite a treat. While we were watching one group another group moved to join in, so we got to see the Neptuno and Jupiter groups mixing. As to be expected, the youngsters were effervescent and playful with each other. As one point, Jupiter, the one silver back, came thundering through the opening making an almighty noise which sent gorillas scattering. There was no overt aggression between the two groups just one silverback displaying his dominance.

An important plant species for western lowland gorillas is marantaceae – a shrubby plant that grows in profusion on the forest floor. It is also used by gorillas for cover and to build nests. Seeing the gorillas clearly through the marantaceae, even from close range is difficult. You have a better chance of witnessing different types of behaviour e.g. play and tree-climbing (especially when trees are fruiting) in clearings or up in the trees.

This species favours areas of marantaceae vegetation which is a staple food source. According to WWF, gorillas are mainly herbivorous; their staple foods are pith, shoots and leaves. Fruits are also an important component of western lowland gorillas’ diet and are consumed according to their seasonal availability. Over 100 fruit species have been recorded in their diet. In drier months, gorillas supplement their diet with roots, leaves and bark, and even termites and ants.

One of the most incredible displays of strength I have ever seen was when an adult female gorilla began climbing straight up an exceptionally tall fruiting tree. She put her arms around the tree’s trunk and climbed straight up for at least 50 feet to the first branches in one fluid manoeuvre.

“One tropical tree can store up to 30 tonnes of CO2. That’s around three times the amount one person emits in a year.”

The next image is of a mother and her baby. Looks can be deceiving she was not remotely as cross as she looked. Nevertheless she had a good look at us to make sure we were no threat. As you can see she had sweat bees all around her. They seek the moisture where ever they can find it, from your eyes, ears and mouth – anywhere. They are annoying but do not sting though they can mess up your photography.

With a mother like this I think I would be a placid child too!

“No one will protect what they don’t care about, and no one will care about what they haven’t experienced.”~ Sir David Attenborough

The young gorillas get a free ride but are also prone to climbing on and off their mothers to play.

The rainbows colours of fruit are actually a secret message designed to attract animals. For a long time, researchers speculated that the colours of fleshy fruits evolved to get the attention of certain animals, who carry them off and eventually drop their seeds on the forest floor. A new study found the colour of fruits has evolved to attract the animals that eat them. Fruit eaten by monkeys and apes tends to be green, while those eaten by birds is often red. Humans have three types of colour-sensing cone cells in the eyes, each one sensitive to different wavelengths of light, while most other mammals have only two types of cone cells. Birds have four, which helps them see a wider range of colours than humans. With the exception of a handful of other primates, no other animals on earth sees colour the way that humans do, according to a study by co-author Kim Valenta, assistant research professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University.

One undeniable aspect of gorilla behaviour which becomes abundantly clear after watching them for a while is that they have many mannerisms and behaviours which are similar to human beings.

This female gorilla was looking up into the fruit tree where a female had just climbed to pick fruit. This tree did not have ordinary fruit. Each fruit was around 35 centimetres in diameter and when it was dislodged and fell to the ground all the gorillas scrabbled out of the way because it must have weighted at least 10 kilograms.

The abundance of food also has a direct effect on the density of gorillas in an area. The distribution of staple foods is thought to have a strong influence on gorilla social systems, while the distribution of seasonal foods (especially fruit) is likely to significantly affect the gorillas ranging.

It becomes clear how abundant the fruit and nuts are in the forest from the number of hornbills, turacos and barbets you hear calling in the canopy. Sadly we only got to see fleeting glimpses with no photographic opportunities.

We were very fortunate to have this female gorilla, with the damaged hand, come and sit in the marantaceae right in front of us about 10 metres away. Quite relaxed she happily munched away at the piece of fruit she managed to retrieve.

We only got brief glimpses of the silverbacks. They never seemed to sit out in the open but rather a few metres away from the clearing in the marantaceae. The aggression that we saw was more about display than any physical intervention. A silverback is typically more than 12 years of age, and is named for the distinctive patch of silver hair on his back, which comes with maturity. Silverbacks also have large canine teeth that also come with maturity. On maturity, both males and females tend to emigrate from their natal groups.

Our friendly female decided to relax a little in front of us and lay back to doze and contemplate.

There is a technique to photographing western lowland gorillas. Like all wildlife photography you need the first few sessions to get a sense of the animal or bird’s behaviour in order to begin to anticipate where and how it will move to get that interesting image. Our time with the gorillas was short. I guess you would need to be at Ngaga for a least a week photographing the gorillas each day to get top grade images.

An unexpected but welcome and unique aspect of the Odzala experience was the Ngaga Research station. Dr. Magda Beremejo and German Illera, and their research team were the first to habituate western lowland gorillas which has led to Ngaga becoming one of Africa’s most important gorilla trekking destinations.

“It is humbling to see the intellectual input and sustained research effort that goes into investigating and piecing together the sociology and dynamics of these gorilla troops. Without this understanding we would not fathom their value or connectedness with the forest, nor would we understand their movements and ranging. All these dynamics are needed to protect and cherish our close relatives.”~ Mike Haworth

Dr Bermejo and Illera have been researching great apes in Central Africa since 1991. Their dedicated efforts have led to two gorilla groups being successfully habituated to short spell human visits. According to Magda it can take up to five years of daily visits to habituate a gorilla group. Ngaga provides a unique opportunity to assess the effects of gorilla tourism on broader gorilla conservation efforts in the Congo.

“For most of history, man has had to fight nature to survive; in this century he is beginning to realize that, in order to survive, he must protect it.” ~ Jacques-Yves Cousteau

Habituating the gorillas is an add-on to their research. The main thrust is to investigate the human-gorilla interface, competition from habitat overlap with chimpanzees and the potential for human-wildlife conflict.

“Nature, time and patience are the three great physicians.” ~ Chinese proverb

Odzala-Kokoua National Park is managed by the Odzala Foundation – a partnership between African Parks and the Congolese government. African Parks took over the management of Odzala-Kokoua in November 2010 under the terms of the partnership agreement with the Government of the Republic of Congo. The tourist concession is managed by the Congo Conservation Company, which operates a very low volume, high return tourism model. 

‘Each person has a precious and personal thing to learn from the gorillas. It is the rarest of experiences, and one that makes conservationists of us all.” ~ Dr Magda Bermejo

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

Have fun, Mike

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