Category Archives: Gorilla Range States

Ian Redmond – Lions on the tarmac

Friday 4th September

Malabo looks like a green and pleasant land – at least the bits you can see from the airport lounge! Despite telephone calls to our few contacts in Equatorial Guinea, no transit visa or any other kind of visa was forthcoming. The Director of Wildlife was unable to help, and the head of the local Conservation International office told me he had colleagues who had waited months for a visa… Fortunately, Gabon was open for business again soon – only a 24 hour delay then!

Disembarking at Libreville Airport, passengers off my flight found ourselves mingling with a squad of green-clad athletes who were the focus of TV cameras and every airport workers’ camera-phone.  The Indomitable Lions (Cameroon’s National Football Team) had arrived to take on Gabon, and the excitement was infectious.

Having had meetings with their manager to discuss a friendly game in aid of great ape conservation, I tried to strike up a conversation, but serious minders were shielding the stars from unwanted stress before the big match.  Even Geremi Njitap, who some years ago did an ACAP ad urging people to stop eating illegal bushmeat (link to video on www.4apes.com/bushmeat), was shielded from my request.  Someone who turned out to be the team doctor promised me he’d get in touch and arrange a meeting in Yaoundé next week, but with the pressure of matches in the run-up to the 2010 World Cup, I wasn’t too hopeful. (Click here to find out more about a YoG-supported Wildlife Law Enforcement project, aimed among other things at fighting illegal consumption of ape meat. You can support this project by donating!)

Crowds of Cameroon supporters cheered as I emerged from the Arrivals gate, and I wish I’d whipped out a YoG poster, but instead shot some video of the fans and got a taxi to the WCS office to make plans for the next few days.

Read Ian’s previous post here!

Ian Redmond – Sorry, Gabon is closed today

Thursday, 3rd September

I bought a ticket on local airline CEIBA for a flight at 1300, then took a taxi to explore the local bushmeat markets in Pointe Noir. The only animals in the first market were massive Merou fish being filleted among crowded fruit and veg stalls, so we quickly moved on. Pointe Noir main market is a warren of narrow passageways between stalls selling every conceivable product, and I struggled to keep up with my guide without knocking over the displays with my camera-bag.

Once past the smoked and salted fish section, the stalls were piled with portions of wild animals – porcupines, pangolins, cane-rats, antelopes and monkeys.  It brought to mind the game butchers where I grew up in Beverley, Yorkshire, where venison, rabbits and pheasants were usually on display. 

The difference (apart from the variety of species) was that the African bushmeat trade (link to www.4apes.com/bushmeat) has grown to unsustainable levels as commercial hunters gain access to previously inaccessible forests.   I chatted to the traders to ask what other species they sold, and whether there was still a demand for ape meat.   They were quick to explain that inspectors from the Ministry of Water and Forests came by every week to check, and that no endangered species were sold.  They had been well informed by the nearby Jane Goodall Institute sanctuary, Tshimpounga, and no longer sold chimpanzee or gorilla.  “But surely older people who have always eaten it must still be trying to get some?” I said.   “They have to change their meat!”  came the reply.   I asked if he would say that on video for the YoG website, and he said he would but felt it would be better coming from the President of the Bushmeat Traders.  When introduced, the President agreed to speak on video, and once we get these HD video files compressed and on-line, you’ll see what he has to say. Mind you, it contrasts sharply with the recent exposé by Endangered Species International, reported at http://news.bbc.co.uk/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_8256000/8256464.stm

 Legal bushmeat stall, Central Market, Pt Noire, Congo. Photo Ian Redmond.

Africa’s Green Heart – a new film by Steve O Taylor, partially supported by the CMS (UNEP’s Convention on Migratory Species), which includes dramatic bushmeat sequences, will soon be available from the Ape Alliance.  It is hoped that this educational resource will stimulate discussion in schools, governments and among the various interested parties in this complex issue.

Enforcing existing wildlife law is a crucial and immediate challenge in the fight for gorillas’ survival. The YoG supports a project in Congo Brazzaville. Find out more about the project here! You can also donate for it through this site.

Got back to the airport in good time to check in, get my passport stamped and just as I was putting my pocket contents into the basket for the X-ray the word came through that Gabon was closed due to the post-electoral disturbances.  The presidential elections had been close with all three main candidates declaring victory, and the situation was tense.  The next flight to Libreville wasn’t until tomorrow evening, so not wanting to waste a day and a half, and being advised that there were more flights to other range states from Malabo (the second scheduled destination), I decided to take flight anyway.

Once we were off the plane in Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea on the island of Fernado Po, a friendly young customs officer seemed to think a transit visa wouldn’t be a problem once the Comisario returned to his desk and asked me to wait.   I waited. 

I could see how busy everyone was; two women sat in the corner deep in conversation, two men stood huddled over a laptop exchanging messages with someone, somewhere (I sneaked a peek) and a young guy with a games console plugged in next to the non-functional metal-detector got to the next level, did a little dance, then grinned sheepishly at me before returning to slay whatever monsters next came his way.  

No-one seemed to have within their job description ‘assisting stranded passengers’.   Now and again I’d experiment to see where exactly ‘the point they shall not pass’ was, and I’d catch someone’s eye, or a different uniform would walk through, so I would ask if I could please have a transit visa or a receipt for my passport so I could go and find a hotel for the night.   “Attendez s’il vous plait,” came the reply. 

The Comisario was a big man and once he realised he had a room full of passengers next door he took charge.  In French and Spanish he asked, “where are you all going?“   The babble of destinations was confusing, so he told everyone going to Nigeria to sit here,  to Benin, sit there, and so on.   People obediently sorted themselves geographically as his assistant collected their passports.   That was much tidier, so he walked back to his office.   There was a moment’s silence before everyone looked at each other and burst out laughing. 

I followed him to his office – well furnished with a big desk and well-upholstered leather armchairs – and tried to explain that the tidy room full of people were just here until the aircraft sitting on the tarmac outside was ready for take-off.   My situation was different and to find the next flight to one of the countries I needed to visit a travel agent, probably tomorrow, so please could I have a transit visa and all would be well.  He eventually got the message and extracted my passport from the pile, then placed it in isolation on a separate part of his desk and asked me to wait.   

I tried the ace up my sleeve, and showed him my UNEP-CMS Ordre de Mission, which listed Equatorial Guinea and asks ‘To Whom it May Concern’ to assist with a visa for my mission.   He called the flight controller down and they conferred, then the flight controller apologised and led me past the tidy but increasingly angry passengers (now rebelling by re-sorting themselves and saying they’ll never fly woth CeiBA again), upstairs to the VIP lounge where he left me in splendid isolation.   Here I could enjoy the well-upholstered leather sofas and ornate gilded glass coffee table, upon which a hostess presented me with a cold tonic (sadly no gin), and I was left alone.   But there was power, and comfort, so I blogged until I was falling asleep, then curled up under my kikoi and got some kip.

Read Ian’s previous post here!

Ian Redmond – Clearing the YoG-Blog-Backlog

11th September           

Greetings, oh followers of the SoG-YoG Blog,

I’m sitting next to a sleeping policeman (an officer of the law, not a speed bump) in the front seat of the Yaoundé to Limbé Guarantee Express bus, hurtling through torrential rain, most of which is being kept out by the windscreen but occasional drops make it through the side windows that need to be open a bit to stop us from misting up.  Cameroon is such a beautiful country, even when it is raining!

My apologies once again for the break in communications.   Long bus journeys, hastily convened press conferences, Ministerial YoG interviews and mini-seminars in restaurants and bus stations have filled every waking moment of late (and there haven’t been many sleeping moments either!), hence the lack of recent postings.   A change in tactics is clearly called for.  Producing long blogs a week after the event is rather missing the point of blogging, or so I gather, so I propose to keep you posted on my movements  more regularly with brevity.  In due course, and as time allows, I’ll fill in the detail, but at least those of you curious to know how the journey is going will be kept up to date.

Let’s take it from my abortive attempts to get an Angolan visa:

Tuesday 1st September:   Redmond vs. Red tape

In Kinshasa, I was helped to get around by the UNEP Post-conflict office driver.  Even with my Ordre de Mission from UNEP-CMS and a Ministerial intervention via Luanda, the staff of the Angolan Embassy felt unable to issue a visa without a letter of invitation. Telephone calls and emails to our contact in Luanda seemed to indicate one was on its way.  The Gabon Embassy was more helpful and issued one the same day.

Wednesday 2nd September     

To Angolan Embassy again, asked to wait again (though what for was not clear).   While waiting, chatting to other patiently-waiting people about bus services to Angola led to a YoG interview with an Angolan architect working in Kinshasa.   Technically we were on Angolan soil in the Embassy, and this was to be my only YoG interviewee from Angola.  Rang Luanda again and unable to catch the words, handed the ‘phone to the consular officer, who learned that the letter of invitation had still not been sent yet, which is why it was not in his fax machine…  I was running out of time, and there were no flights out of Kinshasa to any of my target countries, so I packed up and headed for the Beach to cross to Brazzaville again.  There I took a taxi straight to the airport and found a flight going to Pointe Noir on the coast of Congo.   On arrival, the Gabon Airways flight I’d hoped to catch was on the tarmac a few yards away, but it was full and ready for departure, so I’d have to wait until the next flight in the morning.

Read Ian’s previous post here!

Find out more about the Year of the Gorilla and the projects you can support.

Ian Redmond – Fish and gorillas

August 28th – Imagine you are an ant watching the ripples of a small mountain stream flowing over pebble – that is how you feel looking at giant standing waves of the Kinsuka Rapids, formed as the smooth wide waters of Stanley Pool squeeze through the narrow exit with tremendous force, en route for the Atlantic at Banana. The Congo River is unlike any other in this regard – instead of broadening into a gentle estuary or delta in its lower reaches, this immense volume of water powers through a deep crack in the rock.   

Shovelling sand near standing waves, Kinsuka Rapids, Kinshasa, DRC, small. Picture Ian Redmond.

In the foreground, battered lorries are being filled with sand by gangs of men with long-handled shovels.  Kinshasa is witnessing a building boom as stability brings investment, and the massive sand-banks are bit by bit being converted into a high-rise city.  I asked my host Melanie if she would like to say something about the links between fish and gorillas, and with the rapids behind her, she gave a great YoG interview.  “Everything that happens in the forests of the Congo Basin ends up in the river” she pointed out, “and if you lose the forests, you lose most of the fish in the river, and also in the in-shore marine fisheries that feed so many people.  So, to save the gorillas, you save the forests… and so save the fish.  It is all connected.”   What better message for the Year of the Gorilla?  

Dr Melanie Stiassny links fish and gorillas, Kinsantu Rapids, DRC side, small. Photo Ian Redmond.

Any study in a little-known habitat is likely to yield species new to science (usually well known to local people but not yet formally described) but I had heard that Melanie had found a fish so unlike any other that it needed not only a new species and genus, but a new Family. But despite jokes about fishermen’s tales, she admitted it was quite a small fish – exciting news for ichthyologists nevertheless.

By chance, one of the ichthyologists’ neighbours turned out to be Inogwabini, one of Congo’s foremost field scientists, now working with WWF.  He gave me a lift into the WWF offices, which conveniently were in the same compound as UNEP, and he also gave a bi-lingual YoG interview.  Ino had taken part in the census of Eastern Lowland Gorillas in the early to mid-1990s which came up with the widely quoted 1996 estimate of 17,000 (+or- 8,000), 86 per cent of whom lived in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park and surrounding forests.  One of the big questions hanging over gorilla conservation in the DRC is how many of these animals have survived both the coltan boom at the turn of the century (see http://www.bornfree.org.uk/animals/gorillas/conservation-research/) and the on-going occupation of the lowland sector of the park by armed militias who fight to control the lucrative flow of minerals?  

Inogwabini, Congolese conservationist with WWF, Kinshasa, small. Photo Ian Redmond.

Thanks to the monitoring of 11 gorilla groups in the 600 square km montane sector by ICCN with support from WCS (now aided by a grant from the Spanish Government through GRASP), we know that the number in this relatively well-controlled sector was reduced by half during the conflict, but is recovering.  The lowland sector (ten times bigger) is not yet secure for census work, and the fear is that the decline will be greater than in the montane sector.

Across the Mighty Congo (and even mightier bureaucratic hurdles)

After making the best of these opportunities for meetings and YoG interviews, I tried one more time for an Angolan visa. No luck – if only this honorary Ambassador title came with a diplomatic passport, there’d be no problem and the visas would be free!

Crossing the Congo River by ‘Canoe Rapide’ takes but a few minutes; getting through the various stages of buying a ticket (there are several competing companies), having your bags checked, declaring your currency and avoiding contributing to the daily income of everyone standing within a radius of five metres, while being jostled by muscular stevedores with massive loads on their heads all shouting loudly, can take an hour or more on each side if you don’t have someone to guide you through the ‘protocol’.  It is the sort of busy scene one would love to capture on video, but the mere hint of a camera emerging from bag or pocket would add yet hours to the ‘protocol’ and likely cost an arm and a leg, so you, Gentle Reader, will have to use your imagination!

Speedboat to Brazzaville Beach, small. Photo Ian Redmond.

It was late afternoon by the time I walked out of the warehouses that serve as customs offices on the famous Brazzaville Beach.  My old friend Dr Dieudonné Ankara met me – he is the GRASP Focal Point for the Congo Government and Scientific Advisor for Congo to the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), and he was the one who initiated Congo’s proposal to list all gorillas on the CMS Appendix 1 (before that, only Mountain Gorillas were listed), so in a way, the whole Gorilla Agreement and YoG campaign stem from his work.

Taking one of the ubiquitous green taxis that make getting around Brazzaville so easy, we went first to the Wildlife Conservation Society office to meet Dr Trish Reed, a veterinarian working on monitoring ape health who had been at the Entebbe workshop the week before. She had kindly offered the use of a spare room and logistical help for me to get around Congo.  Unfortunately, the timing was wrong – the director of WCS Congo, Paul Telford, was in South Africa with Minister Djombo, seeking investment for Odzala National Park, and no vehicles were heading out to projects. 

It seemed that the chances of my visiting the more remote gorilla habitats in Congo were, well, remote.  Instead, we called the newly appointed Focal Point of the Gorilla Agreement, Mr Florent Ikoli, and he suggested an immediate meeting.   Florent is also the Conservator of the Lésio-Louna Gorilla Reserve where the Projet Protection des Gorilles (PPG) is based.   

PPG is the pioneering collaboration between the UK-based Aspinall Foundation and the Ministry of Economic Forestry, which is rehabilitating confiscated orphan gorillas back into the wild. Its origins go back to the efforts of the late Yvette Leroi, who began rescuing baby gorillas from traders in the 1980s, and who I met on my first visit to Brazzaville in 1989, on an investigation into this trade for  the International Primate Protection League (www.ippl.org).

We drove over to the modest PPG Brazzaville office and I noted the minibus outside, beautifully painted with scenes of forests and gorilla families, clearly used for conservation education.  On the wall inside were posters and leaflets with the equally effective message that ‘baby apes + cash = PRISON’ – with a pair of hand-cuffed wrists to hammer home the point.  This campaign to stop the illegal trade in baby apes is also backed by other GRASP partners (JGI, LAGA and WCS) as well as the Ministry.  It is an essential adjunct to the more widely publicised and photogenic task of caring for the orphans.   To find out more about a related project on Wildlife Law Enforcement (supported by the YoG) for which you can donate through this blog, click here.

Orpans like this one, be they gorillas or chimps, need urgent help. The YoG supports a wildlife law enforcement project. Picture by Ian Redmond.

Florent gave us a brief summary of the success of the reintroduction work: so far eight babies have been born in the wild, and although sadly two have died, this is not considered unusual for first-time mothers (some studies report up to 40 per cent infant mortality in natural gorilla populations).  If all goes well, this disparate group of gorillas (including some born in Kent at Howletts and Port Lympne Zoos) will be the founders of a new free-living population in habitat that hasn’t seen a gorilla in decades.  Moreover, the communities are fully supportive of the project (perhaps now realising the value of what they had lost) and are already beginning to see benefits from the tourism that the gorillas attract.

As for visiting the site, this time I was in luck. Repairs to a project vehicle should be finished by the next morning, so I could get a lift.  And two groups of tourists were expected over the weekend, so a lift back on Sunday seemed likely too. 

My weekend was set, and I would see gorillas in Congo – just not the ones I still yearn to see up north, around Odzala and Nouabali-Ndoki National Parks, wading in and feeding on water plants while elephants and sitatunga stroll by in the bai.  Next time perhaps?

Coming soon:

29th – 31st August – PPG and PALF – Bottle-fed babies and prosecuting the traders

1st – 3rd September – Visa purgatory and visible progress towards LSD bushmeat.

Read Ian’s previous post here!

Ian Redmond – Another delay and a new fish

August 27th – The MONUC flight to Kinshasa was on an elderly Eastern-bloc plane but was straightforward, with a two-hour stop in Kisangani.   I was swapping gorilla stories with a lady who investigates allegations against MONUC soldiers when my phone rang – it was the Korean TV company with whom I had originally expected to be travelling west to Kinshasa and Brazzaville.   They still hope to make their documentary, but the chances of their timetable overlapping with mine were dwindling with each passing day.  I do hope they make it eventually.

The United Nations Environment Programme post-conflict unit has a new office in DRC, having been asked by the Minister of the Environment to assist with development of environmental policies in this critical period of national reconstruction.   The unit kindly sent a driver to meet me at Kinshasa airport and whisk me to the Angolan Embassy, arriving at 14.02.   I hoped the Embassy might just be opening after lunch but no – it closed at 14.00 hours, and the doorman wasn’t even able to give me a visa application form.  “Come back tomorrow at 9.00am,” he said.   Next door, the Congo Brazzaville Embassy was still open and much more welcoming; the Consul recalled my earlier visits years ago, and asked if I was still working for the apes.  I gave him a YoG sticker and he gave me a multiple entry visa (how’s that for a win-win).   If I couldn’t go to Angola next, at least I now had a second option.

Whilst in Kinshasa, I hoped to meet the Minister of Environment, Nature Conservation and Tourism, H.E. José Endundo Bononge.  It turned out he was expecting me thanks to the head of ICCN – the DRC parks department – Pasteur Cosma Wilungula, who gave a YoG interview from his perspective, then led me upstairs to the minister’s office.  As the man responsible for the largest proportion of the Congo Basin’s forests and watersheds, Minister Endundo holds one of the major keys to future climate stability in his hands.   He spoke movingly of his personal experiences meeting gorillas, when taking ambassadors from many nations to visit Virunga and Kahuzi-Biega National Parks, and of his hopes for the Climate Conference in Copenhagen this December.

DRC Environment Minister José Endundu Bononge welcomes Ian Redmond for YoG talks, Kinshasa. Photo Ian Redmond.

Back at the UNEP offices, I was delighted to meet up with Ed Wilson, one of the founding fathers of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) as he was preparing to leave.  Our paths had last crossed some 20 years ago, and we resolved not to leave it so long until our next meeting. Among the group enjoying a farewell drink with Ed was Dr Melanie Stiassny, curator of fish at the American Museum of Natural History, who was in Kinshasa working with a group of students on the extraordinary diversity of fish in the River Congo.  There was space at the house they were using, and so I found myself waking up the next day beside the Kinsuka Rapids.

Fish and gorillas: coming up soon…

Read Ian’s previous post here!

Ian Redmond – Mgahinga National Park office and GO Kisoro

August 26th – The 5.30am bus to Kisoro was again more Matatu than Express, so it was mid-morning when we pulled into Kisoro, the nearest town to the DRC border. A throng of motorcycle taxis vied for my custom, and I squeezed past them and chose one on the edge of the pack. Mounting it with my rucksack on my back and placing my camera-bag on the petrol tank, we lurched off to the Mgahinga National Park office.

The man behind the desk seemed a bit bemused when I pulled out a video camera (but there was a YoG poster behind him, so I had to get the shot). He called for a colleague from the back office whose face split into a broad grin when he saw me. We had met eight years before, when I brought the first Discovery Initiatives (a partner of the UNEP Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP) ) gorilla safari, and left a copy of Eyewitness Gorilla at the park education centre. He gave a smiling YoG interview and I said goodbye, apologising for the brevity of my visit, and crossed the road to the Kisoro Gorilla Organization Resource Centre.

Wooden scooters are an important means of transportation, Picture Melanie Virtue

The staff couldn’t have been more helpful, letting me send some urgent emails and offering much-needed tea and biscuits. They told me (and the YoG video) of their respective activities and I was pleased to pass on a copy of the BBC Natural World documentary ‘Titus the Gorilla King’ kindly provided by Tigress Films for such purposes. As a final favour, they told me to pay off my motor-cycle taxi and drove me to the Bunagana border in the elderly but much more comfortable GO vehicle.

Charcoal superstore beside road in Uganda. Picture Ian Redmond.

Entering the DRC is often a lengthy procedure, and the border officials couldn’t quite understand why, given my interest in gorillas, I was not going to see the gorillas in the Virunga NP (now that tourism has resumed, that is what most white people cross here for on day trips). I explained about the YoG and my mission, and one officer invited me into his office. Here we go, I thought, I wonder how much this is going to cost me… but once he had me seated, he explained he was concerned about the smuggling of endangered species across the border around here, and was there someone who could help him stop it? Wow! “Mais oui, bien sur!” I said, and promised to pass on his name to various colleagues.

Not so Easy Rider

Outside, the driver of the only four-wheeled vehicle in sight said he’d take me to Goma for $200, but a young motorcyclist with wrap-around shades agreed to do it for $20 plus my last few Uganda shillings and Rwandan Francs. “D’accord” I said, and climbed aboard, again with my rucksack on my back but with my camera-bag wedged between us, there being not enough room on the tank. I immediately noticed an important difference between Ugandan and Congolese motorbike taxis. In Uganda, there is usually a large rack or padded seat behind the pillion passenger – very practical. The Congolese love of style, however, means that every bike I saw between Bunagana and Goma (and Goma is now Motorbike City!) had the same swish design with all lines sweeping up to a small curved handle for the pillion passenger to hold.

Goma is a bustling city in a fertile and densely populated region. Picture Melanie Virtue.

Never mind that everyone in Africa wants to carry more than a vehicle can cope with – looking cool is more important. I struggled to perch the base of my rucksack on the handle and hang on every time my driver accelerated, but had to shift positions every few minutes as muscles complained at the ridiculous workload they were being asked to do – whilst looking cool and waving at incredulous pedestrians, of course, as we zoomed downhill.

YoG Ambassador en route to Goma via motorbike taxi, DRC. Picture Ian Redmond.

The road was end-stage degraded tarmac – bumpy, with loose gravel, pot-holes and – every time we passed another vehicle or (rarely) were overtaken by one – clouds of dust. To save fuel my driver, Jean-de Dieu, would switch off the engine on the downhill stretches and so sometimes we were almost silently coasting downhill – zero carbon motorcycling – which felt fantastic until jolted by the next pot-hole or lump of volcanic rock! I’d forgotten just how far it is from Bunagana to Goma, and after two hours or so, I felt as if I’d had a serious workout.

Goma airport was partly covered under lava in 2002, the plane on the bottom is stuck. Picture Melanie Virtue.

Never mind, I thought, it is good cross-training for the Great Gorilla Run I have signed up to do on 26th September. I’d learned about cross-training during my somewhat inept preparations for my one and only marathon five years ago . The GGR is only 7km, but involved hundreds of people running through London in gorilla suits! Please be among the first to sponsor me a ‘Darwin’ or two (note: a £10 note has a portrait of Charles Darwin on it, and in honour of his bicentenary I propose to run inspired by the Victorian cartoon which showed Darwin’s head on an ape body). I plan to knuckle-walk/run for as long as possible, but if that is too much of a Slog4YoG and my back protests, I’ll evolve a bi-pedal stance and Jog4YoG like the other runners – maybe you can place bets on how many km I manage quadrupedally?

The road took us across the now empty green plains of Kibumba.  In the mid-1990s there had been a refugee city of several hundred thousand people here and I could hardly believe how it had changed since my last visit during that time.   The exodus of so many families fleeing the Rwandan civil war and genocide made this spot an epicentre of human misery in 1994.   I was there a few days later with Dieter Steklis of DFGFI and a BBC film crew, looking for friends and colleagues to help them return home; none of us will ever forget the sight of thousands of blue UNHCR canvas shelters in pouring rain, each one housing a family. 

Kibumba, Rwandan refugee camp (population c.250,000), 15km north of Goma, DRCongo (then Zaire), near Parc National des Virungas, August 1994. Picture Ian Redmond.

On two subsequent visits to bring clothing bundles from kind donors, I was amazed by how industrious people had used jagged volcanic rocks to build semi-permanent homes, weddings were taking place, babies being born – communities making the best of a terrible situation until their repatriation.   Now, the land has been reclaimed by ICCN for the Virunga World Heritage Site, and there is little sign of the refugee city – but there is hardly a tree standing either!   It will take decades for the forest to re-grow, but it is already green; vegetation here is quick to colonise newly cooled lava flows, so there are lots of pioneer plant species to take root in the cleared ground.

Kibumba refugee camp locality in 2005, being reclaimed by the forest. Photo Melanie Virtue.

Clinging on with my left hand, I fumbled my video camera out of my jacket pocket and tried to grab a few images to compare with my 1994 photos; unfortunately the jarring was so extreme at this point the camera kept turning itself off to protect the hard-drive (where’s my trusty OM1 when I need it?).

No MOP, no flight

We finally pulled up at the entrance to Goma Airport, guarded by men in blue helmets behind sandbags. Easing my wobbly legs off the bike I paid Jean de Dieu, picked up my kit and tried to walk normally into the busy MONUC departure area. There was a flight to Kinshasa scheduled for 1500 hours and it seemed as though my timing was perfect, except I soon learned I couldn’t board without a MOP, whatever that stands for, and none of the military check-in staff with clip-boards had my name on their list. People were complaining about the flight being over-booked, and I saw army top brass being turned away, so I realised I wasn’t going to Kinshasa that day.

Eventually I was directed to an office behind rolls of razor-wire where a delightful young lady called, appropriately, Santa, found the email from UNEP-CMS, who together with UNEP/GRASP and WAZA is behind the whole Year of the Gorilla campaign, with my flight request, called up someone on high and smiled saying, “You are on the flight first thing tomorrow morning.” Who says that Santa only gives gifts at Christmas?

Goma airport, airplane trapped by lava, Picture Melanie Virtue.

She printed out my MOP (effectively a MONUC ticket) and I registered it in another office at the airport. I called Tuver (from Gorilla Org.) and he kindly agreed to drive out to the airport and bring me into town (another motorbike ride – aagh!). It was frustrating to lose half a day but pleasant, while waiting for Tuver, to sit quietly on a lump of volcanic rock by the side of the road watching other people bouncing along on motorbikes.

Several people helpfully told me how filthy my face was from the dusty ride and two separate immigration officials just had to come over to check my papers – it being almost unheard of for a lone mzungu to sit on a rock beside the road. The second was more curious than officious, and it turned out he knew many of the conservationists in town, which is how I ended up having supper with Urbain Ngobobo, who works for the Frankfurt Zoological Society project, assisting ICCN in training park guards and trying to control the illegal charcoal trade.

Mount Nyiragongo towers over Goma, Picture Melanie Virtue.

All the way to Goma I’d been passing vehicles – from the ingenious, home-made wooden scooters pushed by boys to huge trucks piled with sacks and topped by passengers – all bringing fuel for the city’s cooking fires. Some of it may be legal, but much of it is illegal and destroying the forests of the Virunga National Park. The trade is estimated to be worth $30 million per year, and unsurprisingly, the organised crime ring behind it is resisting with lethal force attempts to enforce the law– even killing several gorillas in 2007 . To find out more about a project aiming to tackle the threats of charcoal trade and deforestation, click here.

Read Ian’s previous post here!

Ian Redmond – VACCINAPE

Veterinarian Siv Aina Jensen and Biologist Fabian Leendertz study gorilla diseases, Pic Fabian LeendertPosted on behalf of Ian Redmond.

One afternoon of the Great Ape Health workshop, August 21-23, was spent discussing methods to vaccinate apes against such deadly natural diseases as Ebola, or against diseases that humans might bring, such as ‘flu.  Many captive gorillas, we were told, are given an annual ‘flu vaccine as a precautionary measure but this has not yet been done to wild gorillas.  

A vaccination-scheme could help protect Mountain Gorillas from potential outbreaks of Ebola. Photo Ian Redmond.

There is an ethical debate about whether this is an unacceptable level of intervention in a natural ecosystem, but the majority of those present seemed to agree that if human activities are causing the problem, humans should attempt to solve it.  And although Ebola might be natural, the repopulation of an area after an outbreak is more difficult since humans have fragmented the forest and in many places, bushmeat hunters will still kill any survivors.  

Paradoxically though, Ebola seems to have a greater impact where gorillas are not hunted, because densities are higher and this enables the disease to spread more easily.  But vaccination of gorilla populations at risk from the advancing Ebola wave is now a serious option thanks to Peter Walsh and colleagues in a project called Vaccinape (http://www.vaccinape.org/). 

They are working on oral vaccines for unhabituated gorillas (if they can find a bait that wild gorillas want to eat) and vaccines to be delivered by darts or so-called biobullets (biodegradable material with the vaccine inside) for gorillas who can be approached. Not only might this save whole populations of gorillas, it will greatly reduce the risk of Ebola outbreaks in humans – many of which have been traced back to someone handling or butchering an infected ape they found in the forest.  

Veterinarian Siv Aina Jensen and Biologist Fabian Leendertz, Pic Fabian Leendert

As such, it would seem to me that the costs of Vaccinape should be shared by human health agencies, because as Richard Preston graphically described in The Hot Zone (http://www.richardpreston.net/books/hz.html) if one of these emerging diseases mutates to be better able to survive out of the host’s body, enabling it to spread by droplet infection, H1N1 would seem like a walk in the park in comparison…
 
The links between human and gorilla health is the focus of a relatively new NGO, Conservation Through Public Health (www.ctph.org), that recently won the Whitley Award (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8tDRbZ80OAY).  Founded by Uganda’s best know wildlife vet, Dr Gladys Kalema Zikusoka, it recognises that there is a three-way connection between human health, domestic livestock and wildlife. As people and their animals are increasingly living in close proximity to dwindling natural habitat, the health of the whole eco-system needs to be addressed. 

A recent study of E. coli bacteria in gorilla dung, for example, found strains showing resistance to antibiotics (available without prescription in Uganda) that can only have come from the local human population. Gladys and her team work to improve treatment of people and livestock around gorilla habitat as well as the wildlife in that habitat, and introduce health measures to minimise the risks of cross-contamination. 

After the workshop finished, Gladys and her husband Lawrence kindly hosted me for my last night in Kampala. Lawrence is a telecom specialist and is seeking to launch a new Gorilla Calling Card that would bring a sustainable source of revenue to expand this important work to other gorilla habitats.  We could have talked all night, but I had to finish reviewing Desmond Morris’s new book ‘Planet Ape’ for BBC Wildlife, and we all had an early start the next day.

Read Ian’s previous post here!

Ian Redmond – Deadly Diseases

Posted on behalf of Ian Redmond.

The risk of droplet infection with new viruses is of global concern with the spread of H1N1 swine ‘flu virus, so soon after the H5N1 bird ‘flu.  Measures already in place to minimise the risk of such transmission to habituated apes include refusing a visit to anyone showing symptoms, the ‘no closer than 7m rule’ and preventing tourists from leaving any foreign objects, litter or bodily fluids (unless buried deep) in the park.

Some sites have gone further and request that tourists wear surgical masks for the time spent near the apes.  We do not know the mortality rate that such viruses might cause if they were to spread through a gorilla group, and whilst any such loss would be a blow to a small population, it is likely that most infected animals would recover and there-after be immune to that strain of ‘flu. 

The ‘worst nightmare’ scenario for all involved with the Mountain Gorillas is the possibility of an Ebola outbreak in the Virungas or Bwindi; we know from Western Lowland Gorillas that Ebola kills ninety something per cent of those infected – approximately one third of the western gorilla population has been killed by Ebola in the past decade or so.  

The 7 m rule aims to prevent spread of diseases from humas to gorillas. Picture by Ian Redmond.

The promising tourism site at Lossi in Congo Brazzaville suffered in this way when the habituated animals died of Ebola, and the evidence suggests that there is a front of outbreaks, moving northwards towards the region with the largest concentration of western gorillas (see animation by Peter Walsh, and YoG interview to follow). Ebola has not yet been reported in eastern gorilla populations, but during the Great Ape Health workshop in Uganda, August 21-23, I learned that there was a close call recently with the closely related Marburg virus.
 
A Dutch tourist fell ill a few days after returning from a holiday in Uganda last year, and sadly died. Tests in the Netherlands revealed that she had contracted Marburg, and when her itinerary was examined, virologists concluded that she had most likely picked up the virus whilst visiting the Python Cave in the Maramagambo Forest. 

This is a fantastic place for any naturalist – a collapsed lava tube with a roost of Rousette’s Tongue-clicking Fruit Bats and pythons that coil around the rocks on the cave wall to snatch bats out of the air as they pass. I have taken tours there myself, and then – just as this lady did – gone on to visit the gorillas in Bwindi.  The difference is that this poor unfortunate woman was unknowingly incubating Marburg haemorrhagic fever when she reportedly came within 5m of the gorillas (http://www.cdc.gov/eid/content/15/8/1171.htm).  

Neither Marburg nor Ebola can survive long out of the body, and fortunately, neither the gorillas nor any of the 130 or so people she came into contact with were infected. But this tragic case should act as a warning, and simple measures such as introducing disinfected boot dips and asking tour companies that plan to visit the caves, to do so after seeing the gorillas would further minimise the risk.

Cheers, Ian

Read Ian’s previous post here!

Ian Redmond – Coughs and chills may kill gorillas, but ebola wipes out whole populations

Posted on behalf of Ian Redmond. Pictures will be added soon!

The idea of health care for wild gorillas might seem strange – especially in countries where human health care is so limited, and there are too few veterinarians for domestic livestock, let alone wildlife.  But ever since Dian Fossey asked the Morris Animal Foundation to help provide veterinary expertise for the mountain gorillas there has been a dedicated team of animal health professionals doing just that.

The Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project has become a central part of the conservation efforts for the species, and since ebola became known as one of the major threats facing Western Lowland Gorillas and Central Chimpanzees, great ape health has risen up the agenda.

This is not as esoteric as it may sound to some people. Humans and the other great apes have such similar biochemistry that many pathogens can easily flourish in both. Diseases that we catch from other animals are known as zoonoses, and the list of zoonotic diseases seems to be growing.

Veterinarian Siv Aina Jensen taking samples, Picture Fabian Leendertz.

Not only can we catch diseases from other apes, but with the rising number of tourists coming within coughing distance of habituated gorillas and chimpanzees, we pose a risk to them too. And with sanctuaries filling up with confiscated animals and seeking suitable release sites, the risk of sending diseases from captive animals into a wild population also needs to be considered, as does the risk faced by immunologically naïve ex-captives being released into forests full of pathogens against which they have little resistance.

To discuss these issues from a conservation perspective, the Great Ape Health Workshop was convened in Entebbe, Uganda from 21st to 14th August.   Part scientific symposium, part practical workshop, this was probably the biggest gathering of ape health experts and fieldworkers to date.   I had been asked to chair the afternoon session of the first day, and having studied gorilla parasites in the 1970s, was delighted to do so.

When thinking about biodiversity conservation, we should remember that protecting large animals also protects the many fascinating species that live in or on them – if there were no gorillas, the species specific gorilla lice, mites and worms would have no-where to go!  For four days, there were a lively exchanges of ideas and new technological developments, and much renewing of old friendships and building new ones.  It was also a great place to grab YoG Blog video interviews (though please bear I mind it might be a while before they appear on the site).

Cheers, Ian

Read Ian’s previous post here!

Ian Redmond – Fist-fights and a 4WD angel

20th August– As dawn broke, I realised why so many people say this is one of the most spectacular lodges on the planet.   Built on a hilltop, it has a 360 degree view, with Mount Muhabura to the north and the rest of the Virunga chain of volcanoes stretching off to the west; far below to the south lie the twin lakes of Bulera and Ruhondo, surrounded by shambas – small plots of land, each of which supports a family or two.  The rooms are beautifully furnished, simple but stylish with luxurious touches here and there, and with eco-loos and solar powered lights, the carbon footprint is minimal. 

Dawn at Virunga Lodge, Rwanda -  Photo Ian Redmond.

Volcanoes Safaris also run sustainable development projects with the local communities, and at breakfast I enjoyed Virunga Honey – harvested from bee-hives kept along the edge of the park so the bees can forage in gorilla habitat.   Recently a bee-keeper was smoking one such hive to extract honey when the fire got out of control and spread into the park, burning up the slopes of Muhabura.   Fortunately, it did not get near any known gorilla habitat, but it was a stark reminder of how fragile an island of forest this is.  

The border with Uganda opens at 7.00am, but Uganda is in the next time zone so walking a few yards cost me an hour.  A taxi met me as arranged and, after a tyre change in Kisoro, we were climbing northeastwards towards Kabale where I hoped to catch the express bus to Kampala.  The taxi for the first stage was necessary because I had to be there by 5.00pm for another press briefing/reception at 5.30 at Makerere University, organised by the British High Commission.  

Mts Muhabura and Mgahinga in morning mists from Virunga Lodge, Rwanda - Photo Ian Redmond.

We pulled into Kabale at 10.45 and no-one had seen the express bus pass.  Was I in luck?  Three colourful buses were revving their engines and honking their horns, vying for passengers, and I tried to establish which one would arrive in Kampala first while agents from each tried to lure or man-handle me onto theirs.  I went for the blue one, whose driver said he was leaving right now, then watched the yellow one pull away. Never mind, I thought, the chap on the back seat holding a rather fine brown hen would make an interesting interviewee once we got under way.

These thoughts were interrupted by a dramatic melée in front of the bus, where a fist fight had broken out.  Fortunately, even though the protagonists (two versus one) were squaring up to each other like bare-knuckle prize-fighters, they were better at dodging than landing blows and no serious damage was done, except to the under-dog’s shirt which was ripped right off.   Like any playground fight, the crowd comprised those trying to separate the fighters, those just curious and those who couldn’t resist throwing a gratuitous punch at the backs of any fighter coming their way (you see the same behaviour in several social species).   Entertaining though this was, the driver’s “right now” had lasted half an hour and so I picked up my bags, got off and stood in front of the bus, telling the driver I’d get on when “right now” happened, but until then, I’d try to flag down any kind of vehicle actually moving towards Kampala. 

Ian Redmond. Picture by Mick O’Donnell.

The timing was right because a couple of minutes later a 4WD pulled up, driven by a well dressed businessman going to Kampala.   It turned out his business was carrying people and goods, so we agreed on a price and zoomed off at 11.17.   Within an hour we overtook the yellow bus (Yesss! I thought), and apart from stopping to buy some vegetables we were making good time.   I was getting worried calls from the British High Commission at intervals, so when he slowed down to pick up more passengers, I said, “How much to buy all four places?”.   His foot went down on the accelerator and we agreed terms – he knew the University and would take me straight there.  

We crossed the Equator at 4.15 and when the BHC rang next, they figured they’d have to serve drinks and canapés until I arrived, fully expecting me to be an hour or two late.   Luckily with schools on holiday the evening traffic was kind to us and I had the satisfaction of arriving precisely at 5.30pm to meet the diplomats, reporters, dignitaries and conservation colleagues assembling on the lawn by the refreshment tent.  

The Hon. David Ebong MP spoke first.  As Chairman of Uganda’s Parliamentary Forum on Climate Change, he was very aware of the forest issues behind the YoG campaign (see ‘More than Trees’ in YoG downloads and www.4apes.com/carbon).   It was dusk as I began my Powerpoint presentation, and just before I spoke about the role of gorillas as seed-dispersal agents, a fine pair of hornbills glided low over the audience to their evening roost, reminding us that they too are seed dispersal agents for smaller seeds.  

Gorillas, however, are second only to elephants in both the size and number of seeds dispersed each day, so if we want healthy, bio-diverse tropical forests in the future, we must protect the gardeners of the forest today.   The CEO of Uganda Wildlife Authority, Moses Mapesa, helped take some of the Uganda-specific questions from the press.   It was a lively discussion, partly because illegal settlers have recently been evicted from some of Uganda’s forests, and the struggle to balance forest conservation and the aspirations of communities in and around forests is neither easy nor simple.  

I pointed out the fact that in the UK, National Parks are full of farmers, but they have to follow rules designed to maintain the habitats on their land to maintain biodiversity and the beauty of the landscape.  The challenge in tropical forests is to find ways of allowing communities therein to develop, but in ways that are compatible with maintaining the health of the forest – and payment for the global eco-system services provided by these forests – such as carbon sequestration and storage – should be a part of it.  

The evening had been a great success, if a close run thing at the start, and as I rolled up the YoG banner the BHC kindly donated for future such events on the tour, I couldn’t help but wonder what time the blue bus finally arrived in Kampala…
 
Coming soon –

21-24th August Coughs and chills might kill gorills, but ebola wipes out populations – thoughts from the Great Ape Health Workshop, Entebbe

25th – 27th Journey to Kinshasa

Read Ian’s previous post here!