Category Archives: Threats

Ian Redmond – Peter and the Gorilla

14th September 
Peter Kabi is a 28-year-old farmer with an engaging smile; he has also killed a Cross River Gorilla.  He is one of the hunters being targeted by a WCS project that retrains people who once depended on hunting for a significant part of their income.  Peter chose snail farming as his new way of life, and during my State of the Gorilla Safari visit to Nigeria, he showed me the almost complete building – a low wall with a wooden framework covered in mesh and fly-screen.  The latter is important to keep out army ants that can devastate a crop of snails in a few hours.  

Peter Kabi, ex-gorilla hunter building snail farm, Cross River, Nigeria. Photo Ian Redmond.

I asked him when he killed his last gorilla.  “Two years ago,” he replied.   My mind raced – that was much more recent than I’d expected.
 “Was it a male or a female?”
“A silverback.”
“Did you know there are fewer than 100 gorillas in Nigeria?” I asked. “It doesn’t take long to count down from 100 – maybe you brought the population to 99 or 98.  Did you know that it takes 15 years for a baby to grow into a silverback?”   He didn’t, but he did agree to do a YoG interview which you’ll soon be able to see on this site.

I was keen to hear the story of how and why he killed the gorilla, and after doing YoG interviews with the chief of the village, we adjourned to the bar and I bought a round of drinks. Bit by bit, I teased the story out of Peter.

He first began hunting at 24, using his father’s gun.  His father was the village chief.  He first shot a monkey, then bushpig, porcupine, bushbaby and so on.  Two years ago he was going to the family banana field at about 8.30am and heard what he thought was someone stealing bananas.   He hid behind a tree and watched.  When he saw it was a gorilla, he fired and hit it in the chest.   The gorilla screamed and ran away.  He was using a shotgun with small pellets – not ideal for killing large animals.   For half an hour he waited, shivering with fear and adrenaline, then he cautiously followed the gorilla’s trail.  He hadn’t gone far and when he saw it ahead he re-loaded the shotgun and carefully prodded it with the barrel – many hunters have been killed by wounded animals that appeared to be dead but weren’t.  In this case, the gorilla was dead.  The body was too big for him to move so he cut off a hand to take back and get help.

Theory of mind is the ability to see events from another person’s perspective – it is something we share with the other great apes, elephants and dolphins (and perhaps some other species).  I was struggling to put myself in his shoes, and not think of the gorillas I have known as friends and watched grow up from infancy.  I asked whether his family were pleased or were they anxious because he had killed a protected species?  They were very happy, he said, because not only was this gorilla no longer eating their crops, they now had meat to eat and to sell.   From Peter’s point of view, he was providing for his family.   I asked him who bought the meat.   He said he had sold it to passing motorists on the side of the road – many of them.  
“Did they know it was gorilla meat?”
“Yes.”
“Did any of them express concern that it was illegal?”
“No.”

Clearly we still have a lot to do in sensitising the local population!  I looked him in the eye and sought reassurance that he would never kill a protected species again.  He and everyone else I talked to in Begiagbah (self-styled ‘Land of Heroes’) were emphatic that those days are over.  I wished him luck with his snail farming and we mounted our motorcycle taxis for the muddy ride down to where the WCS 4WD vehicle had been unable to pass.

Begiagbah sign, Cross River, Nigeria. Photo Ian Redmond.

We spent the night at a guest-house build in the 1990s by WWF.   It must have been splendid when new, and the welcome we were given was warm but the house and plumbing are badly in need of refurbishing.  With a little private sector investment in infrastructure and training, this could be a delightful place for tourists and visiting naturalists.  

After supper, we were hosted by Peter Ofre, Chief of Butatong Village for a drop of palm wine and a discussion on gorilla conservation.   He and his village were most interested to hear how gorilla tourism had developed in Rwanda and Uganda, and whilst accepting the need for caution in risking introducing human diseases to such a tiny, fragile Cross River Gorilla population, he hoped tourists would come and enjoy the Cross River NP whether or not the gorillas were habituated.  The idea that the gorilla population must be allowed to recover under total protection before risking habituation for tourism seemed to be accepted, so maybe there is a future for the Cross River Gorilla in Nigeria?   

Peter Ofre, Chief of Butatong Village, Cross River, Nigeria. Photo Ian Redmond.

There is now a coalition of NGOs, including the Nigerian Conservation Foundation, the Wildlife Conservation Society, Pandrillus, Fauna and Flora International, all working with the Cross River Government and the National Park authorities to turn this critical situation around. Their efforts include better protection for the gorillas and their habitat and helping hunters find alternative livelihoods (as well as the afore-mentioned snail farming, training in bee-keeping and sustainable use of non-timber forest products are on offer) – all of which will benefit the communities living around the Cross River Gorilla habitat.

From a wider perspective, the next step is to ensure that Africa’s forests are recognised for the crucial role they play in climate stability and global weather patterns, and that the essential ecological role that gorillas, elephants and other seed-dispersing animals play in those forests is included in the decisions taken under the UN Climate Convention. These animals are not just ornaments – they are the Gardeners of the Forest, and if we value the forest, we must not shoot the gardeners! At least in Butatong, this message seems to be getting through.

Go to the YoG to find out more about the campaign and ways to donate for projects.

Read Ian’s previous post here!

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 – 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 – 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 – Kampala to Kinshasa

Posted on behalf of Ian Redmond.

August 25th – Have you ever tried packing while a curious young mind wants to know what each of your belongings is for?  Gladys’ son Ndhego was fascinated by the contents of my rucksack and camera-bag, and I was happy to explain but simultaneously had to convert myself into some semblance of an Ambassador for a Ministerial meeting.

My (ever so slightly crumpled..) suit and safari boots had to replace my usual shorts and sandals, but Ndhego was stomping around in my boots. We achieved a truce when I presented him with a YoG sticker and my old gilet (now replaced by the one from Park National Kahuzi Biega, courtesy of the warden).  And to further lighten my load, I gave Gladys the page proofs of Planet Ape for her conservation education work and accepted a lift to the British High Commission.  

The area in which Mountain Gorillas live has one of the densest human populations worldwide, Picture Ian Redmond.

The British High Commission had fixed up a meeting with Hon Serapio Rukundo MP, Minister of State for Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities, and he was his usual ebullient self, giving a great YoG interview on Uganda’s forest policy and plans for reforestation projects as well as the central role that gorillas play in the nation’s economy thanks to tourism.

Ian Redmond meets Hon S. Rukundo, Minister for Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities, Kampala, Uganda. Photo Ian Redmond.

After shopping for an external hard drive on which to back-up all these interviews, I was dropped at the bustling bus station.  Seeking the fastest bus to Kisoro, there was some discussion and I climbed aboard an earlier bus to Kabale rather than wait three hours for a late bus direct to Kisoro which wouldn’t arrive until 2.00am.  Crowds of people carrying all manner of luggage were jostling between the colourful buses; every so often a bus would shunt back and forth, belching black fumes in an umpteen-point turn, and yet amazingly no-one was squashed (and there were no fist-fights today!).  

Some time later than promised, our bus began the delicate manoeuvring towards the totally crowded exit and – inches at a time – we slowly escaped into the equally crowded street.  The conductor had placed me near the front, and just before we left, a young man sat next to me.  As we picked up speed leaving the traffic jams of Kampala behind, we introduced each other and I asked if he knew this was the UN Year of the Gorilla. He did! 

Brian Ahimbisibwe, student on bus. Picture Ian Redmond.

Brian explained he had heard it on the radio (in fact in a report from my press briefing the night before the Great Ape Health Workshop, which I attended for UNEP/GRASP, the Great Apes Survival Partnership) and at first had found it difficult to believe, “It was as if someone had woken up one day and announced that this is the International Day of the Hen!” he grinned.  I asked if he’d say that again on camera, and he gave a great YoG interview, going on to say how on reflection he saw that it was a good idea, and that gorillas need the attention such campaigns bring.  

Though not an accomplished flute-player yet, this Mountain Gorilla needs all the attention he can get, Picture Ian Redmond.

Over the next few hours, we got to know each other quite well and bit by bit he revealed his story. He had just finished high school and won a place at University to train as a social worker. His father had died when he was two weeks old, and his mother died a few years later.  He had been brought up by first one aunt then another, but none of his relatives could afford the fees (about £1,000 per year for three years).  His ambition is to work with children orphaned by disease, because he knows what they are going through – and something about his quietly determined manner makes me think that somehow, he will succeed….

It was getting dark as we sped along, and somehow this transformed the ‘Express’ bus into a giant Matatu (the shared taxis in East Africa that stop and pick up and drop off passengers anywhere).  It was nice of the driver to drop people off near their homes but as a result, it was nearly 11.30pm when we pulled into Kabale. My laptop battery was flat and my own batteries were flagging a bit, so I checked into the Skyline Hotel for a princely 15,000 USh (about $7) – with electricity, a clean bed, en suite shower and a loo that flushes – can’t be bad!

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!

August 15th – Crossing Lake Kivu

Posted on behalf of Ian Redmond, Year of the Gorilla Ambassador. 

These past few days since my last blog have been an extraordinary journey, not just geographically but between the extremes of human nature – great joy and inspiration contrasting with harrowing stories of our species’ ability to inflict great suffering.  Email access has been intermittent and time short, but let me bring you up to date day by day:

15th – Lake Kivu is a beautiful lake, dotted with islands and dug-out canoes.  Crossing it on the deck of a high-speed ferry is a delightful experience on a fine day.   Inside, the passenger cabin has rows of comfortable seats on either side of a central aisle and a wide-screen TV which usually shows videos.  Unfortunately the DVD player had malfunctioned so we had to make our own entertainment (reviewing rushes with the Australian Network 7 crew).  This was a particular disappointment to me because the videos most often shown nowadays are documentaries provided by the Great Apes Film Initiative (http://www.gafi4apes.org) in association with the Gorilla Organization (GO).  

Lake Kivu ferry, DRC. Picture by Mick O’Donnell.

GAFI aims to rectify the iniquitous fact that films made about wildlife by TV companies in UK, Europe, America and Japan are unaffordable to most TV stations in the developing world where so many of those documentaries are made.  Thus, the average man, woman or child in the street in UK or USA knows more about gorillas than their counterparts in Africa.  GAFI has begun to rectify that by negotiating broadcast rights for films about great apes on TV stations in great ape range states.  And with the help of partner NGOs, also organises public screenings and provides a library of such films to education centres.  

The screenings on the Lake Kivu ferries have been a great success, educating all those able to afford the $50 fare (politicians, aid workers, businessmen and -women) about the importance of conserving Congo’s forest eco-systems.  As the steward served drinks and sandwiches, I asked if he had the GAFI films and he immediately opened the cupboard under the screen to show me the BBC’s award-winning three-part series on the Congo basin.  Shame the DVD player was broken today…

Lake Kivu crossing. Pic. by Mick O’Donnell.

As we pulled up to the Goma jetty, I was met by Tuver Wundi, a journalist who works with GO;  we did a quick YoG interview with Captain Amisi about the GAFI films (sorry, video uploading not yet sorted, so plan B is to send DVDs to colleagues at the Convention on Migratory Species – thank you, Gentle Reader, for  your patience.  If that fails, I guess I’ll try tying them to the leg of a pigeon!!).   Tuver bounced me to the border on the back of his trail bike, negotiating volcanic rocks and the famous lava flow through the middle of the town, to meet Jillian Miller, GO CEO. She was waiting in line at the DRC border-post, crossing into Rwanda, after showing a BBC World team a GO project that had been nominated for an award (see http://www.gorillas.org/worldchallenge09 ). 

Ian interviews local villagers, Kivu region, DRC. Picture by Mick O’donnell

Before I crossed, however, I wanted to visit the GO Resource Centre and interview some Goma conservationists about the Year of the Gorilla.  I rang Pierre Peron, a former Ape Alliance volunteer now working for ICCN, the Congolese Wildlife Dept, and received some shocking news.  The previous day, a patrol of Virunga Park rangers had come across some hippo poachers near Lake Edward.   The poachers had opened fire and in the ensuing fire-fight, one ranger had been killed.  Without doubt, the rangers patrolling DRC parks are among the most courageous protectors of Nature on the planet.  Senior staff were understandably busy dealing with the aftermath and unavailable for a YoG interview, so I talked to my old friend Vital Katembo and the GO team instead, before crossing into Rwanda to meet up with the Australians again.

Read Ian’s previous post here.