Category Archives: Western Lowland Gorilla

Project to Apply the Law on Fauna : First annual report

Here are the first results for PALF (Project to Apply the law on Fauna), a successful project developped by The Aspinall and Foundation and WCS in Republic of Congo

Investigations

266 investigative missions of varying duration were carried out across Brazzaville’s seven departments.

Operations

17 operations carried out across Brazzaville’s departments resulted in the interception of 19 traffickers, i.e. an average of one trafficker intercepted every 19 days ;

The percentage of traffickers serving a prison-sentence following these operations is 68%.

Legal

16 cases were brought before the court of which 5 resulted in a sentence:

o   In March 2009, a trafficker caught selling a live chimpanzee was sentenced to one year in prison, plus an additional fine of 100,000 FCFA and 1,000,000 FCFA in damages ;

o   In August 2009, an ivory sculptor was given a suspended sentence of three years in prison, plus an additional fine of 500,000 FCFA and 800,000 FCFA in damages;

o   Two detainees were released due to a lack of incriminating evidence and three others were given a suspended sentence and were also fined.

The project created a legal guide entitled « Wildlife law for the protection of endangered animals in the Republic of Congo” and has since distributed 600 copies.

Media

293 articles have been released (TV, Radio, written press), an average of 0.75 articles per day. This daily average increased to 1.25 articles following the recruitment of a journalist to the project in March 2009.

 Main points of note

One gorilla and three chimpanzees were seized from traffickers and transferred to the Lesio-Louna Natural Gorilla Reserve (www.ppg-congo.org), the Tchimpounga chimpanzee sanctuary and Help-Congo, respectively. In addition, one mandrill skin and hand and one gorilla hand were also seized.

8 operations were conducted as part of a mission to target the illegal trade in panther pelts.

6 operations were carried out targeting the trade in ivory.

2 of these operations concerned African expat citizens.

Republic of Congo: Up To Two Gorillas Killed for Bushmeat Trade Each Week

In the Kouilou region of the Republic of Congo, up to two gorillas are being killed each week, an undercover investigation by the conservation group Endangered Species International has revealed, exposing the scale of gorilla poaching in the country. This story was given world audience by the BBC Earth News portal. It is reproduced here below.

Scale of gorilla poaching exposed

By Jody Bourton
Earth News reporter

An undercover investigation has found that up to two gorillas are killed and sold as bushmeat each week in Kouilou, a region of the Republic of Congo.

The apes’ body parts are then taken downriver and passed on to traders who sell them in big-city markets.

Conducted by the conservation group Endangered Species International, the investigation helps expose the extent of gorilla poaching in the country.

It fears hundreds more gorillas may be taken each year outside the region.

The group began its investigation by going undercover, talking to sellers and traders at food markets in Pointe Noire, the second largest city in the Republic of Congo.

Over the course of a year, investigators visited the markets twice a month, recording the amount of bushmeat for sale.

“Gorilla meat is sold pre-cut and smoked for about $6 per ‘hand-sized’ piece. Actual gorilla hands are also available,” says Mr Pierre Fidenci, president of Endangered Species International (ESI).

“Over time we got the confidence of the sellers and traders. They gave us the origin of the gorilla meat and it all comes from a single region.”

The team then undertook an expedition to travel to the source of this meat, a forested area called Kouilou, which lies along the Kouilou River around 100 to 130km from Pointe Noire.

Using the same boats that ferry the gorilla meat downriver to the city, the investigators travelled upstream, taking photographs and recording interviews with villagers which revealed the extent of the gorilla poaching.

The investigators also undertook field surveys to ascertain the size of the population of wild western lowland gorillas living in the region.

“According to interviews and field surveys, we think we may have about 200 gorillas left in the area,” says Mr Fidenci.

“But we estimate that 4% of the population is being killed each month, or 50% in a year. It is a lot.”

The poachers particularly target adult gorillas of reproductive age which carry the most meat.

With such heavy hunting, the researchers believe gorillas could disappear from the region within a decade.

“During our mission we observed killing of gorillas in the wild. In less than one week and a half in one particular area we had two adult gorillas killed for their meat,” Mr Fidenci says.

All the meat appears to be consumed in Pointe Noire rather than being exported.

“The gorilla meat goes to the nearest, biggest and most profitable place,” says Mr Fidenci.

“Our study has disclosed the horrific scale of the endangered species market in the Republic of Congo, especially endangered gorillas sold as meat.”

Overall, ESI estimates that at least 300 gorillas are sold to markets each year in the country.

Crosshead

Western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) are one of two subspecies of Western gorilla, the other being the Cross River gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli).

Western lowland gorillas are considered to be critically endangered, as their population has fallen by more than 80% in three generations.

Between 100,000 and 125,000 western lowland gorillas are thought to survive across their entire geographic range which spans several countries.

But the dense and remote forest habitat in which they live often makes it difficult to reliably estimate the population size.

Mr Fidenci hopes to go back to Kouilou to find out more about the remaining gorillas living there and to find a way to conserve them.

“We intend to stop the killing in the area by providing alternative income to locals and working with hunters not against them. We hope to conduct conservation awareness with educational programs with other NGOs and to create a gorilla nature reserve.”

“We need to tackle the problem where it starts, right there where people and gorillas live.”

Currently, little is done in the country to prevent the poaching of bushmeat, Mr Fidenci says.

“Enforcement does not exist. Even though there are existing laws which protect endangered wildlife against such activities.”

Ian Redmond – Gabon’s Vice-Prime Minister speaks up for gorillas, Redmond puts his foot in it!

Tuesday 8th September
Still hoping for an Equatorial Guinea visa, I was going to take up the offer of an introduction to the Ambassador, but sadly neither of the people who had made this offer could be reached this morning.

On the other hand, Gabon’s Minister for the Environment, Mme Georgette Koko, who also serves as Gabon’s Vice Prime Minister, had agreed to fit me in at short notice before a meeting of the Council of Ministers. The Director-General of Environment showed me and Anne-Marie in to a beautifully furnished office and perched on the plush sofa, I began to explain about the Year of the Gorilla. Mme Koko responded with a long and passionate statement about Gabon’s determination to protect gorillas and their habitat that clearly came from the heart.  “That makes me both happy and sad at the same time,” I said, reaching for my camera-bag. “Happy to hear such passionate support for gorillas but sad that I didn’t get it on video.”

Gabonese parks like Lopé are home to criticallly endangered Western Lowland Gorillas. Photo Fiona Maisels.

There was an embarrassed silence, which the Director-General broke saying, “We can record a message later and send it to you…”  It was only at that moment that I realised he had not been fully briefed on my aim of recording a statement for the YoG website.  Gulp!  Protocol had been breached.  Seeing my disappointment, Mme Koko quickly consented to repeat her statement in front of the camera, which she did eloquently.  The meeting ended well, I thought, but it was made quite clear to me that pulling out a video camera without warning in front of a Vice Prime Minister was not the done thing.  Straight afterwards I wrote to apologise for my lapse and promised to clear the edited statement with the Director-General. Hopefully you’ll see it soon.

We went on to two travel agents and confirmed that there were no flights to Bangui today, and so there was barely time to get a Cameroon visa before catching the last bus north to Bitam, the town near the point where Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon meet.   Libreville does not have a central bus station, so we went from one company depot to another asking if there was still a bus heading north today.  Most leave early in the morning, it seems, and Anne-Marie was sure I’d have to wait until the next day.  As if to emphasise the point, a dog snoozed curled up beneath the back axle of the penultimate in a line of empty mini-buses parked beside a rubbish-filled storm drain. Then, to her surprise and my relief, we found that the last one was almost full and ready to leave.  It was about 3.00pm and they estimated it would leave in half an hour and arrive in Bitam by 11.00pm or midnight.  In the event, it didn’t leave until 6.00pm and it was ten to five in the morning when it finally disgorged the last of its passengers (me) in Bitam. 

During the night drive, I was surprised to overhear snippets of a discussion behind me with the words ‘gorille’ and ‘chimpanzé’ so I turned round to join in. The passengers were debating whether gorillas or chimpanzees were the more ‘mechant’ (a French word which means naughty when applied to children, and fierce when applied to dogs). Having ascertained that this ape debate was a coincidence, and that no-one knew it was the Year of the Gorilla, I set my video to ‘night-shot’ and passed around a torch with some YoG leaflets and photos of me with Pablo, a silverback I’d known since infancy, grooming him as part of my research into gorilla lice (see picture).

During parasite research, Ian redmond grooms silverback Pablo. Rwanda. Photo Lorna Anness.

Jaws hit the floor in a satisfying way, and it reaffirmed my view that such images of human-gorilla friendships are one of the most powerful tools in the conservation education toolbox, despite the fear that they might encourage tourists to want to get too close. As long as the context for such proximity is explained, I think most tourists understand why the 7m rule must be enforced.

The driver kindly dropped me last, near a couple of hotels, and I checked in to a 5,000CFA room for three hours kip.  Of course the one electrical socket was damaged so I couldn’t give my new phone its first charge, but at least charged my own batteries a bit.

Coming soon:  Wednesday 9th September – Last Great Ape in Yaoundé

Read Ian’s previous post here!

Ian Redmond – The journalists are revolting

Monday 7th September – still in Gabon
I was still holding out some hope for an Equatorial Guinea visa. Omar said he had good contacts with the Ambassador, but all day we were unable to reach Omar to arrange a time to go to the embassy; perhaps he was partied out?

Calling a press conference at short notice can often lead to an empty room.  Thanks to the combined efforts of Michael Adande, the Secretary General, and WCS, we managed two TV channels and a reporter from the Gabon Press Agency, plus the information officer from the Ministry.  We were rather late in starting, it is true, but we wanted Michael Adande to be there from the beginning. We gave a bit of background to the Year of the Gorilla but some of the journalists were clearly unhappy at being kept waiting.  

Once the three speakers were ready, I was introduced and explained why I had originally hoped to hold this press conference at the Baraka Mission in Libreville.  It was there, in 1847, that an American missionary named Thomas Savage visited the resident missionary, Rev. Wilson.  He collected the type specimen of the gorilla which he co-described with Jeffries Wyman, a Harvard anatomist, in the December 1847 edition of the Boston Journal of Natural History. 

Gorilla and elephant skulls. Poaching is the most urgent manmade threat to gorillas in West and Central Africa. Picture Ian Redmond.

I stressed Gabon’s important historic role in this regard, as well as outlining what efforts are being made now to ensure that the home of the first gorilla to be described by science continues as a range state for the species…The Secretary General gave the Government’s strong support and ended with what might become a catch-phrase, “2009 is the International Year of the Gorilla, but in Gabon, every year is the Year of the Gorilla!”

I’d been advised that journalists attending a press event are accustomed to receiving something towards their expenses, and Anne-Marie had picked up some ECOFAC Year of the Gorilla T-shirts, so after the cameras had been packed away we handed each person an envelope with a modest contribution plus a T-shirt.  

A few minutes after we thought they had left to file their stories, the one who had been most put out by being kept waiting came back. The journalists’ revolt involved returning all the envelopes and T-shirts and complaining a lot about being given pocket money like children. Clearly this did not bode well for getting our message out to the people of Gabon, so I asked what the normal rate was.  The answer was about five times what I’d given them, but after some discussion they settled for 3 times the original amount per channel rather than per person. Honour was satisfied and although I felt like I’d just been mugged, the press conference should be broadcast the next day.

That evening I was contacted by a local NGO named PROGRAM.  We agreed to meet over supper and I learned of their project to develop a community-friendly eco-tourism project in Moukalaba Doudou National Park.

Find out more about the YoG-supported conservation projects and other YoG fundraising activities here!

Read Ian’s previous blog here!

Ian Redmond – Snipping through the trees with the greatest of ease

Sunday 6th September

Lopé Park entrance. Photo Karin von Loebenstein.

Up early to climb Mt Brazza, with stunning views of the River Ogoue and the mosaic of savannah and forest that makes Lopé such a distinctive environment. 

Sunrise at Lopé. Photo Fiona Maisels.

On the way, we came across a pretty little viper soaking up the morning sun with ribs flattened to the path.   Michael adeptly caught his dog, Ben, by the collar and led him past while I filmed the snake’s fascinating threat display, expanding and contracting with air. 

After breakfast, we drove down to Mikongo where the Zoological Society of London has been supporting a forest eco-tourism project for some years.  Comfortable cabins on stilts provide accommodation with a difference, and although earlier attempts to habituate gorillas have been dropped, the guides told me that a few days earlier, a group of tourists had met a group of gorillas and had nice views of the silverback.  I wasn’t so lucky this time (though it was in Lopé that I saw my first wild Western Lowland Gorilla with one of the first groups of tourists to track gorillas here in 1997).

Lopé River. Photo Fiona Maisels.

A short walk in the forest yielded some lovely examples of seedlings sprouting out of elephant dung, but although we found some old gorilla droppings, they happened to be without sprouting seeds.  

Irvingia (bush mango) in elephant dung. Photo Fiona Maisels.

Nevertheless, Justin did a nice explanation of different aspects of forest ecology, and also explained why Lopé guides all snip their way delicately through the undergrowth with secateurs whereas almost everywhere else in the world people use a machete (snipping is quieter and less damaging to the forest).

Prosper Motsaba shows correct use of secateurs instead of a noisy machete. Photo Fiona Maisels.

There was one more treat on the way back to camp;  the guides have been monitoring the behaviour of Rhinoceros Vipers around the camp, and knew where a gravid female liked to rest.  Justin explained that he had seen her there in the same spot daily for eight months, then she gave birth to live young (vipers are ovo-viviparous, where the eggs hatch inside the mother and the young emerge fully formed).

As we were about to leave, a team of men with backpacks, dripping with sweat, filed into camp and dropped their loads.   They had been in the bush for five days collecting faecal samples of gorillas and chimpanzees and agreed to do a joint YoG Blog interview. 

Nice juicy gorilla dung. Photo Fiona Maisels.

We’d finished when one of them added, “Oh yes, and we spent last night just 30m from a group of gorillas!”   I once did the same with a group of Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda, and was surprised to hear the silverback hooting and chest-beating in the midnight moonlight.   These men also reported some late night vocalisations, and I suspect that eventually – when someone finds a way to study gorilla behaviour at night – the current idea that they just build a nest and stay in it from dusk to dawn will prove to be a vast over-simplification.

Grove of Cola lizae trees, dispersed only by gorillas. Photo Fiona Maisels.

The drive back to Libreville took until midnight again, with music keeping the unstoppable Omar singing at the wheel all the way (still accompanied on air guitar and vocals by Joel – who seemed to know the lyrics to every number from rock and roll to hip-hop via soul, blues and syrupy French ballads).   I joined in occasionally from the back seat – especially with the Most-played Record, the Stray Cats’ Rock this town tonight – and wondered what the denizens of the forest made of the passing party…

Read Ian’s previous post here!

Ian Redmond – On the Road to Lopé

Saturday 5th September                      

Gabon was resuming normal activities after the disputed elections and there was a football match in the afternoon. The only train to Lopé and Franceville had left the night before and the local travel agent said there were no flights to anywhere I needed to go.  

I had a morning meeting with the dynamic Michael Adande, Secretary General of the Ministry of Tourism and National Parks. Then we were joined by Omar Ntougou, who I’d last seen at the Entebbe workshop on ape health. He’d said he would help and he did by kindly offering to drive to Lopé with me in the afternoon.  

Given that most of the population was settling down to watch the big match, this seemed above and beyond the call of duty, but we made some preparations, bought a few supplies and set off, with the car radio tuned to the commentary.  Cameroon won 2:0, but that didn’t seem to dampen the spirits in the car, where Omar and Joel sang and played air guitar (and keyboards and brass section) to keep awake.  

Gabon is home to many Western Lowland Gorillas. Though still comparatively numerous, their decline has been sharp and they need protection, especially from poaching and Ebola. Pic Ian Redmond.

It was after midnight when we pulled up outside the warden’s house.  I would have quietly found our accommodation but Omar knocked on the door until the warden emerged rubbing his face sleepily.  “Do you know it is the UN Year of the Gorilla?” asked Omar enthusiastically.  “Yeah, I’ve seen the T-shirt!” came the laconic reply.

My host for the night was agronomist Michael Allan, who served us all a delicious midnight feast and chatted over a whiskey into the early hours.  He had been hired by ECOFAC, an EU-funded programme that is developing selected protected areas across Central Africa, and had been wrestling with the difficulties of keeping local road repairing contractors on schedule. Gabon’s National Park network is still in its infancy, having been created only in 2002, but Lopé has been receiving ECOFAC support and attracting visitors for years.

Read Ian’s last 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!

GABONESE ORPHAN GORILLAS SET FREE ON AN ISLAND

GABONESE ORPHAN GORILLAS SET FREE ON AN ISLAND

Text by Sarah Monaghan, images by SCD B.V.

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/bhUuF15HfJ0" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Six young gorillas rescued from the illegal bush meat trade, have begun new independent lives on a lagoon island just outside Loango National Park in Gabon.

The full story can be read here