Tag Archives: ecotourism

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 – 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!