Tag Archives: range states

Ian Redmond’s State of the Gorilla journey is over – but there is still plenty more

Ian is back in the UK, catching up with himself and preparing for his next journey, this time to the concrete jungles of LA, San Diego etc. to fundraise for YoG through a lecture tour.

As the regular reader of this blog will remember, Ian did numerous video interviews and collected other video material. Unfortunately, the files were too large to upload as he went, but we are now receiving them.

One of Ian’s first visits in the Dem. Rep. of Congo was to the Kahuzi Biega National Park, where he interviewed Head Ranger Radar Nishuli on the ever-volatile situation there and on what he thinks of the YoG. Enjoy!

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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!

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 – Clearing the YoG-Blog-Backlog

11th September           

Greetings, oh followers of the SoG-YoG Blog,

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

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

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

Tuesday 1st September:   Redmond vs. Red tape

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

Wednesday 2nd September     

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

Read Ian’s previous post here!

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

Ian Redmond – Fish and gorillas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Across the Mighty Congo (and even mightier bureaucratic hurdles)

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

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

Speedboat to Brazzaville Beach, small. Photo Ian Redmond.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming soon:

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

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

Read Ian’s previous post here!

Ian Redmond – Another delay and a new fish

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

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

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

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

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

Fish and gorillas: coming up soon…

Read Ian’s previous post here!