Journey to Loango: Gorillas above the Mist

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Part three of a five-part series. For part two click here.

After a breakfast of fresh fruits and French cheeses (one of the few imports that the lodge affords itself), my guide packed our small boat, and we head out into the lagoon. It was the transitional period between the dry and wet seasons, and waves of gray clouds periodically showered us with pelting rain. Within a few minutes, I was completely soaked. But this was equatorial Africa, and I expected to get wet.

The richness of this area was immediately evident. Although the dense forest along the banks concealed the majority of wildlife from view, fish of all kinds incessantly jumped alongside the boat as our outboard motor churned up the blue waters. Occasionally, a wary hippopotamus or crocodile would suddenly dunk below the water line and out of sight.

Crocodiles are not particularly dangerous in Loango as their diet consists primarily of fish

Hippos are one of the few animals that pose a danger to humans in the park. They tend to charge the smaller boats, and since they do this underwater, it is always best to assume a submerged hippo is an angry hippo. Only a few weeks ago, a pirogue full of tourists was hit by a hippo. Luckily, no one was injured.

After about an hour and a half, we reached a small camp barely visible through the foliage. I was greeted at the dock by a young Spanish biologist who was in charge of the Loango Gorilla Project. She had only recently been assigned here, having previously spent several years in Senegal studying primates. She was still in amazement at the beauty of this place. “In Senegal, wildlife is restricted to a very small area,” she lamented.

We sat down under a canopy, and she explained about the gorillas. In total, there were approximately a hundred gorillas just in the immediate vicinity, with an estimated six to seven hundred in the park. However, spotting these gorillas is extremely difficult. Luckily, Loango is one of the few places outside Uganda that has a habituated gorilla program. In other words, researchers had spent enough time with a particular band of gorillas that they no longer considered humans to be a threat and went about their daily business as usual. It was this family, headed by a large silverback, that we would attempt to see.

Habituated gorillas are much easier to photograph

However, we had to find them first. The camp employed a handful of trackers, but the rain had not been helping. Not only did it make traversing the forest difficult, but it was nearly impossible to hear anything through the thunderous volume of water.

As we waited for the call, the head of the project went over the rules. Everyone is required to wear masks, and it is prohibited to visit the gorillas if you are sick. Something as common as a cold could potentially wipe out the entire band. “And if a male charges,” she added, “it’s vital that you don’t panic and run. If it’s an elephant, though, run for your life.”

“Really? Elephants?” I asked.

“My perspective on elephants has changed since coming from Gabon. They are highly aggressive in the forest.”

Good to know, I thought.

Gorillas have a unique musk that can be smelled long before they are seen

Suddenly, the radio sprang to life. “Ok. Let’s go!” she said, standing up.

Apparently, I was lucky. The gorillas, allured by the fruit of an Irvingia tree, had made a long trek during the morning and were now resting peacefully after having gorged themselves near the camp. Generally, I was told, it could take hours to reach them, often requiring hiking through swampy terrain.

Today, there was none of that. Our trail was wide and uninhibited by any obstacles. I was somewhat surprised at just how easy it was to move through the forest. It was completely different from my experiences in the Amazon that required one to wield a machete like you were Indiana Jones. But I only had to look down to see why: elephant dung. The entire forest was crisscrossed with elephant paths, highways through the jungle.

Before we ever saw the gorillas, the biologist knew they were there. “You smell that?” she asked.

I inhaled deeply through my nostrils and was greeted by a sweet smelling musk.

“It’s the gorillas,” she said. “Time to put on our masks.”

Up ahead were some of the trackers and another researcher who was silently taking notes. She began to make a clicking noise.

“They associate these clicks to us, so they know who we are.”

We sat down on the forest floor, and she pointed, “Look.”

But she was not pointing straight ahead but skyward. About halfway up the tree sat a gorilla on a branch.

That’s strange, I thought. “What is it doing in the tree?”

“They spend a lot of time in trees. I know. It still surprises me when I see it. It’s not what one expects. But there are a number of behaviors that these gorillas exhibit that differs from what we have observed in Uganda. For example, you’ll notice that the adults spend most of their time separate from one another. Gorillas in Uganda are constantly grooming one another, playing, socializing.”

Gorillas in Gabon display unique behaviors including spending lots of time in trees

“Why is that?” I asked.

“We don’t really know. It may be that we are missing nonverbal cues of communication. That’s why our observations are so important.”

A female gorilla builds a nest

As my eyes adjust to the darkness of the jungle, I begin to make out other members of the family.  The large silverback was laid out on the forest floor, asleep. Another male sat on a fallen tree only ten meters away. He eyed me attentively and then thumped his chest for several seconds.

“He’s a bit insecure,” she said. “That’s just to say, I’m a strong male.”

“They are not very active.”

“No, gorillas basically do two things, eat and sleep. And since they came a long way today, it’s nap time. You are actually very lucky. Look up at the female gorilla in the tree. You see her wrapping the branches around herself?”

“Yes.”

“She’s making a nest. You usually don’t see that behavior during the day.”

I watched as the gorilla twisted and turned the green branches of the tree around her body for about five minutes. Seemingly satisfied, she lay back in the soft cushion of leaves and closed her eyes. Her nap didn’t last long. A small gorilla no bigger than a toddler ascended the tree and began to harass the larger one.

“That’s her son. He’s about two years old.”

Besides the silverback, there were three females and another six gorillas that were his offspring. “We are attempting to habituate another family,” she said. “If something happens to this silverback, the group will dissolve with the females seeking protection with another male.”

Observable social interactions between gorillas in
Gabon are primary between mothers and offspring

I asked if there was any commingling between groups.

“Yes, females will leave a male and join another group. We are still not sure always why this is.”

“Do the females ever go off on their own?”

“Generally, no. But we had one female that would go back and forth between this group and another. Last time we saw her, she was by herself. This is not normal behavior.”

“So basically, you sit and watch them all day?”

“Yes, a large part of my job is simply observing their behavior. That and studying their feces.”

Well, no one ever said the life of a biologist was glamorous. Certainly, spending months at a time in the jungle with the most basic of accommodations takes a special kind of love for your work. And as much as I would have liked to stay, it was getting late, and I still had a long boat ride up the Akaka River.

Part four: I enter one of the least spoiled places on earth

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