Journey to Loango: Return

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Part five of a five-part series.  For part four click here.

After several nights at Akaka, my last evening was spent back at Loango Lodge. Mathieu had greeted me at the dock. “Welcome back to civilization,” he said. Amazingly, it did feel like it (a testament to the lodge’s comfort) even though I was still in one of the most isolated parts of Africa.

But as I sat on the veranda, enjoying my daily Regab and a return to French cuisine (the cooking at Akaka was more rustic and utilitarian), I wondered just how civilized our developed world actually is. There is a beautiful simplicity in Akaka, a world stripped of extraneous distractions. Indeed, it seemed the further I got from civilization, the clearer things became. At Akaka, there are no bridges to nowhere, no unending legal proceedings or obligatory payouts; the pointless complications that only men can produce melt away before necessity.

But I wasn’t done with the national park, not quite yet. I had one final excursion to make. Loango is famous for its coastline, where elephants and gorillas can be seen strolling along the beach and hippos surf offshore. After five days, I still hadn’t actually seen the ocean.

Mathieu arranged to have a pirogue take me out of the lagoon, a fifteen-minute journey, but informed me that at this time of year most of the wildlife was still deep in the forest and that the coast would likely be vacant. Nevertheless, my trip didn’t seem complete without at least of glimpse of the sea.

Unsurprisingly, there was no wildlife on the beach, but the traces of a particular animal were all around me. Plastic, the result of the thoughtless dumping of refuse into oceans and rivers, was strewn all across the sand. Gabon has its own issues when it comes to garbage, but this particular problem has a different source. The light plastic floats on the ocean currents from Angola and the Congo, precisely, coming ashore at Loango. It’s a sad testament that one of the world’s loneliest beaches looks more akin to the side of a highway in Detroit than a deserted tropical paradise.

But while plastic has a number of harmful effects on the environment, what has washed ashore is mostly an aesthetic problem. Notably absent are plastics straws. Not that it matters to millions of entitled millennials who have been pushing to ban this mostly innocuous form of plastic so that they can go to sleep thinking they have made the world a better place.

Much more dangerous to the creatures of the sea is “ghost fishing,” remnants of cast away nets and other fishing gear. Ghost fishing is a very real threat to marine life (unlike a freak plastic straw up the nose as one sensational video would have you believe) and, according to several surveys, accounts for between 40 and 60 percent of “plastic flotsam.”  That’s not to say that consumer plastic does not pose a serious health risk to aquatic wildlife, but when looking for practical solutions that may actually make a difference, we aren’t even having the right conversation.

While I focused on carefully stepping around the plastic shards buried in the sand, my guide spotted two turtles lying further up the beach. He made a throat-slitting gesture indicating that they were dead. As we approached, it was apparent that they had been trapped in a net. One turtle lay on top of the other, his eyes having been gruesomely pecked out by birds.

Loango National Park is an important breeding ground for leatherback turtles, which begin to arrive in October to lay their eggs. Often, my guide explained, turtles become entangled offshore as they make their way to the beach.  These two were probably a mating pair.

As we got closer, one of the turtles seemed to twitch.  After a few seconds, I realized that it was still alive. The net had cut into the turtle’s legs and was wrapped around its neck slowly suffocating it. My guide pulled out a pocket knife and sliced away some of the netting, freeing the animal’s trachea. Immediately, the turtle gasped, filling its lungs with air.

We flipped the turtle over and removed the rest of the netting before picking it up and taking it to the surf. When we were about knee deep, we placed the turtle in the water. It seemed to want to swim, but with each wave, the turtle was pushed back towards the beach.

Too weak to make its way out to the open ocean, the turtle sat on the beach drinking from a small pool of water that had formed around its head. “It’s dehydrated,” said my guide. “Maybe at night when it has regained some of its force it will try again. The tide is against it at the moment.” There was nothing more we could do, and we returned to the lodge in silence.

Mathieu seemed visibly upset when I told him about the turtle and the state of the beach. The lodge is currently developing a program which would employ some of the local residents to clean the coastline around the lodge. But, as Mathieu pointed out, the problem spans the entire length of the park.

Loango National Park is a balancing act. Limited accommodations, the high cost of transportation, and Gabon’s own geography all contribute to this park’s splendid isolation. On the one hand, the lack of tourism is what makes Loango so remarkable. On the other, without tourism, there is less money for conservation efforts.

Ecologically, Gabon has a lot going for it. Its economic reliance on oil and mining has concentrated the country’s population in a few urban areas, while a higher standard of living compared to most of Africa has contained commercial poaching to the borders of Gabon. The current President of Gabon, Ali Bongo, does generally seem interested in preserving Gabon’s natural heritage. It doesn’t hurt either that the US gives millions of dollars a year to Gabon for conservation efforts. Read this for what it is: a bribe.

Ultimately, though, none of this is sustainable. Lower oil prices since 2014 have meant that Gabon’s economy is in desperate need of diversification; a new government in Gabon or a change in policy in the US could spell the end to the country’s conservation efforts, and a sustained economic downturn could see poaching become economically viable.

Loango is already wrestling with many of these issues. While locals closest to the park tend to be employed by the lodge and have a vested interest in seeing the park maintained, villages farther afield have no such sentiments. Small-scale poaching of antelope and monkeys does occur at Loango and is ignored, specifically, not to antagonize these villagers who have limited means to support themselves.

So while an expansion of tourism may ruin a bit of the charm of this place, it would also secure the park’s future by employing more of the local population and funding research and conservation. Rombout Swanborn’s dream of ecology and capitalism working hand in hand may have been mired in the swamp of Gabonese politics and jurisprudence, but his solution is still valid. It’s only through economic development that we can expect to preserve the pristine.

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