Visiting Gorillas in the Congo

Jon Portis

22 Jul 2019

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NWS client Jon meets the great apes of Central Africa

As our 2-hour charter flight from Brazzaville made its final approach into Mboko Airstrip in Odzala-Kokoua National Park, it struck me that I had entered a vast undisturbed wilderness. The view through the porthole suggested an endless, mysterious, tropical rainforest that I couldn’t wait to explore. I had always been interested in visiting the Republic of Congo and seeing the diverse wildlife in Odzala, ever since reading a 1995 National Geographic article detailing an expedition to study the gorillas there. I wasn’t to be disappointed.

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After a welcome drink on the gravel landing strip, we were whisked off to Ngaga Camp which lies within the home ranges of several groups of western lowland gorillas. These groups have become habituated to the presence of humans over the years, from contact with the research scientists working in the area.

The next morning, after being awoken at 5am and listening to a safety briefing, we set off on foot into the darkness for our first gorilla trek. There were just three guests, along with our guides, who led us through the rainforest. Our machete-yielding local tracker searched through the dense foliage, stopping many times along the way to look for any sounds or signs of the gorillas.

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Miraculously, after about an hour of searching, we heard some rustling in the distant trees, and lo and behold, we came across a family of gorillas harvesting fruit from tall trees and swinging from branches and vines. The gorillas would climb high into the highest branches to pick fruit, then let it fall to the forest floor for the whole family to feast on. Keeping a safe distance, the gorillas seemed comfortable with our presence. We wore surgical masks to ensure their safety and prevent transmission of human diseases to the animals. After the mandatory 1-hour time limit on visits, we said our goodbyes to the gorillas, but the fruit feast continued.

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The next morning we repeated the experience, arising at 5am to reach the gorillas in the early morning when they are most easily observed. This time we walked through even denser, deeper and darker forest, with a thick undergrowth requiring our tracker to clear a path with his machete, one step at a time. After 90 minutes and no success in locating the gorillas, somehow our tracker out of nowhere found where they were hiding, and we enjoyed encountering a different gorilla family.

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Being that humans and gorillas share 98% of their genome, there was an eerie feeling being amongst our close animal relatives, certainly of curiosity both ways, but also mutual respect. But finally, the gorillas had had enough of our intrusion into their world, and the big silverback dominant male came forward towards our position 20 feet away. He stopped halfway though, pounded his hand on the ground, then pounded his chest with both fists.

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Our hearts stopped momentarily until our tracker explained that this was a first warning that it was time to leave. Failure to heed the warning could mean trouble. As we sincerely meant no harm to these wild animals and wanted to minimise our impact on them, we slowly backtracked from our position, giving the gorillas the space they requested, and all was well. While walking back to Ngaga Camp we couldn’t stop talking, giggling with joy and in total awe of the experience we had just had. There is nothing like it to compare with and it has to be one the most meaningful wildlife encounters of my life.

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Unfortunately, western lowland gorillas are severely endangered due to loss of habitat, the bushmeat trade, and transmission of human diseases. I was concerned beforehand that gorilla treks would be detrimental to the animals’ livelihood. However, I came to see first-hand that with carefully controlled and environmentally responsible ecotourism, there is an economic benefit to the villagers and local communities who gain jobs and income to improve their lives. If the people of the Republic of Congo see the direct benefits and importance of the gorillas to the community, then there is hope for the gorillas’ continued survival. But unlike the pioneers visiting the area for National Geographic 25 years ago, with the opening of the Odzala Discovery Camps one can now enjoy this unique experience in relative comfort and safety.

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Comments

Jeffy

16/8/2019 10:35 AM

Gorilla Safaris are always a fun one to watch as they resemble humans in real life. They sometimes act as humans or show human behavior. Its fun to capture such moments.

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