by Donatella Malfitano
The journey to the Lésio-Louna Natural Reserve is an enjoyable two-hour trip by road, from Brazzaville to the northwest of the country. The only drawback, however, is that it takes one hour just to leave the chaotic traffic and reach the outskirts of the city, for the last stretch toward the beckoning forest.
|Brazzaville is named after the Italian (but French-naturalized) explorer Pietro Savorgnan di Brazza, the man who first discovered the Republic of Congo. Di Brazza was a gentle man, known for his non-violent methods and opposition to colonial exploitation.|
The road is paved, which in itself makes an impressive contrast to the general conditions in the greater Congo (The Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC), which lies a short boat trip away across the mighty and mysterious Congo River.
From Brazzaville, which is the capital of the Republic of Congo, you can see the city of Kinshasa, the capital of DRC. They are geographically the closest capitals of any two countries in the world, yet they are so different. I do not believe I have witnessed first-hand a country that has experienced such ongoing suffering and violation as I have seen in the DRC. The contrasts within that country are strong: on one hand, there is the stunning natural beauty and richness of the land, the sheer vastness and biodiversity, the wealth of natural resources. These are all things that should normally ensure an idyllic existence for the peoples of the DRC, as they are unrivalled anywhere else in the world. On the other hand, there is devastation: since the arrival of one of the most brutal colonisations in history, orchestrated by King Leopold II of Belgium, the DRC has been brought to its knees, time and time again, by horrific wars and corruption.
Brazzaville, the only African capital to have retained its colonial name, is like a different world when compared to its more illustrious neighbour Kinshasa. It is more peaceful and quiet, and with more infrastructure evident throughout the country. The paved roads are the most striking example of that. This in itself could be deceiving, as a good infrastructure in Africa is not necessarily a result of a good democracy. Even the Republic of Congo, for example, is governed and run by an authoritarian regime that places individual profit and the wealth of its members before the welfare of the country’s population.
The Republic of Congo is home to a population of Western Lowland Gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla), a subspecies of the Western Gorilla (Gorilla gorilla). They occur in seven Central African nations, including the Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Angola, Central African Republic, Cameroon, and Nigeria. They are currently classified as a critically endangered species. The main reasons for this status has been illegal hunting for bushmeat—which leads to the illegal trade of orphans—disease (for example, the Ebola virus), and over-exploitation of the forest and their natural habitat.
Unfortunately, these practices are quite common in numerous African countries, affecting the wildlife, the protected species and their habitat. Data and estimates from the 1980s placed the entire world population of Western Lowland Gorillas at fewer than 100,000. However, in the year 2008, a new census revealed the existence of a new population of 125,000 gorillas in the northern forests of Congo (which includes the Ntokou-Pikounda region and in the Ndoki-Likouala landscape). This was much needed good news that provided a boost to the scientific and conservationist environment! The remoteness of the forests, combined with a successful long-term conservation program of the protected areas and their food-rich habitat, seem to have been the main contributing factors toward the survival of this high number of gorillas.
The Lésio-Louna Gorilla reserve is located in the Lefini Forest, in the heart of the Republic of Congo, about 130 kilometers from the capital. The park is dedicated to the protection of the gorillas and their reintroduction in their habitat. The project I visited is called Projet Protection des Gorilles (PPG), and is a joint programme between the Government of the Republic of Congo and the John Aspinall Foundation (a United Kingdom-based organisation) for the protection of indigenous endangered species in general and of gorillas in particular. The project’s main objectives and activities are:
- The reduction of the trade in orphan gorillas and, consequently, the illegal bushmeat trade, by repression (facilitating confiscation of illegally held gorillas by the national governments) and by prevention (information, awareness, education).
- The rehabilitation of confiscated orphan gorillas into a natural forest habitat and the reintroduction of gorillas into protected areas.
- The management of these areas for the restoration and the protection of their natural resources.
- The development of sustainable conservation-minded activities which provide economic benefits on a local and national scale.
The project was conceived in 1987 as an urgent response to the constant flow of orphaned gorillas arriving in Brazzaville.
My visit to the project mostly focused on visiting the nursery of baby gorillas in Iboubikro, known as the "Village of Gorillas." At the site, it is possible to observe the feeding of orphan gorilla babies. The visitor is kept at a safe distance, with a small river separating them from the gorillas, and the sighting time is restricted to nothing longer than 30 minutes—probably to avoid the babies becoming too accustomed to people, although this principle does not include the babies’ human nurses.
The site is well-located in the forest. Not far from there, the Blue Lake deserves a visit. It is appropriately named, as it is a blue diamond shining amidst the forest of green.
There is nothing better to a baby than the sight and smell of delicious milk. So, when the two workers arrive for their feeding visits with baby bottles in their hands, there is no need to call the young gorillas—they are already there, milling around them and begging for their milk! While the oldest orphans quietly drink and survey their surroundings, some of the younger gorilla babies become totally attracted by my white face smiling at them from across the river. One baby gorilla, probably more adventurous than others, tries to come closer, starts calling while, from time to time, beating on his chest just like adult gorillas do! Another will re-enact the same ritual before my departure, possibly just to show who the real boss is!
Feeding time eventually comes to end but, while four babies leave the site following their nurses, the fifth one waits, comes back to the water’s edge, sits down, looks out across the river, grabs some leaves on the ground, looks at me again before eventually deciding to leave—but not before having greeted me in his own unique way!
One is filled with a mixture of sweetness and sadness when seeing these babies. Sweetness and relief because they had been rescued and were now safe, with a possible future of reintroduction into their natural habitat. Sadness because, in a perfect world, they should already have been living free, within their family groups.
But all the factors mentioned above represent a serious and ongoing threat to wild species, and especially to the endangered ones. Poaching for the illegal bushmeat trade and intensive forest logging are among the main causes, and are widespread in most African countries. It is not difficult to find some marketplaces in Africa (especially night markets) where bushmeat is sold. Illegal hunting is a plague, and efforts made by the national governments in Africa are token and hopelessly insufficient. Corruption, lack of awareness, forest exploitation and an increase in the exploitation of natural resources make the fight against this threat a very long-term project.
Armed conflict too has a massive and direct impact on the killing of great apes for bushmeat, largely because of the breakdown of law and order in regions of conflict. This, for example, has been documented in the Virunga Park in the eastern part of Democratic Republic of Congo, and in Kivu province, during the outbreak of rebel insurgence in 2007.
I had visited this park and the gorillas only a few years before that, in 2005, during a fantastic three and one-half hour walk (see video in right-hand Media Gallery). One of the most unforgettable encounters of my life. But the situation in the DRC represents the very worst example of the fight. Literally every type of bushmeat—including monkeys, chimpanzees, and bonobos—are sold in many markets, while live animals are commonly found, attached to chains or in cages, and sold as pets to private buyers. This also essentially means that their parents have been brutally killed by poachers. There is no law. Anything is possible.
|Do you want to see more pictures from Donatella Malfitano's travels in the Republic of Congo and elsewhere in Africa? Be sure to view the slideshows Visiting a Gorilla Reserve in Republic of Congo and Field and Nature Guide Training - Karongwe Game Reserve. In addition to presenting some really nice pictures not included in this article, these are additional examples of "Lightbox" slideshows offered on FieldTripEarth. We will be making more use of Lightbox technology in future field trips.
Please note that (1) clicking on either of the links above will open a new window, or a new tab, in your browser and (2) you will be directed away from the FieldTripEarth website to a slideshow hosted on the redtailhawk server. This latter server is also maintained by FieldTripEarth.
To start a slideshow, simply double-click any image. To proceed through the slideshow, move your mouse over the upper-right hand corner of a photo; you will see a NEXT button appear. Click on that button to move forward in the slideshow. You'll find a PREV button by moving your mouse over the left side of a photo. Finally, to return to FieldTripEarth, simply close the new window or tab.
Gorillas are among the many endangered species illegally hunted and sold in the markets of Africa. They are usually found in the form of smoked pieces of meat, and most of all, as amputated hands. Although great ape meat represents only 1% of the total bushmeat sold in the markets, their endangered status, the general low numbers of their population, and the profits they can provide to hunters makes the impact more considerable. Other apes hunted and sold also include chimpanzees and, mostly in the DRC, bonobos. Research conducted by Endangered Species International in 2008-2009 showed that 300 gorillas are butchered every year in the Republic of Congo.
In Brazzaville recently, there was some evidence of the illegal selling of baby gorillas as pets; fortunately, the authorities and eventually the PPG were alerted of this.
At the local zoo I personally found two baby chimpanzees that, according to the zookeepers, had been rescued at the airport where they were about to be smuggled out of the country. They were waiting to be moved to a sanctuary in Pointe Noire, the second largest city of the country. Fortunately, they were not in cages—the zoo’s conditions were terrible—and a local woman was a taking care of them, acting as a ”substitute mother.” [One of the babies was a month and a half old!]
Monkeys are also sold in the streets, or can be found in fancy hotels in a sort of private zoo. They remain until the owners eventually get bored and decide to get rid of the animals.
During my frequent trips throughout Africa, too often I have encountered these same realities. The issue and the problems are vast and terribly complex. In the Republic of Congo, projects like the one I visited and others that are currently active are largely positive and dynamic and represent a hope in making impacts of varying degrees. A widespread program of education and awareness (starting at schools), as well as added support to local authorities for strengthening legislation and sanctions in these areas, not to mention all conservation activities in place, are always needed. But the fight for the survival and protection of great apes will be a long one.
About the author:
Donatella Malfitano is an international worker for the United Nations and other organisations on democratic governance and humanitarian affairs. During her travels and missions, mostly in post-war or third-world countries, she also looks at the way animals are affected by armed conflict and other threats.
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