Congo Adventures, Part II
Frequent Indagare contributor Tiffany Schauer recently ventured into the wilds of the Republic of the Congo, where two stunning camps recently opened. A bit of geography: there are two Congos: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly a Belgian colony and lately much in the news for recent flare-ups of civil strife. And the Republic of the Congo, a former French colony that is known particularly for its large population of gorillas.
Read about Tiffany’s days at Lango Camp. Here she describes the end of her adventure at Ngaga Camp.
After three nights at Lango Camp we drove three hours north to the Ngaga camp in the Ndzehi Concession, a contrasting landscape of lush green rainforest. The camp’s six, smurf-like houses sit on stilts encircled by decking over the lush forest floor. It was one of the most beautiful and ecologically sensitive congregation of living structures I have ever seen in my life.
Over 7,400 acres, the Ndzehi Concession is known for its pristine primary rainforest. Hunting is prohibited in many parts and there are few humans in the area. As a result, the Concession has become a sanctuary for various species of primates, duikers (a small antelope-type animal), and other large mammals.
We had come to see the spectacular forest and to visit the research project and educational tour directed by Western Lowland Gorilla experts Dr. Magda Bermejo and German Illera in partnership with Wilderness Safaris. The jungle’s dense canopy cover is interrupted by steep sloped hills with an altitude drop of 350 meters into low swampy woodland. It’s a fantasy world of mossy trees, exotic mushrooms of all colors, shapes, and sizes and paths are full of flower petals and fluttering butterflies.
The gorilla research project area covers an 11 ½ square-mile area. Our first day’s hike was a seven-hour trek led by a tracker and a guide through sweat bees, biting ants, muddy bogs, wide streams with slippery slopes and interrupted by intense torrential rainstorms. Nature provides no guarantee and we sadly did not see the gorillas that day. At our research briefing that night, we learned that the gorilla group we were tracking was traveling at an unusually rapid pace because the leader was being pursued by a rival solitary male. Each day, each trek is choreographed by the gorilla group’s movements with the researchers’ goals to study the gorillas with the least amount of human interference. The intent is to observe the primates in their native habitat avoiding any activity—or contagious illnesses—that may jeopardize or modify the gorilla’s individual behaviors and group socializing. The research project and camp policy adheres to a protocol for gorilla viewing tightly regulating the tourist participant’s distance, time duration, health status, and group size.
Historically, gorilla research involved cohabitation between gorillas and humans, resulting in devastating losses to the gorilla population from human communicated illnesses. Currently, there are only between 30,000 and 50,000 Western Lowland gorillas left and a recent outbreak of the Ebola virus killed about 5,000.
On our second day, our tracker, Zefarin, led us from the main lodge through a machete-cut path into the forest. Trackers are native pygmy hunters that have retooled their jungle skills to follow the movements of the gorillas. Western Lowland Gorillas move daily so the project researchers are absolutely dependent on these trackers. This particular art of determining the geographic location of an animal is an elaborate method. It can include processing forty characteristics of information gathering techniques while moving between 300 and 500 meters per hour. At the same time, the trackers are cutting the jungle floor growth with a machete.
Our tracker finally pointed up in the trees and we spotted an enormous silver back male leader gorilla, Neptune, surrounded by several others. Pan, a young male gorilla was doing an acrobatic show that seemed performed for our benefit. Roma, a huge female, seemed content to sit on a branch and relax. Caliope and Nona, both young females seemed very happy to stare at us lazily. As the rain stopped, the gorillas came down the tall trees into the thick green rainforest floor and abruptly, the massive Neptune roared and ran past our group—close enough for us to feel our powerlessness. None of us uttered a breath for that moment. Neptune eventually came around behind us and looked in our eyes closely and then calmly moved on. As a group, we gained our composure and celebrated our good fortune of being alive and seeing such majestic creatures, in their natural habitat.
Later that evening, Dr. Magda Bermejo joined our group to discuss her gorilla research and answer our questions about the day’s sightings. Of the seven groups of gorillas totaling about 105 individuals in the area, Magda’s research focuses on three groups: the Neptuno Group (18 gorillas); the Jupiter Group (25 gorillas); and the Mecurio Group (12 gorillas). Magda explained that what our group perceived as Neptune’s “roar” was actually the adult female, Roma, calling for Neptune. Magda also explained that our viewing of Pan’s acrobatic act for us is fairly typical of him being a mischievous young male. Nona, a young female is also very curious and sometimes chastised by Neptune for her curiosity.
Magda explained that it is not sure that these magnificent gorilla species will survive due to loss of habitat to logging, global warming, illegal hunting, and human borne disease, the gorillas are in deep distress for survival. The Congo Western Lowland Gorillas have built up no immunities or resistance to these assaults. The team is working to create a knowledge-sharing network to accelerate the chances of finding methods to stave off massive population losses.
To learn more or for help booking a trip to the Congo, contact Indagare.