By Leslie Nevison, Director, Mama Tembo Tours
Kingo, a 300 pound (140 kilogram) Western lowland gorilla silverback, and his six wives and children, live in the protected rainforest of Nouabale-Ndoki National Park in the northern Republic of Congo near its border with the Central African Republic. Scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) began habituating Kingo fifteen years ago. At the time, gorilla research had been restricted to Rwanda’s and Uganda’s mountain gorillas, and very little was known about lowland gorilla behavior in the wild.
Compared to their mountain kin, lowland gorillas occupy remote and swampy forests and are hard to find. Wary by nature, they disappear in an instant at the first hint of danger. As unhindered observation is crucial to any wildlife study, habituation is a necessary scientific tool. With Kingo, habituation took ten years. Yet, creating this bond of trust with Kingo leaves him vulnerable to a human encroacher with violent intentions.
Just outside of Kingo’s Kingdom, a mere 16 square kilometer forested triangle, the surrounding forests are crisscrossed with logging roads. Logging, unless practiced responsibly, results in habitat loss. Logging roads also allow access to commercial poachers. Gorilla meat is highly prized in Central Africa in the misguided belief that it brings status and power. On a less critical note, any forest bush meat – gorilla, chimpanzee, mangabey, and antelope – is the means for growing human populations living on the shrinking boundaries of Central Africa’s forests to subsist.
Diseases such as ebola, habitat loss, and the bush meat trade are the leading threats to the remaining numbers of lowland gorillas in Central Africa. The good news is that the WCS released new findings in 2009 that put the number of lowland gorillas in Central Africa as higher than was thought. Gorillas make simple sleeping nests in the crowns of trees every night. Working from a morning count of these nests, scientists believe (and hope) that over 100,000 gorillas are holding on in the forests of Northern Congo. Even if this number is optimistic, it supports the need to push forward with conservation plans.
Kingo’s ultimate survival is pinned on sustainable tourism. When science is complete, visitors, only two at a time, will be (and must be) Kingo’s primary means of support. Kingo was first introduced to the world, fully habituated, in 2007, and since then he has become famous in writing, news reporting, photography, and nature film making circles. A great many of his guests have come from among these professions. But 2010 brings change. Although science will continue for years to come, WCS has established formal tourism guidelines and improved infrastructure and Congo Wildlife Adventures was launched by MTT Inc as the first ever ground operation in Brazzaville to facilitate visits for everyone to Nouabale-Ndoki National Park, and beyond to Dzanga-Ndoki National Park in the neighboring Central African Republic.
Undeniably, Kingo is Nouabale’s showcase.
David Attenborough has said “There is more meaning in exchanging glances with a gorilla than with any other animal I know.”
But there is much more to this travel experience too. The forests of the Congo Basin comprise the world’s largest rainforests after those of the Amazon Basin. They are therefore among the last of their kind on the planet, and of remarkable biodiversity. Kingo shares his kingdom with elephants, buffaloes, leopards, chimpanzees, birds, and ten species of monkey. And while it remains adventurous travel to get to the forests, they are now accessible.
Travel here means to walk in pristine forest of towering hardwoods amid whining cicadas; to pole a pirogue along tributaries and streams of the Congo River; to observe wild gorillas at forest clearings; and to spend time with the Ba’Aka, the indigenous pygmies who have been the foundation of Central Africa’s conservation programs from the beginning, for without their preternatural relationship with and their knowledge of the forest and its wildlife, habituating the timid Western lowland gorillas would never have happened. There is a poignancy to the traveler’s encounter with the Ba’Aka because these men once hunted gorillas or tracked gorillas for others to hunt. Now they work as trackers for scientists and forest guides for tourists. It is easier to keep wildlife alive if men who hunted in the past for their livelihood earn a salary guiding you through the forest.
Beyond Nouabale’s forests, construction of a new road under a Chinese contractor is in progress which will link the north of the country and Nouabale’s once isolated forests to its capital Brazzaville. There is the worry that the road will serve as a conduit for the movement of contraband forest products. WCS worries how little time they have to establish a viable sustainable tourism program (perhaps no more than five years) in light of the enormous pressures from outside business interests. With so few roads in the Republic of Congo, and where internal air travel is costly and unreliable, improved infrastructure is a positive development. This road can certainly ease the way for Nouabale’s tourism, becoming another way that travelers can more easily travel back and forth to Kingo.
You can be a part of Nouabale’s new beginnings in sustainable tourism. You can be among the first to arrive.