A form of ecotourism has emerged in Gabon. The principle: the observation of western gorillas by tourists makes it possible to fund their protection and combat poaching. A vicious circle that requires patience to observe these wild animals.
At the bend of a small path that goes deep into the forest of the Gabonese National Park of Loango, here it is! The Kamaya gorilla, perched on its branch, calmly watches the day’s visitors and resumes its meal as if nothing had happened.
With a slow gesture, the 150-pound silverback gorilla eagerly brings the leaves of the tree it sits on to its mouth. Then he fearlessly descends from the tribe, before dozing off, under the astonished gaze of the privileged few.
After two years of complete closure due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Gabon’s National Parks Agency (ANPN) has decided to resume observations of western gorillas and hopes that this species “iconic” will serve as “lose leader” revitalize tourism.
450 euros to see the gorillas
Kamaya and his group of about ten individuals are accustomed to humans – the result of a long work carried out by a team of trackers and scientists with the aim of collecting data, raising funds for the protection of this endangered species and developing a niche tourism.
Because spending an hour with Kamaya and his family costs 300,000 CFA Francs (about 450 euros), excluding access to the site and accommodation. Spanning 155,000 acres, Loango Park is worth seeing after four to five hours on the road and then on the trail from Port-Gentil, the country’s second city, and an end of the journey by boat.
The price remains much lower than those practiced to see the mountain gorillas in Uganda or Rwanda. It also generates income for the exploitation of protected areas, which guarantee a safe place for the animal.
Fight against poaching
“Tourism is a favorable conservation strategy for gorillas”, says Koro Vogt, manager of the “Gorilla Loango” project. Nearly extinct, the mountain gorilla took advantage of the tourist windfall in Rwanda and Uganda to double in number in three decades and now reach a population of about 1,000 individuals.
Western gorillas are much more numerous. Their population is estimated at 360,000 people, in six Central African countries† About a quarter in Gabon, of which almost 1,500 in Loango Park, about 280 km south of the capital Libreville.
However, scientific studies from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, specializing in great apes, estimate that western gorilla numbers are declining by 3% per year due to habitat destruction, poaching and disease. These threats are due to increased access to remote areas occupied by gorillas, the bushmeat trade, corruption and lack of law enforcement.
Protected areas – so theoretically safe for animals – like Loango contain only about 20% of these great apes.
“To protect gorillas, our rangers patrol national parks to reduce illegal activity and catch poachers”explains Christian Tchemambela, executive secretary of the ANPN. “This emblematic species of Gabon is also a loss leader for foreign visitors. The development of ecotourism is central to our strategy.”
From June 2016 to early 2020, 845 tourists were able to observe the gorillas at the site.
A process of acceptance
A ray of sunshine pierces the treetops, illuminating Mokebo, 15, and the little one she carries on her back, Etchutchuku, who is less than a year old. He moves, glances at the few men watching him and hides shyly behind his mother.
Below, an almost adult male, Waka, approaches the observers curiously. He is not afraid, shows no signs of aggression and sits peacefully a few meters away.
“The process is very long, it takes years to gain their trust and we are not sure that we will succeed.”
Hermann Landry, eco guide
“You have to tirelessly follow them every day, all year round. Sometimes we lose track of them for days, and that’s serious, because they can regain their natural fear of humans.”explains these fallen former poacher “lover” gorillas.
During the initial habituation phase, gorillas are afraid of people and will run away when approached. In the next stage, they stop fleeing, but can respond with aggressive attacks. In the final stage, they react calmly and continue their activities without worrying about the human presence.
There are two permanent groups in the country, one in Loango, the other in the national park of Moukalaba Doudou (southwest) where tourist infrastructure is almost non-existent.