It’s very hard to even begin to wrap all the thoughts, feelings, ideas, effort and sensory cues that are involved in gorilla trekking. How do you even begin to describe an experience that can provoke so many reactions in people? It’s not an easy task and it’s perhaps the reason why I’ve been putting this off for so long. I doubt anything I say or write will do it justice. How do you explain the luck that is to be able to find a habituated family of gorillas in a rainforest? How do I even begin to explain the crucial role of the communities in their conservation? How do I highlight that it is a set of circumstances that involve a Spanish researcher and her husband the reason why viewing them is even possible?
The Gorilla trekking experience is defined by the camp as: “(an experience) led by skilled local trackers, and with expert guides to interpret the sights and sounds of the forest, you will use the network of forest trails to get close to some of our nearest living relatives in the wild, and observe their behaviour as they go about the daily business of being a gorilla” (Odzala Discovery Camps, 2018).
Although a great short explanation, I have so many more thoughts, so many more words to add.
I suppose I can only start by telling the story of Ngaga Camp and Dr. Madga Bermejo, in order to explain the immense task that it was to establish and now maintain the “Gorilla trekking experience”.
Ngaga is a small camp nestled in the middle of the thick marantaceae (arrow-root) forest, a primary food source for the gorillas. Ironically the camp is located outside the borders of the park, about 7 miles from the Mbomo Village and about a 2.5 hour transfer from the closest airstrip. Built from local, sustainable materials and inspired by the designs of the Ba’Aka Pygmy groups, the camp was built in 2013 as an eco-luxury camp with the lightest possible environmental impact to the surrounding forest; perhaps the reason why it feels in harmony with the forest. The main area is posed just above the tree line giving a welcomed breath from the walls of green that is the rainforest and from the camp theres a network of small trails that allow you te explore the vicinity.
Such stunning camp only exists because of a courageous Spanish woman, that at 22 decided to come to the Congo Basin to study primates; two decades later Dr. Magda Bermejo has become one of the world’s leading experts on Western Lowland Gorillas and heads the research team at Ngaga. Indeed initially defined as the “Ngaga Research station” the camp only came to existence thanks to Magda’s research, her team, and their efforts in gorilla habituation and conservation. Not even the trackers for work the lodge, they work for Madga and her research.
“If Magda leaves, we all leave” – were some of the jokes we heard from our guides.
Magda came into the area only in 2009, after having led some of her work in Senegal, DRC and the Lossi Gorilla Sanctuary in the Congo. It was the Ebola outbreak and the death of about 90% of her study group in Lossi that lead the search into a new study area. Besides the Ndzehi concession carrying high density of gorillas, it was the attitude of the people at the Mbomo and Ombo villages that became the game changer and what made Magda decide to set up her new base in this part of the Congo. In this part of the Congo Basin gorillas are venerated for their resemblance to humans and protected. Unlike some other areas, here in these villages they’re not sought after for meat, their killing is almost considered taboo – perhaps due local stories talking of gorillas turning into people.
“At Mbomo gorillas are respected as they are considered very close to humans” our guide Alon explained “They don’t kill them, they don’t eat them here”.
“I was amazed at how protected these gorillas were when very little kept them from the village,” Magda remembers. “But the elders had decided to defend them. One day a gorilla was sitting in the middle of that road, and a village woman was scared. So I sent a tracker to help her cross, and when she got to the other side, she turned and waved to the ape. That’s when I knew this was the right place to establish the new camp” (James Sturz, 2013).
Although the project has been running since 2009, Magda and her husband had a tough time to gain access to the gorillas– there are no fairy tales in conservation research. When they first came into the area and made their intentions known, the local community tested their interests and perseverance. Many times had foreigners come with empty promises only to hunt, trade and sell their gorillas to zoos.
“When Magda and German first arrived they made them walk in circles for days without seeing on single gorilla. Can you imagine what it was must have been like?”
Some of these stories are now laughable and regarded almost as an initiation ritual, but were a critical part in establishing the pureness of their intentions. Once these were established, the research began, the research station was developed and the habituating process started. Magda and her husband German were the first people to habituate western lowland gorillas to human presence in Lossi; a slow and demanding process that requires daily human “interaction” (by this I only mean of people approaching and viewing them, not interacting/touching the gorillas in any way). In 2009 this process started again just outside Odzala, not far from the Mbomo village as the key step in the research process – because, how can you study an animal without being able to see it?
In the thick marantaceae forest, this is no easy task. A network of forest trails divides the area into blocks that allows us, humans, to navigate through the forest and gain access to the gorillas. Western lowland gorillas have no problem navigating through the forest’s canopy and undergrowth. Much smaller than the mountain gorillas (their Ugandan and Rwandan cousins), they take to the trees and are often referred to as to be “swimming” through the forest.
Constant human presence is then required for gorillas to accept “observers” (and tourists) and it can take up to three years of daily interaction for a family of gorillas to become comfortable with our presence.
It takes three years (1095 days) of daily hard work, glimpses of them and small victories to create a new “normal”.
Just let that sink in. Three years. Every day. All year long.
Because of the immense pull viewing gorillas in the wild has, itineraries to explore the rainforest begin at Ngaga Camp and the gorilla trekking experience. Odzala Discovery Camps and SPAC believe that the pull of the gorillas is enough to get tourists focused on the rainforest they live in; once you see the gorillas you will be more interested in taking an interest in the conservation of the rainforest that houses them.
To me, it was the pull of the forest that made take an interest in gorillas. But I recognize I am biased to anything green.
When we arrived at Ngaga camp in the late evening, and as we sat around to have a glass of wine, the very same Dr. Bermejo came to greet us and speak to us about the gorilla trek experience. Although one the main interests of the current research project is to investigate the outcomes of human-gorilla interaction and any potential human-wildlife conflict and its implications for conservation, Magda was also interested in assessing our gorilla trekking expectations for tourism purposes. She was keen to hear the expectations of those who had never gone gorilla trekking before, and the expectations of those who had seen other species of gorillas and already had a trekking experience.
After hearing some of the horror stories of the treks done by friends in Uganda or Rwanda, all I expected was long hours of walking in the forest.
“You will be divided into 2 groups of 4, plus a guide and a tracker. One of you will go to the Neptuno group, the other to Jupiter. Eat well for breakfast, as there is not telling in how long your trek will last. We’ve had some difficult treks lately. The trackers will meet you at 630am sharp to depart.”
“If you’re not ready on time they will cut our head off with their machetes” –added our guide.
It is the passion and dedication of Magda and her husband German, combined with the inherent respect of the villagers of Mbomo for gorillas, and the pioneering views of a German philanthropist, that unlocked a set of circumstances that made the birth of Ngaga camp possible and that allowed us the opportunity go in search and spend time with an animal species that is considered Critically endangered – next classification on the Red List is “Extinct in the Wild”.
Almost 5 years after the birth of this camp, we sat around a dinner table listening to the sounds of the forest, envisioning what was to come the next day. Come the morning we would consummate years of hard work in just one hour, thanks to the work of all kinds of people that thought there was something valuable and worth protecting in this rainforest. As for me, I didn’t know what to expect when facing the first big ape I would have ever seen.