end of the road for Tchibanga the elephant?

A sign at the entrance to Yenzi promotes the vision and mission of Shell Gabon, with a picture of Tchibanga in faded glory.

A sign at the entrance to Yenzi promotes the vision and mission of Shell Gabon, with a picture of Tchibanga in faded glory. 

“LA VISION DE SHELL GABON” appears to have faded. Even more difficult to read, the “MISSION” which concludes with “…RESPECTUESE DE L’ENVIRONEMENT” appears to have faded beyond recognition.

The gentle giant Tchibanga, or Solitaire for some of you, has been labelled, once again, as aggressive.

Even though veterinarians have been consulted on several occasions, and have concluded this elephant is a normal, healthy male that does not behave in an aggressive manner.

Perhaps aggressive has been confused with opportunistic.

Opportunity:

Tchibanga tips household bins of garbage. Yenzi residents have been advised to not leave bins streetside overnight, to not place trash in bins that cannot be collected on the same day. Some Yenzi residents cannot be bothered to comply with rules.

Sanivit has been contracted to pick the trash every day. Sanivit has had problems fulfilling this contract.

The bins behind Yenzi Club and Economart have been placed in reinforced enclosures to prevent access by elephants. A good start to addressing this problem, the problem of trash being available to elephants. Though trash in not always located to these enclosures, and enclosures are not always closed properly.

Some people leave baguettes in their car, unattended, in the vicinity of elephants, which can proceed to break a window for access to baguettes.

This is not aggression. This is people neglecting to take appropriate precaution where elephants are living. The problem lies with people, not elephants.

Victim or aggressor? Confusion exists.

Victim or aggressor? Confusion exists.

And then there is the accusation of aggression.

Tchibanga charging after children who are throwing things at him.                         Tchibanga charging towards Yenzi residents taking pictures of him with flash cameras. Tchibanga becoming upset by Yenzi residents getting too close to him.                Employees taunting and laughing at him until he charges the new barricade at Economart.

The problem lies with people, not elephants.

Some members of the Yenzi community, and Gamba community, have shown a lack of respect, demonstrating that we are unable to live peacefully with the natural environment. People are again calling for this elephant to be killed, for behavior we have created and then misinterpreted.

Kill Tchibanga and another elephant will follow. Maybe this is what Gamba ultimately wants. Some Plaine village residents are sharpening their knives…

 

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butterfly, black and white

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hunting hornbills

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HornbillRBD_5494DKorteRed-billed dwarf hornbill     A trio of these curious little hornbills swept into the tree above in full hunting mode. While one bird sat motionless on a limb, a second would leapfrog to a branch in front. After a few seconds surveillance, the first bird would repeat the maneuver for the second bird. Bird number three was watching from the side and would dive in if any insects were flushed away from the other two birds. They worked the whole tree canopy from one side to the other before heading for the next tree, where I could hear the same hunting pattern unfold. Their bills glow red when backlit by the sun. They appear to have no fear and took a moment to stare me down as they passed within three meters.

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song for a gorilla

Thursday, June 23       6am, riding my bicycle out to a hide in the trees to watch the morning unfold. The sky is beginning to show light to the east, but heavy clouds keep the morning at bay. There is a mist hanging in the air, like riding through a cloud. Where forest meets road, I strain to see any movement, watching for the bulky shadows of elephants that may be nearby.

By 6:30 the mist has turned to a light rain, a rosée, as they call it here. I cross a savanna in the muffled quiet of the rosée, the only sound, the distant rumble of surf along the coast a kilometer away.

The canopy of a tree tipped onto savanna provides a concealed view as a misty morning unfolds.

The canopy of a tree tipped onto savanna provides a concealed view as a misty morning unfolds.

The tree I have discovered for my morning watch offers a beautiful view of the savanna with forests on both sides. The tree tipped onto the savanna many years ago but has continued to grow. It is an easy climb into the branches where I can stand concealed, with an elevated view through the now-horizontal canopy. I am not up very high, but if there was an elephant closing in, I could climb higher to be out of reach. The rain increases in intensity. I am thankful for a cluster of leaves overhead, which channel the water like an umbrella.

A pair of eagles glide low across the savanna to find a perch a hundred meters away. After twenty minutes, they recross the savanna, disrupting several troops of monkeys. Warning calls cascade up and down the savanna, both mangabeys and moustached monkeys join in to call out the eagles.

Somewhere in the forest to the east I hear the chestbeat of a gorilla. This is what I have been coming here for, and I feel vindicated that I am once again in the presence of such a rare creature. Perhaps the silverback is calling his family together to wait for the rain to pass.

By 9am, a soft light glistens on the savanna as the last of the rain moves on. The birds are awakening, led by the chain reaction crowing of turacos. Perhaps six different Yellow-billed turacos provide a lively call and response from the canopies overlooking the savanna. A pair of Dwarf hornbills pass unseen through the forest, their melancholy duet marking their progress. Somewhere near the laterite road an elephant erupts in an agonizing roar, more dinosaur than elephant. I have heard this before, in Yenzi, when the bulls are chasing the females in a sexual fervor. I expect elephants to make an appearance on the savanna, but they have gone in another direction.

Sunlight is struggling through the lifting clouds by the time I hear a first stick break in the direction of the gorilla family. I can’t be sure this means gorillas on the move, but any noise holds promise. The sounds of snapping branches and swishing leaves grow closer. An hour later I see the first shadow of gorilla climbing into a tree near the edge of savanna. I can hear several others moving. If they don’t spot a reflection or movement, I should be in a perfect location when they reach the forest edge. Another gorilla comes into view, foraging in the low vegetation bordering savanna. It is unaware of my presence.

A gorilla forages in vegetation at forest edge.

A gorilla forages in vegetation where forest gives way to savanna.

The intermittent breeze is not crossing the savanna, but carries my scent behind me into the forest. This is where I suddenly have another concern, for I hear footsteps heading my way. It appears that a gorilla has crossed the savanna north of my view and is perhaps 40 meters away and closing in. He should know I am here, being downwind, but possibly because I am in a tree, my scent remains overhead. I hope he trails off and I will not have to deal with this, but when he is within 20 meters, heading directly for the tree where I stand, I need to do something fast. I start clucking like the guides and trackers at Moukalaba Doudou when they locate their family of habituated gorillas, but this gorilla is not habituated and this has no effect on the footsteps, now sounding at 15 meters. I can’t see through the thick vegetation into the forest from where my tree has fallen. I worry that this gorilla also does not see me, and may unknowingly climb onto the trunk of this very tree and we could have a face to face meeting at 2 meters, which will surely be traumatic for all. I need to start singing. According to Angelique Todd, a local gorilla expert, singing to a gorilla may help to defuse a situation, hopefully pique their curiosity long enough for them to discover I am here. The first few lines of “Twinkle, twinkle little star” leave my lips, very badly, I might add. I haven’t been blessed with my mother’s beautiful singing voice, but, regardless, this has the desired effect of stopping the footsteps, now sounding to be within 10 meters of my tree. For the next few excruciating seconds there is no sound coming from the forest behind me. I segue into a whistling version of “London bridge…”, and the footsteps resume, very softly, very slowly. I can’t tell which way they are headed. He is listening, I am sure, but I don’t hear a retreat. I continue with the singing and whistling, while the footsteps continue slowly, slowly, then appear to stop.

A gorilla spots my movement as I try to locate another gorilla approaching from behind.

A gorilla spots my movement as I try to locate another gorilla approaching from behind.

The gorillas across the savanna cannot hear me, being about 70 meters away. But while looking around for my closest friend, my movement has caught the eye of another gorilla. It is not sure what I am, as I am mostly obscured by leaves. He is facing me, squinting, head bobbing, then standing, then moving back slowly into the forest. I can’t be sure what is happening close by. I have not heard any new steps recently, and I think maybe the gorilla has quietly slipped away. I would have expected a scream or bark warning when I was discovered. Back in the forest across the savanna, I hear the hooting call of a gorilla. The remaining gorillas silently melt back into the shadows.

A mother and juvenile gorilla spotted on a savanna head for the cover of forest.

A mother and juvenile gorilla on a savanna head for the cover of forest.

Waiting another ten minutes to be sure my close friend has moved away, I quietly climb down from the tree and walk out to savanna. I am surprised to see a female with large juvenile riding her shoulders in plain view. They are 100 meters distant, and appear more curious than alarmed. The two of them watch me as they slowly amble back into the cover of forest.

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another surprise in the forest

Saturday, June 18, 2016     A cool breeze trickles through the trees, knocking a few leaves free to clatter their way through the branches. The forest floor has dried to a crunch. I carry my bicycle from the laterite road to conceal it in the scrub of withered roadside chaos. This is my usual routine while checking on a nearby camera trap before I walk the kilometer through savanna and forest. Elephants have crossed the road here, trail-blazing a little path through this scrub-forest that opens to a narrow savanna. It is a pretty little entrance to the typical savanna and forest mosaic that defines this environment. I always imagine walking out onto a movie set, the curtains of leaves opening to a savanna full of wildlife.

Elephants aren't the only creatures iinhabiting the Shell Gabon concesssion. Gorillas, buffaloes, sitatungas and monkeys share this habitat.

Elephants aren’t the only creatures inhabiting the Shell Gabon concesssion. Gorillas, buffaloes, sitatungas and monkeys share this habitat.

My first steps into the forest seem to echo from the trail ahead. A curious echo, not quite a reflection of my steps, stops me to listen again. The crunching continues, and my adrenaline braces for what I think may be an elephant working through the vegetation. I am poised with bicycle in hand, ready to flee back to road. But no, that is not quite the sound. The footsteps continue, and a shadow bounds across the forest trail fifteen meters ahead. Through the congested wall of vegetation, I glimpse the fleeting haunches of some gray-brown animal the size of a sitatunga. My breathing resumes, for a sitatunga I can appreciate without fear of a surprise charge. The branches continue to sway behind its crossing, and my curiosity returns. This is not how sitatungas behave. They are solitary, at most a mother and calf, but they are usually stealing quietly through the forest. Perhaps a troop of Red-capped mangabeys are browsing the forest floor. I have seen them here before, scratching through the leaves, pulling on the low branches as they forage for fruits.

Another little brown shadow somersaults across the trail, and I see that it is an infant gorilla. He is glancing behind as he dances ahead, all stomach with arms too long flailing this way and that. He must be only a few months old. My heart slams into overdrive as I realize this is a family of gorillas on the move. Two more gorillas materialize further up the path, likely females or sub-adult males judging by their size. And then, like an apparition, the silverback strides into view. The glistening silver of his impressive cape seems to gather light from the sky above, creating an aura as if under spotlight. He is so close I can see the light reflect in his eyes. Following the infant, his attention appears to be directed to the little ball of fur tumbling before him. I am still clutching my bicycle in mid-air, my camera stowed in my backpack, as I stare in disbelief that he hasn’t looked my way. My disbelief turns to relief, for I have no idea, or maybe I choose not to think, about how he might react to my surprise appearance. The steady crunch of footsteps continue, fading into the forest, and I see no other gorillas cross the trail. I carefully lay my bicycle to rest and dig out my camera. My footsteps sound like a herd of elephants as I backtrack to the roadway. Crunching through the laterite gravel for fifty meters brings me to the other side of the little gallery forest, so close, and at the moment, brimming with gorillas. Creeping in to a cluster of shrubs where forest borders savanna I set up my vigil, listening to the shuffling and occasional stick break that indicates they are approaching. Perhaps I am not in a safe location, I think, maybe too close should they converge on top of my hide, so I back off to a corner where I can see both road and savanna. A few moments later, the crunching and shuffling goes silent. A puff of breeze from the road has placed me at a disadvantage to the forest. They have to know I am here. I try moving away from the breeze spilling off the road, waiting for another hour before deciding they have moved off, probably returning by where they entered the forest.

A Forest buffalo triggers a camera trap during the previous week.

A Forest buffalo triggers a camera trap during the previous week.

Continuing my plan to check a camera trap, I cross the savanna. Where the forest pinches the savanna to a narrow path, the sand is covered with tracks of elephant, buffalo, sitatunga, monkeys, and several gorilla crossings. Truly an environment rich in wildlife. In the distance I hear a scream, perhaps 300 meters into the forest. It sounds very much like a human in distress. It is an unlikely location for a human to be, and I believe it likely to be one of the gorillas, perhaps a juvenile being reprimanded by an adult.

Moustached monkey on a perch at jungle's edge.

Moustached monkey on a perch at jungle’s edge.

The drying savanna grass glows in a soft golden light as I return to my bicycle. A flock of swallows circle overhead and to my left, a troop of moustached monkeys chirp a warning from the forest edge announcing my presence. Approaching the gorilla forest gallery, I see the prints in the sand where they left the gallery, crossing the narrow savanna on their way to a swamp forest where I hope they will be safe for the night. Dormir bien!

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sitatunga crossing a savanna

Saturday, June 11.     It is late afternoon as I return from checking a camera trap in a nearby forest. Shortly after crossing a stream I walk out from beneath the trees to catch sight of a shadow moving slowly through the drying grasses of the savanna. A very large sitatunga has left the forest ahead and is picking his way toward a nearby gallery forest. He freezes when he encounters my track from an hour earlier. I can see his nervousness build as he samples the breeze. Fortunately, he is upwind from where I am watching.

Sitatunga male cautiously crosses a narrow savanna.

Sitatunga male, Tragelaphus spekii, cautiously crosses a narrow savanna.

His caution soon overwhelms him and he spins around, trotting back to his forest. Sitatungas have disproportionately long hooves, evolved for support and balance when in their usual swampy, inundated forest environment. In the soft, dry sand of savanna, he appears awkward in his haste. At the forest edge, his caution returns, ears alert as he carefully nozes his way into the thick border vegetation to slip out of sight.

According to Kingdon’s Field Guide To African Mammals, an adult male sitatunga can weigh more than 100 kilograms. This adult was well over that. Kingdon goes on to say, “they avoid attention by cautiously entering thick vegetation and sink down into water slowly, leaving only the snout and part of the head above the surface”. My imagination will have to dwell on that little drama.

A minute later, the breeze tickles through the leaves of the tall ozougas, making the grasses dance across the savanna. A pair of hornbills break the reverie with their wheezing, melancholy whistles. A beautiful memory for a beautiful day.

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who is watching whom?

gorilla_4697_DKorteAnother trek to Doussala. In addition to being chauffeur for the voyage, I assist Angelique Todd to document and assess tourism readiness of Group Gentil, a family of gorillas studied and habituated over the past decade on the edge of Moukalaba-Doudou National Park, in south-central Gabon.

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Angelique Todd listens for gorilla activity with tracker Jonas.

Angelique is the Great Ape Habituation and Tourism Coordinator for ANPN, the Agence National des Parcs Nationaux. She has been working with several families of gorillas habituated for scientific study in Moukalaba-Doudou and Loango National Parks.

The intention of this visit is to educate ecoguides and trackers on procedures for ensuring a safe and rewarding experience for tourists. In addition, I hope to document individual family members of the Group Gentil.

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Immersed in ideal gorilla habitat.

We spend our days in the forest, locating and following Group Gentil, while various trackers and guides arrive and leave, easing in and out of the family group as the gorillas feed, groom and sleep throughout their forest domain.

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Nap time for this gorilla.

Our four days of forest activities add up to 25 hours of shared time with gorillas. We have walked approximately 50 kilometers through the forest and savanna landscape, most of the kilometers logged while locating the group in the morning, then returning to camp late afternoon.

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Dropping in for a closer look.

 

Dry season has now arrived, and following the group is easier than the past rainy season when large tracts of forest were inundated with lagoons. A few muddy forest streams require careful maneuvering to make the traverse with minimum difficulty. The vegetation is thick and the gorillas are finding bark and leaves and fruits close at hand. Past studies of Group Gentil have noted that the group spends more time on the move during dry season. We didn’t experience this far-ranging behavior. Presently, the group spends several hours of the early afternoon in slumber, though there is always a family member keeping a watchful eye on our activities. Thick vegetation also means the gorillas are often obscured by forest understory, requiring the guides to search for options of best visibility into the group.

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Papa Gentil, the silverback and dominant male of the family, crosses a shallow lagoon in the forest.

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Light filters into the forest from a nearby savanna.

I try to highlight additional opportunities while experiencing the beauty of the forest, hoping to communicate when the light is particularly radiant, when we see beautiful trees, and patterns of light and shadow filtering through the canopy. Angelique stops to admire the jewel-like presence of a butterfly, feeding from the bole of a tree bleeding with elephant damage.

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A butterfly drinks from a tree damaged by elephants.

Listening to birds in the canopy, the buzz of cicadas, monkeys scattering among the trees, and of course the communication of gorillas through the forest are moments to be noted and appreciated by guides as well as tourists. Even the interactions of the ecoguides and trackers as they read and discuss the animal signs in the forest can make a rewarding document to shape the perspective of a tourist’s forest experience.

These are details that may not be apparent to the trackers and ecoguides in their quest to find gorillas, but are likely to become special memories for the tourist who spends limited time in the forest. The gorillas may be the icing on the cake, but the beauty of a forest experience is the cake itself.

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Not always easy to see, the guides and trackers work to find an open view.

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Group Gentil spent several hours feeding on the wood of this dead tree.

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While descending a liana, a gorilla peers around a tree for a better view of our group.

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Returning to camp late in the afternoon.

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walk with an elephant

 

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Tchibanga ambles slowly down the road near Gamba airport. Cars and bicyclists give him right-of-way and back off as he approaches.

A report of an aggressive elephant prompted Shell Gabon to call on a veterinarian from Port Gentil to assess the health of the elephant in question. He is called Tchibanga by local Smithsonian scientist Mireille Johnson, a specialist studying human-elephant interactions in the Gamba Complex of Protected Areas.

Tchibanga approaches Economart grocery store. He has found a source of expired vegetables and sometimes fresh baguettes.

Tchibanga approaches Economat grocery store. He has found a source of expired vegetables and sometimes fresh baguettes.

Tchibanga was observed by another veterinarian back in September 2015 (http://dkortephoto.com/wordpress/?p=2495) and was determined to be healthy. He was, and is again in musth, a hormonal condition normal in bull elephants where they produce additional testosterone, making them less tolerant of human contact and more likely to show aggression. This condition can last from several weeks to a month or more. There is no reason that a bull elephant in musth needs to be killed. Elephants are always dangerous and unpredictable, and the report of aggression has much to do with the availability of produce and garbage available in Yenzi Camp and the nearby Economat grocery store, which brings Tchibanga into close contact with people.

A heavy barricade surrounding trash bins is useless to exclude elephants if the gate is left open.

A heavy barricade surrounding trash bins is useless to exclude elephants if the gate is left open.

Tchibanga has learned to tip bins for waste vegetables in Yenzi Camp, and makes frequent visits to the Economat store, looking for expired and sometimes fresh produce. He has a fondness for baguettes which required Economat to modify the store entrance with barricades and move the bakery selection to the back of the store. Now he prefers to enter from the loading docks, where a flimsy gate on rollers may as well be left open. With a flick of his powerful trunk, the gates topple with a crash, which at least alerts the store staff that Tchibanga is visiting.

Next stop: Loading dock at Economart, where the flimsy blue doors will not stop a hungry elephant.

Next stop: Loading dock at Economat, where the flimsy blue doors will not stop a hungry elephant.

The problem of elephant security at Economat is a mix of human negligence and inadequate design. The most robust bin containment barricade is useless if the door is open. Likewise, access to the loading dock will need to be redesigned to withstand the power of an elephant’s strength. Tchibanga now knows where to find food, has had previous success gaining entry, and will likely not give up easily. This behavior is not aggression. Tchibanga is on a quest for food.

When in musth, Tchibanga's precarious temperament can be easily aggravated by a crowd of people running and laughing, flash pictures, and vehicles driving too close.

When in musth, Tchibanga’s precarious temperament can be easily aggravated by a crowd of people running and laughing, flash pictures, and vehicles driving too close.

By the time Tchibanga is ready to leave Economat, we have been following him for 90 minutes. Dr. Philippe Sarrazin remarks how calm and complacent is Tchibanga’s behavior. He knows we are here, and has made eye contact often. An aggressive elephant would have reacted to our presence. Mireille has been diligent to ensure we are not too close, that we have a safe retreat if necessary, that we show proper respect for any potential behaviors.

After leaving Economart, Tchibanga browses on local vegetation on the Shell Gabon concession. This is not a picture of an aggressive animal.

After leaving Economat, Tchibanga browses on local vegetation on the Shell Gabon concession. This is not a picture of an aggressive animal.

We continue to follow Tchibanga. Dr. Philippe does not see signs of irritation or aggression. On a production road near the water facility, we see a slight temper flare as he follows our vehicle, but we soon determine that Dr. Philippe’s camera flash has begun firing in the subdued light, and, after making adjustment, we have restored order. Tchibanga follows our vehicle some fifty meters behind, stopping to pull some vegetation at the roadside, fresh greens for an animal that needs to be eating often.

Tch_5141_DKorte The production road joins the tarmac road connecting Yenzi to Plaine, and once on the tarmac, Tchibanga walks down the roadway as if he were president, a trail of vehicles building behind him, with cars coming to an abrubt halt and U-turn to the front. He shows a dislike for the few taxis that dodge past him. With ears flapping, he charges about the roadway, exhibiting normal behaviour for an elephant feeling threatened. After a half-hour of slowing traffic to the pace of an elephant, he turns off to disappear into the forest, and hopefully a peaceful night.

Lest we forget, Tchibanga pauses next to a reminder of his protected status here in the Gamba Complex.

Lest we forget, Tchibanga pauses next to a reminder of his protected status here in Gabon.

 

 

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Moukalaba-Doudou forest trek

Painting of a Gabonese mask slowly reclaimed by nature at Modi-Boti Hotel in Tchibanga.

Painting of a Gabonese mask slowly reclaimed by nature at Modi-Boti Hotel in Tchibanga.

The weekend in Doussala included a trek to look for gorillas in the forest of Moukalaba-Doudou National Park. The rainy season made the trek a challenge. The road between Tchibanga and Doussala was a muddy river of clay, including a bridge washout requiring a deviation through a stream. Luckily the stream was small, with sandy bottom, though the slick clay banks provided plenty of opportunities for trouble.

Trying to stay in radio contact, Alain searches for a signal in the dense forest.

Trying to stay in radio contact, Alain searches for a signal in the dense forest.

We crossed the swollen river to the park by small kayak, and walked most of the morning before we caught up with gorillas. A female with juvenile watched our arrival from the canopy before fleeing through the treetops to rejoin the rest of the family. It was the last we saw of them, for the inundated forest made it virtually impossible to keep up with the gorillas.

Female gorilla caught in the canopy holds her position, hoping we will keep moving.

Female gorilla caught out in the canopy holds her position, hoping we will keep moving.

Gorilla juvenile crab-walks through the canopy to follow the gorilla family through the forest.

Gorilla juvenile crab-walks through the canopy to follow the gorilla family through the forest.

By mid-afternoon the rains returned, making it difficult to follow the gorillas, and dangerous to move through the forest. The constant patter of raindrops muffles most other sounds, making it difficult to hear any large animals in the vicinity. It was time to head back to the village.

PROGRAM guide Joly leads us through the forest on a rainy afternoon.

PROGRAM guide Joly leads us through the forest late in a long, wet day.

Tathou practices on a moungongo, the mouth-harp used in Bwiti ceremonies.

Tathou practices on a moungongo, the mouth-harp used in Bwiti ceremonies.

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Bwiti ceremony

Bwiti_3748_DKorte02The smell of burning Okoume’ resin fills the air as we arrive in the village of Doussala, Gabon, a small isolated village of 20 to 30 Gabonese. Three hours of slogging through rutted, saturated clay track, crossing several rivers and streams on rickety wooden bridges, brings us from Tchibanga to this village at the edge of Moukalaba-Doudou National Park. Preparations are underway for an evening Bwiti ceremony.

Bwiti_3749_DKorteThe Bwiti experience is founded on traditional religious beliefs practiced among the forest societies of Gabon. Combining elements of fire, dance, drumming, and chanting, tonight’s ceremony appears to be fueled by beer and palm wine. A burning vat of Okoume’ resin focusses the ritual that fuses animism, ancestor worship and some elements of Christianity. The N’ganga are spiritual leaders respected in the community, responsible for carrying the tradition forward.

Bwiti_3767_DKorteThis is not a Bwiti initiation ceremony, where boys, including girls in some cultures, are initiated to adulthood through a spiritual journey that involves the ingestion of the sacred plant iboga. This ceremony is about communicating with the spirit world. A quest, not a coming of age, led by the N’ganga, to converse with animal, plant, and ancestral spirits, hoping to appease those spirits malevolent, and seek guidance from spirits beneficial.

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