Thursday, August 6. The flush of adrenaline in the presence of big wildlife revitalized spirits as we neared the end of a long trek through the forest of Moukalaba-Doudou. Returning to camp late in the afternoon, a large gorilla emerged from the edge of forest onto our path 40 meters ahead. Having trekked 14 kilometers on a search for Group Gentile, a habituated family group of 22 gorillas, we were thrilled to have finally caught up with them. They had been circling us all afternoon, evidenced by fresh knuckle-prints and feces turning up in the dry forest riverbed. Our mission was to evaluate Group Gentile to determine a potential for tourism. A 14 kilometer trek for a possible glimpse of the family would not make for a rewarding experience for most tourists.
A small river through the big forest has dried, creating an avenue for wildlife.
The young silverback continued across the path, followed by several females. In the near distance, the underlying vegetation began waving. We were all eyes as a juvenile gorilla came tumbling out of thicket in a clumsy cartwheel, trying to see us over his shoulder before vanishing into tall grass across the trail. Soon after, the enormous russet crown of Papa Gentile appeared above the grass border. Studying us for a moment, he started to cross, then backed for a second look before stepping across the trail, his sleek silver back shimmering in the soft dry season light. Regal is a term that comes to mind in describing the stride of Papa Gentile. He seemed to radiate a supreme confidence, from his long, powerful black arms, lustrous silver cloak, and heavily muscled, compact legs.
Tracker Gilles-Roger and Ando make a plan for the afternoon trek.
Not all forests tower overhead. Lush verdant herbaceous forests thrive where sun and water are plentiful.
We waited a few minutes longer to give the family time to move into the forest, since we were heading in the same direction and did not want to surprise them. It was late in the afternoon. Likely, the family would settle nearby for the night. The forest can be uncannily quiet, knowing beasts are present and at close range.
Graduate student Keiko from Kyoto University and Ando, coordinator for the gorilla habituation program, try to determine where the gorillas might be.
As we entered the forest, the trackers began clucking and grunting, sounds intended to put the gorillas at ease. The sounds indicate to the gorillas that we are nearby, and are part of the habituation process of communicating our location to the family. This is contrary to the practice of walking quietly when stalking non-habituated wildlife. The last thing we wanted was to bump into a surprised gorilla. Later that evening, from across the river, we could hear several episodes of chest-beating as the gorilla family sent notice, possibly to other families or other solitary males, that they had settled for the night.
The evening serenade of turacos was especially vivid echoing across the river as night fell. Great-blue turacos and Green turacos hurled their croaking laugh from high in the tree canopies. The peaceful buzz of crickets was punctuated by the odd wailing trill from some owl, followed later into the deepest darkness by the metronome bark of hammer bats, a soundscape for the imagination, made real in the Moukalaba-Doudou night.
Juvenile gorilla looking at the humans nearby.
Friday, August 7. Morning arrived quickly with just a trace of light in the sky as a flock of Scaled francolins suddenly erupted in chorus at the edge of the forest. Like priming a rusted pump, they began with a series of raspy whoops developing into a spirited whistling cascade not unlike the plucking, tinny melody from an old hand-crank music box. First one, then another, then two from deep in the forest, then silence for a moment before it all began again. The partridge-like birds were scuttling across the forest floor, and soon faded into the distance. By this time the turacos were awake, and trying to sleep any further was hopeless.
Crossing the Moukalaba River by pirogue.
Back on the river, the trackers poled us across in a narrow, tipsy pirogue. Three chimpanzees sat motionless in the canopy of a towering tree at river’s edge. As we passed beneath, they hastily made their exit, swinging like acrobats from limb to limb before vanishing into thick understory. Particularly impressive was the female. Somehow, she had lost her left arm at the shoulder, but managed to skillfully maneuver through the tree with one arm and two legs before hopping to a flexible spring-pole bush that carried her, elevator style, to forest floor.
We picked up the trail of gorillas soon enough, though the trackers estimated we were several hours behind the family. If they were moving steadily, we may never catch them, but if they stopped to forage, perhaps….
Splitting into two groups, we attempted to get in front of their general direction, and by late morning, Jean René and Keiko radioed that they had been located. We approached several minutes later to see them, mostly obscured by heavy vegetation, feeding in several trees and sorting through the understory.
Gorilla feeding in a tree, stripping bark from young tree branches.
We watched for an hour before they moved on to a new set of trees where they established themselves for the rest of the morning. We had some opportunity to move along a trail to observe several individuals as they climbed through trees, snapping off limbs to strip and eat the bark. An infant clung to the side of a tree 10 meters above ground, looking unsure wether to be climbing or descending. A young male moved our direction, approaching within 15 meters, only to lie down for a nap.
Learning to climb, an infant gorilla appears unsure what to do next.
A gorilla napping on the forest floor keeps an eye on his human visitors.
Now and then, a growl from the silverback, hidden from view, drifted through the understory, letting everyone know who was in charge. Ninety minutes into this tranquil feeding and napping routine, they were on the move again. As we followed, several gorillas began ascending trees in another feeding zone. Juveniles climbed just above the understory to stare back at us before continuing into the trees. Some would climb to the top of the canopy 30 meters above.
By 3pm, we decided to return to camp. We had at least an hour’s walk ahead of us, then the pirogue to cross the river.
Waterbuck half-hidden on a savanna.
We were fortunate to come across a waterbuck, an impressive large antelope with curving, corrugated horns, studying us as we entered a savanna. And we discovered more gorilla sign near the river. It was possible there was another family of gorillas nearby, though perhaps by now they had moved through. As we left the river, a pair of Black-headed bee-eaters rose from a burned plantation to alight at the forest edge, their red eyes, contrasting with emerald and black and burnt-yellow plumage, glowing in the evening light.
Black-headed bee-eater on the edge of a plantation.
Another night of crickets, hammer bats, and who knows what left me less than rested by the time the francolins returned, clamoring to wake the turacos and all else.
Saturday, August 8. We returned to yesterday’s location of the gorillas, but they were nowhere in sight. Walking loops through the forest attempting to intercept their trail was fruitless. Thinking perhaps they had moved north, we walked for several kilometers into a new forest tract, searching out a stand of Parasolier trees that had been fruiting and attracting primates. We surprised several chimpanzees perched in the open canopy. They retreated, swinging through the canopy with effortless grace. Finding evidence of recent gorilla sign, we circled again, but they appeared to have vanished. It is difficult finding their traces in the dry season. The leaf litter on the forest floor fails to hold their prints, and they are far-ranging to find enough to eat. By mid-afternoon, we decided to return to camp. Spending time with Group Gentile will have to wait for another day.
This gorilla family is currently part of ongoing research into gorilla habituation. At the moment, there is no provision or infrastructure to facilitate tourism at this location, though the results of this study will surely be important to the future of gorilla tourism in Gabon.
Chimpanzee perched in a parasolier, aka umbrella tree.
Looking up through the open canopy of parasolier trees.