gorilla warning

A curious swish in the leaves caught my attention as I returned along a trail deep in Vera Plaines. It was late afternoon, and my walk in the forest had been delayed by rain. At least five centimeters had fallen since I arrived at the trailhead, from midday until nearly 3:00pm, washing all tracks and animal sign from the trail. A constant plop of water dripped through the canopy to the vegetation below, making it difficult to hear any sounds coming through the trees.

Glistening forest at the end of a rainfall.

Glistening forest at the end of a rainfall.

Branches continued to shudder and sway, suggesting something large was moving in the thick tree canopy.

lianas_9854_dkorteI searched back and forth from the trail, straining for a better view, and soon saw a little arm reach to grasp a tree limb. A plump baby gorilla pulled his way out onto a branch. He was mostly hidden by foliage. Tottering for a moment, he nearly fell grabbing a branch to swing into a nearby tree. Thinking it might be a young chimpanzee, I decided to steal into the forest for a closer look. I’m not sure why I thought a chimpanzee might be a safer approach than a gorilla. The little primate was some 30 meters in from the trail, and as I approached the tree, I could hear more rustling, now coming from behind. Another member of this family was likely hiding high in a tree overhanging the trail. As I searched for the new mystery, the baby gorilla moved deeper into the forest, and I chose to ignore the single “pok!” coming from somewhere beyond. Turning my attention to the tree at trailside, I could finally make out a hairy silhouette of gorilla hiding 15 meters up in a tangle of lianas. I began to circle for a better view, and should have taken the second warning “pok!” to be the chest beat of a silverback, sending message that he was ready to intervene.

A blurred picture of a stressed female gorilla screaming for help from her silverback.

A blurred picture of a stressed female gorilla screaming for help from her silverback.

The female in hiding soon realized her cover was blown. She suddenly rose up through the lianas, feces and urine raining down through the canopy. When that was finished, she began screaming to wake the dead. I remember trying to take a picture, but there were branches in the way, and as I maneuvered, I could hear what sounded like a stampede bulldozing through the understory. An alarmed silverback was headed straight for my position. I glanced over my shoulder as this blur of flying hair came hurtling into view.  Not only was the female screaming, the silverback was roaring, howling, and sounding furious. Besides my life flashing before my eyes, I remember thinking: “I am SO F#*%ED!” My other thought was what Lisa and Angelique told me to do when confronted by gorillas: Do NOT Run! I could see that running would be futile. I turned sideways, hoping I might look smaller, not so confrontational, moreover, if there was to be contact, vital organs might have some protection.

The gait of a charging silverback looks like a sideways gallop as rear feet are planted on one side and to the front of forearms; he then lurches forward over his hind feet, the mass of powerful forearms and upper body crashing through the understory. This silverback was bearing down fast. Five meters before feared collision, he rose on his hind legs, arms tearing into the vegetation while he gave out a deafening roar, then veered off in a circle 20 meters to my left. A warning charge. Both animals were now screaming, and, from the sounds of cracking and ripping vegetation, the silverback was preparing for a second charge. Thinking a second charge may be more than a warning, I decided the best course was to move slowly away from the female. With a little coughing and mumbling I began to communicate a deliberate course back to the trail, away from the tree with the female, and definitely away from the silverback. This appeared to alleviate the tense situation. The screaming finally subsided, the roaring stopped. I could hear nothing crashing through the forest in pursuit as I slowly made my way back to the trail. Two kilometers of forest left to traverse, every step a vivid reminder of what it is to be alive.

Butterflies emerge from cover at the end of a rainstorm in the forest.

Butterflies emerge from cover at the end of a rainstorm in the forest.

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In spite of humanity.

A Forest elephant crosses oil pipelines on the Shell Gabon oil concession in Gamba.

A Forest elephant crosses oil pipelines on the Shell Gabon oil concession in Gamba.

In spite of all the obstacles put in their way. In spite of the hunting. In spite of the poaching. The snaring. The harassment. In spite of slash and burn agriculture, the cutting of their habitat.

Elephants continue to call this place home. The Gamba Complex of Protected Areas.

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trans “through” + spirare “to breathe”

Vera Plaines rainforest at dawn. N’Dogo Lagoon rests, a silent mirror beneath a veil of fog, the hills of Moukalaba-Doudou obscured in the distance.

Transpiration in the forest. Dawn comes slowly in the hills of Vera Plaines.

Transpiration in the forest. Dawn comes slowly in the hills of Vera Plaines.

The whistles and warbles of bul-buls, kingfishers, and turacos replace the haunting trill of bushbabies as the last fruit bats tumble out of the tree canopy, dragging the night-shadows back to the depths of forest.

The perpetual drone of the cricket choir steals onto savanna, weaving out of forest on the breath of trees, while in the distant western sky, a rain squall boils from the sea, immersing all in its path in a rain-parade of thundering drums.

The sweet scent of verdant green spiced with a tobacco-like odor of fermenting leaves steams out of forest as we enter. I feel under the gaze of a hundred eyes, and hear a hundred quiet voices giving me up. Caught in this web of life, and no place to hide.

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Saturniid moth

A Saturniid moth mysteriously found its way into our patio on a cool morning and was laying eggs on a paper lantern. These moths are some of the largest moths in Africa. This particular specimen had a wingspan of 16 centimeters. Their wings have variable patterns, shapes and colors. The pink caterpillars found in camp recently turn into these beautiful moths.

8874_SaturniidMoth_DKorteI removed the moth to vegetation outside of the patio, but later found it had returned. So I carried it to a nearby tree, where it shivered up to speed before launching into the canopy.



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yet another gorilla

White-crested hornbill calls from forest edge.

White-crested hornbill calls from forest edge, sounding like a squeaky cat’s meow.

It was approaching 5:00 PM when Gil and I emerged from the forest onto a mostly overgrown savanna in the Ivinga corridor, south of Gamba. The trail is used mostly by elephants, monkeys, and the few sitatungas we were hoping to see. The crisp late-afternoon sunlight stung momentarily as my eyes adjusted from searching the shadows of forest for hulks of elephants that might begin moving. Forty meters ahead, a dark shape crossed the trail. I could tell immediately by the smooth, powerful stride that this was a gorilla. Unbelievable. As it crossed the trail into vegetation, sunlight shimmered from the lustrous coat of the large silverback, an adult male of perhaps 150 kilos. I motioned for Gil to come forward, but the gorilla was gone as quickly as it appeared. We sidestepped from the trail to nearby cover and watched the bush before us, now infused with the awe and mystery of a gorilla encounter in the wild. We strained to hear any movement, separating the birdsong from breeze rustling through leaves, the crickets in the bush from what we hoped, with a certain amount of trepidation, were more gorillas coming our way.

A silverback, surprised while feeding along a track near Ivinga Station.

A silverback, surprised while feeding along a track near Ivinga Station.

Usually a silverback is accompanied by a troop of various females and juveniles. In years past, as many as fourteen gorillas have passed camera traps placed in this area. Last week during a similar walk, Gil and I watched a female gorilla high in a tree canopy, building a nest or feeding, and could hear another in the understory as we traversed a nearby savanna. Now we waited for the possibility of family following this male, not yet sure if the silverback had spotted us. Recent tracks of a band of gorillas, including three individuals crossing a savanna in the past day or two, suggested there were more animals in the area.

Brilliant butterfly or moth, resting on a leaf.

Brilliant butterfly or moth, resting on a leaf.

Three or four minutes went by with no movement or sound. A few hornbills sailed overhead, butterflies darted low through the vegetation, and a lone Red-chested cuckoo warbled its three-tone melody “all-is-well” from the forest canopy. Suddenly the bushes began moving from where the silverback disappeared and, incredibly, he reappeared back onto trail. The silverback was now facing us, obviously unaware of our presence. Snapping off new leafy shoots, he was eating fresh greens while searching for the next handful. Barely a few seconds later, he glanced up from his dinner to realize we were watching. Without losing a beat, he melted silently back into vegetation, leaving us to wonder if he had actually departed, or had paused to study us from inside the forest edge.

Black-casqued hornbill sails over a savanna near Gamba.

Black-casqued hornbill sails over a savanna near Gamba.

We waited again, both to give him time to move away from the trail and to listen for any nearby family. After 10 minutes, we cautiously proceeded, murmuring and coughing to announce our location should we walk into an alarmed troop of gorillas.

We arrived at a stream cutting across the track, surprising a large heron-like bird from the thick vegetation crowding the bank. Gil was able to identify the bird as a Tiger heron.

Fresh prints of a silverback gorilla, in loose sand. The hind foot, with protruding large toe, between knuckleprints.

Fresh prints of a silverback gorilla in loose sand. The right hind footprint, with protruding large toe, between knuckleprints.

Darkness arrives in this part of the world shortly after 6:00 PM, sooner when in the forest. With a three-kilometer walk before us, we decided to head back. The gorilla zone was now silent, the only evidence being a large set of prints at the edge of the bush. The dark forest before us was a little daunting as we entered, searching again for any beasts we may need to address. Soon we found ourselves following the fresh prints of a large gorilla. Evidently the silverback had circled us and was now somewhere ahead in the forest. Following a gorilla through the forest at dusk is probably not the wisest of plans, but he was between us and the trailhead at this point, so we began murmuring again to give out our location should he be near. Almost on cue, from somewhere to our right, perhaps thirty meters in, the forest erupted with a thrashing of branches and the barking alarm of a gorilla, apparently not happy with us. We froze in our footsteps, hearts racing, to determine if we were going to meet this gorilla face to face, or if he was moving away. Neither happened, so we decided to continue slowly along the trail, talking softly to assure our gorilla that we were moving off.

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Gabon Portfolio

More than a year in the making, Gabon Portfolio is a compilation of the past four years of life in Gabon. Accompanying 150 pictures, selected parts of this journal are included to provide background, giving shape to the adventure of life where the rainforest meets the sea.                                                                                                                                                     8.5 X 11 inches (22 X 28 cm), 149 pages. CFA: 75,000 (USD: 125.00). Self-published.

pages 6-7

pages 14-15

pages 34-35

pages 38-39

pages 70-71

pages 96-97

pages 118-119

pages 136-137


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crocodile on a limb

A juvenile Slender-snouted crocodile tries to escape notice, remaining motionless as we pass in a pirogue. Perhaps a frog or bird, or fish swimming below might be fooled into thinking he is part of the tree limb. We had more than a minute to make our photographs before he tired of the attention and dived beneath the waters of the Bongo River. The Bongo River forms the western boundary of Moukalaba-Doudou National Park and is one of the major rivers supplying water to N’Dogo Lagoon.

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wedding, wedding, baptism, wedding, soirée…

Waiting in Owendo. The groom’s family and relatives wait to hear that they can arrive at the bride’s family home for the traditional ceremony.

September 11 and 12: Lisa and I were invited to a wedding in Libreville. The groom, Hervé, had been working for Smithsonian at the Rabi Forest Monitoring Plot on the botany team, and would be leaving soon to pursue a Ph.D. at a university in the USA. Cheryl and Hervé planned to marry on Friday afternoon in a traditional Gabonese wedding at the bride’s family residence in Owendo, a port town south of Libreville along the Estuaire du Komo. On Saturday, the civil wedding would take place at Hotel Ville de Libreville, followed by a church wedding in Libreville at Notre Dame des Apôtres. The church wedding would include the baptism of a new family member. Later in the evening, a soirée and dance would take place at Arche de l’Alliance.

Day 1. A traditional wedding  is very theatrical, with lots of waiting, as the bride and her family arrange to receive the groom and his family. We arrived at the carrefour in Owendo at 11am, and waited for an hour to gain permission to arrive outside the bride’s family home, where we waited for another hour for permission to enter through the gates and into the garden surrounding the home. Once seated in the garden, the uncles representing bride and groom began a formal but lively conversation on center stage, to determine the value and extent of the dowry needed to promote the wedding.

The bride arrived partway through the negotiations between bride’s and groom’s uncles, taking a seat on her ceremonial stool facing center stage. She sat quietly among her family until both sides came to agreement on a suitable dowry, not only for the couple, but for related villages and families. It took several hours to accumulate the food and drink, cooking utensils, fabrics, hand tools, and money.

Once the dowry has been accepted, the groom’s family celebrates. The groom is finally allowed to enter into the ceremony, escorted in a lively, dancing procession. The groom eventually takes a seat with the bride’s family and the bride sits with the groom’s family. More celebrating follows, and picture taking, and later everyone sits to share a delicious meal.

Day 2. Following the civil ceremony at Hotel Ville de Libreville, the bridal party assembles on the steps of Notre Dame des Apôtres.

The groom’s mother and aunt take a seat in the front row of the church and wait patiently for the baptism and wedding to begin. The choir is practicing, filling the church with beautiful music. Children are playing outside in the neighborhood, their laughter drifting in through church doors. The bride and groom, newly married in the civil ceremony two hours earlier, now wait in the air-conditioned comfort of their chauffered vehicle until everyone has arrived. I, on the other hand, have been wandering through the church and garden, looking for moments to capture, watching who is arriving, investigating the balcony, appreciating the choir practice, listening to children’s games…

An hour or so after our arrival, servers and priests appear at the church entrance, and the wedding party lines up for a procession down the center aisle to be seated at the front of the church. A baptism, a church wedding, holy communion, another procession to present gifts to the church, and now the third wedding in two days is complete. The wedding procession returns to the steps of the church for pictures and refreshments.

Thinking we had several hours to relax and perhaps take a nap, we were intending to take a taxi to our hotel, but were encouraged to accompany the groom’s mother, by chartered bus filled with joyous singing and clapping, to her home for more celebrating and eating.

Later that evening, the soirée at Arche de l’Alliance, scheduled to begin at 7pm, began filling with guests around 9pm, with dinner served no later than 10:45pm. Cake (complete with mini-fireworks) and champagne followed, with partying and dancing into the early hours of Sunday.



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whales on the open sea

Lisa and myself were heading for Sette Cama by 7:30 on Sunday morning, with Heiko driving, behind the wheel of his Toyota. A rendezvous was organized for a 9:30 departure from Shell Hut on Zuzu, a 2X150HP, 23-foot Gulfstream piloted by Daniel Hooft. Our plan was to maneuver through the N’Dougou breakthrough out into open sea to look for Humpback whales.

Dorsal fin of a Humpback whale breaks the surface. A commercial fishing trawler in the distance.

Generally, these whales arrive and congregate in Gabonese coastal waters, often within 20 kilometers of beach, in June, following the Namibian and Angolan coastline from subantarctic feeding grounds. Humpback whales tend to remain until September, mating and calving in the shallow tropical waters of the continental plateau. When migration resumes, some return south to the Antarctic region, while others continue on to the islands of São Tome, Principe and Bioko. In the late 1990’s, the International Whaling Commission reported the population in the Southern Hemisphere to be around 40,000 to 60,000 individuals. Gianna Minton cites data from 2001-2005 that indicates approximately 8000 whales migrate along the coast of Gabon.

Racing dolphins surface alongside Zuzu.

A whale pokes its head out of water, showing a white-striped chin with beard of barnacles. The bumps on the tip are mostly hair follicles.

By 10:30 we were joined by a few pods of dolphins, some zipping alongside the boat, others coming up from below to leap out front as we rocked and rolled on the swells several kilometers offshore. A trip such as this is not kind to those susceptible to seasickness. On the distant horizon, we could occasionally see a plume of white spray, good indication of a whale breathing at the surface. Several appeared to be within a few kilometers, and we headed in for a closer look. This area of the Atlantic is a wide shelf of mostly sand bottom, varying in depth between 8 and 40 meters. It is full of life. Often enough, we could see a fin suddenly slice above the waves, mostly dolphins, but also others I did not recognize. Such a mystery, what is happening below.

A whale rolls on the surface of the sea some 10 kilometers off the coast of Loango National Park. According to Gianna Minton, in her Report on Gamba Area Marine Surveys, the whales recorded in the survey were most often in waters between 9 and 38 meters depth.

The whales we encountered were in small family groups. The groups would mostly roll in the waves, stretching a flipper skyward before slapping it to sea. Occasionally a head would bob out of the surface, as if having a look at our boat. We saw a few whales further out near the continental shelf leaping above the horizon, resulting in an enormous splash, but this behavior seems to be less common at the end of migration season.

A Humpback whale dives beneath the waves.

Dan lands a carangue with Heiko ready to assist, in the sea before the N’Dougou breakthrough.

We were able to spend perhaps 90 minutes with the whales before returning to lagoon. It was approximately midway between high and low tides. Because it is the end of dry season, water levels in the lagoon are especially low, making the return through the breakthrough an increased risk for hitting sandbars or rocks. We took time for some trolling as we headed back, hooking into a powerful mystery-fish that made a beeline course for Brazil, hardly stopping before breaking the line at reel end. Dan managed to land a modest carangue before we entered the lagoon. A few runs in and out of the lagoon breakthrough for Heiko and myself provided some experience negotiating waves and sandbars. It is hoped that next season we will have an additional vessel, “L’Etoile de la Nyanga”, a 24-foot Boston Whaler, repaired and ready for more whale-watching experiences.

Bottlenose dolphin bids farewell to Zuzu as we re-enter the lagoon.

The generosity of Lucy and Daniel Hooft, who give so unselfishly of their time and resources, make opportunities like this possible. Might we all learn by their example and become better explorers and stewards of this paradise we are privileged to call home.

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scheduled for execution

Reports have been circulating about an elephant being aggressive toward residents in Yenzi. Rumor was, this elephant had a wound to the side of his head. Unfortunately, both accounts may be true, and I got a call to make some pictures of the elephant when he was spotted entering Yenzi Friday afternoon.

The elephant on the left, photographed here in November of 2013, is scheduled to be killed next week, after being critically wounded by what appears to be a gunshot wound to the head.

It so happens, this is an elephant we know and have held in awe and admiration for years here in Gamba. He was featured with his companion in “elephant’s dance”, (http://dkortephoto.com/wordpress/?p=1582) posted back on November 5 of 2013. He was a gentle creature, and tolerant of my approaches to photograph him. Mutual respect.

It was sad and frustrating to see this same elephant now inflicted with a terminal wound. From the pictures, it appears that the wound to his head was likely from a shotgun slug. The hole, blasted into his head, oozes his life and spirit, and probably makes him irritable to say the least. But I didn’t see unprovoked aggression. I was able to follow him through camp for almost an hour, at a respectful distance, and with him aware of my presence. If it is truly a bullet wound, the lead ball lodged in his skull may be his death sentence.

A common sight in the Yenzi community during mangoe season, this elephant will be shot until dead next week.

I learned tonight that he is scheduled for execution beginning next Tuesday, when, presumable he will be shot until he is dead. Euthanized. Then likely he will be cut to pieces and distributed to the local population so they can savor the success of the hunt. Elephants are known to mourn their dead, to stand vigil for days, then later return to move the bones to a meaningful location. He and his family will not be allowed this respectful end to his life.

Another story, perhaps related, perhaps not. A local poacher was killed near Yenzi last week when he was attacked by an elephant.  According to various sources, he had been poaching in the night with two other individuals when, sometime in the early morning, the two companions decided to go home. The poacher continued to hunt in the area of Pointe Dick road, and sometime in the early morning made his final telephone call to plead for help. He had been gored by an elephant. He was found the following day, disembowled and with a tusk-inflicted wound to the heart. A shotgun was found nearby. The local community was saddened by this news. They remembered him as a family man. The local officials added that he was a known elephant “hunter”, and had been “hunting” for years. Family man by day, elephant poacher by night.

I don’t wish a cruel or painful death to any creature, man or beast. But I do believe in karma. How unfortunate, that the elephant will not recover.

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