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Re: Back from Gabon

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  • bobutne
    See photo section (first box) for some new photos of my June 3-17, 2002 trip to Gabon. It was interesting to learn that two Peace Corps Volunteers and local
    Message 1 of 9 , Jun 19, 2002
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      See photo section (first box) for some new photos of my June 3-17,
      2002 trip to Gabon.

      It was interesting to learn that two Peace Corps Volunteers and local
      labor built in 18 months (Feb 2000-September 2001) the Mikongo road
      (2 km) and 8 houses in Mikongo for tourists and researches wanting to
      view gorillas in La Lope Reserve, Gabon.

      I stayed in Mikongo (staffed and run by Ecocfac, an ECC financed-
      Central African environmental entity) 2 nights and in La Lope 2
      nights on my recent trip. My primary objective in visiting La Lope
      and Mikongo was to view gorillas. If successful, I believed I could
      begin marketing tours to Gabon to those wanting to view lowland
      gorillas in the wild.

      The trouble was that this was not the season to see gorillas in
      Gabon. No one at Mikongo had seen a gorilla in La Lope since January
      since gorillas avoided the trails and only came near during the time
      when the trees bore fruit (September-January).

      On June 11, two trackers from the Mekombo area (where the best
      trackers were located) and I began our quest to find gorillas. We
      started at 6:30 AM and found some fresh signs of gorilla in the early
      afternoon. We pushed through heavy bush for another hour and then one
      of the trackers pointed up to the top of a tall tree. Near the top,
      eating the leaves, was a huge female gorilla, beautifully clad in
      black and grey fur. As I pulled out my camera, she saw me and let out
      the most blood-curling cry I've ever heard and, like a fireman,
      encircled the tree with her paws and quickly slid over 40 meters to
      the earth, screaming for her perceived life all the way. About half
      way down, another cry erupted not 20 meters to our right. It was her
      mate who blasted the most ferocious roar I've ever heard to protect
      his love. Ten seconds I will never forget.

      Maybe I will return to Gabon with tourists and maybe not. It's
      difficult to forsee whether tourism will help protect Gabon's
      remaining 30,000 to 40,000 gorillas or just will make life more
      difficult for these magnificent creations. Few in Gabon
      appear to care about the fate of the gorilla other than poachers and
      hunters who regularly capture them for sale or kill them for their
      meat and a few European and Canadian researches who are committed to
      their survival. The Gabonese government/populace will determine the
      outcome.
    • bobutne
      There are virtually no tourists to Gabon other than the scattered fishing or hunting party. Ecotourism, however, may be just what Gabon needs to help fund
      Message 2 of 9 , Jun 21, 2002
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        There are virtually no tourists to Gabon other than the scattered
        fishing or hunting party.

        Ecotourism, however, may be just what Gabon needs to help fund
        environmental protection, to stimulate the incomes of locals and to
        encourage cultural exchanges. For example, Ecuador earns more than
        $100 million a year from 60,000 visitors to the Galapagos and Kenya
        as much income from its safari holidays with the vast majority of the
        money going to protect their national reserves and to supplement the
        incomes of the locals.

        Nowhere does there exist more gorillas and forest elephants than in
        Gabon. The problem is that gorillas, especially, are extreemly
        difficult to view since their very survival has depended upon
        avoiding human contact. Habituating Gabon's lowland gorillas remains
        a daunting task. If the crew at Mikongo succeeds, the gates will open
        to the ecotourist markets.
      • bobutne
        Not much change in the bush areas from 1964 (when I was served in the Peace Corps in Gabon). Some TVs now exist and cell phones are expanding their reach
        Message 3 of 9 , Jun 23, 2002
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          Not much change in the bush areas from 1964 (when I was served in the
          Peace Corps in Gabon). Some TVs now exist and cell phones are
          expanding their reach throughout the country.

          Interesting that when a cellular tower is contructed in the bush, the
          contractor first meets with the local police and tells them the
          amount of manpower needed and then pays the police for the work. The
          police then are responsible for obtaining and paying the labor (less
          their fee). Skilled tower-construction labor is brought in from South
          Africa and brought from site to site.

          Cellphone rates are very expensive but cell phones relatively cheap.
          Buy a cell phone and go to the local operator to purchase a card for
          the amount of time you want.

          Get off the beaten track and it's like hundreds of years ago. No
          electricity, thatch huts and women doing all the work. Bwiti and
          other witchcraft is as strong as ever.

          Cheapest things in Gabon are Marlboros and pharmaceutical drugs (no
          prescriptions needed). Bottled French water is expensive.

          About the only vehicles observed in the roads cutting through the
          bush are the huge trucks cartering off Okume. In a two hours stretch
          on the La Lope to Mikongo road, I saw seven trucks hauling Okume. One
          wonders where the money goes when the Okume leaves. None appears to
          be going back to the locals in the regions from where the Okume was
          extracted, other than the wages for the timber cutters and drivers.

          The roads are as bad as ever with the exception of a paved stretch
          from Libreville to Lambarene. After 30 ks, I had to turn around on my
          quest to reach Fougamou from Lambarene in my rented 2-wheel drive
          Renault because of the poor road. Interesting that the hairdresser of
          the wife of President Bongo could afford a half million dollar villa
          in Coca Beach while the country can't afford a decent road to connect
          its southern portion with the capital.
        • bobutne
          While at the Oogue Palace in Lambarene, I ran into two PC staff and learned that 45 new PCVs would be joining the 44 PCVs now in Gabon. The two were very
          Message 4 of 9 , Jun 23, 2002
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            While at the Oogue Palace in Lambarene, I ran into two PC staff
            and learned that 45 new PCVs would be joining the 44 PCVs now
            in Gabon. The two were very interested to learn of what transpired in
            Gabon I as I was in the work being done by the current PCVs.

            Also, while in Kango, I met with the mayor (Directeur), Nzamba
            Vrbain, who showed me where our original school was built and since
            replaced by two newer primary schools. The mayor told me that he
            wanted the PC to help him with the villages in his area since, "I
            have many serious problems in the villages." Maybe someone in the PC
            can call him at 57.56.89.

            Advice to new PCVs: There are some bad dudes running around
            Libreville that should be avoided like the plague. Most are Nigerian
            thugs/punks looking for easy scores. On the other hand, 99.9% of the
            Gabonese are very happy you are coming and will treat you as family.
            The French can be cool but usually warm up after a Pastis or two.
            Don't forget to take your Larium but expect vivid dreams and possibly
            other side effects. The alternative is a sure case of malaria. Keep
            an open mind and heart. Your 25 months in Gabon will be the most
            remarkable experience of your lives.
          • solarchef
            Bob, I can find Mikongo on the map. What part of the country is it? I will need to find my map of Gabon but right now it is misplaced. Enjoying your travel
            Message 5 of 9 , Jun 24, 2002
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              Bob, I can find Mikongo on the map. What part of the country is it?
              I will need to find my map of Gabon but right now it is misplaced.
              Enjoying your travel commentary and the photos. Merci, Michael
            • bobutne
              Michael, The Mikongo Primate Conservation Center is located within Reserve de la Lope. It s about a two-hour drive from the La Lope Hotel and train station.
              Message 6 of 9 , Jun 24, 2002
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                Michael,

                The Mikongo Primate Conservation Center is located within Reserve de
                la Lope. It's about a two-hour drive from the La Lope Hotel and train
                station.

                Two PCVs were responsible for building the Center. They left shortly
                after 9/11, about six months prior to the end of their tour of
                service. They did a remarkable/admirable job in building the road to
                the Center and included both solar electricity and plumbing in the
                structures. Wish they had added a few hooks on my room's wall to hang
                my clothes after their soaking in the deep bush and streams!

                Bob
              • bobutne
                Am considering the marketing of gorilla treks to Gabon. See: http://ewatravel.com/gorillatrek.htm The dilemma is that western lowland gorillas (and elephants
                Message 7 of 9 , Jul 27, 2002
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                  Am considering the marketing of "gorilla treks" to Gabon. See:
                  http://ewatravel.com/gorillatrek.htm

                  The dilemma is that western lowland gorillas (and elephants and
                  chimps) in the wild and humans have never mixed. To these creatures,
                  humans mean death.

                  Habituating lowland gorillas to humans has proven unsuccessful in all
                  but a few cases. Many gorilla experts say that it's best just to
                  concentrate resources on preventing poaching versus attempting to
                  habituate and to sponsor ecotourism to view gorillas in the wild.
                  What do you think? Also, how much would you pay for a nine-day tour
                  such as presented in the above link? I'm trying to keep the price in
                  the below $3,000 range, including airfare from the US.
                • bobutne
                  Interesting article in the NYT about how eco-mercenaries are helping to stop poaching of bush meat in Cambodia and elsewhere.
                  Message 8 of 9 , Aug 10, 2002
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                    Interesting article in the NYT about how "eco-mercenaries" are
                    helping to stop poaching of bush meat in Cambodia and elsewhere.

                    http://www.nytimes.com/2002/08/04/magazine/04ECOMERCENARIES.html

                    Key is to interdict the entire food chain including paid spies in the
                    villages, monitoring restaurants and hiring locals to ferret out the
                    poachers in the bush.

                    In Gabon, the gorillas and other primates and the elephants have been
                    fortunate in that many villages in the deep bush have been abandoned
                    with the villagers moving to larger villages around the major urban
                    areas. This also includes the pygmies who were the best hunters of
                    the primates and elephants.

                    However, taking up the human vacuum is an influx of foreign intruders
                    from Cameroon and other neighboring states of Gabon. They are not in
                    Gabon to find food for their families but to kill game and capture
                    young primates to make a living.

                    That is where ecotourism comes in starting in Lope Reserve. Gabon
                    soon will designate Lope as the first National Park in Gabon. I am in
                    contact with the primary outside advisor to the new park, Dr. Blom of
                    ECOFAC and of Dutch decent. He has a daunting task to convince the
                    Government to devote the necessary resources to keep the poachers out
                    of the new park. If the park proves a success with tourists bringing
                    in millions of dollar of revenue, other national parks could be
                    opened throughout Gabon, where the famed conservationist, Micharl
                    Fay, labeled "the last wild place on earth".

                    No one knows whether 1.5 million Gabonese can co-exist for the next
                    few decades or longer with 40,000 gorillas and 50,000 elephants. A
                    successful ecotourism program may be the best solution for all but
                    the poachers.
                  • bobutne
                    E-mail received today from head of primate project at La Lope in Gabon: I share you concern about the impact of poaching and the bush meat trade on gorillas
                    Message 9 of 9 , Aug 13, 2002
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                      E-mail received today from head of primate project at La Lope in
                      Gabon:

                      "I share you concern about the impact of poaching and the bush meat
                      trade on gorillas and other wildlife. This is indeed the biggest
                      conservation challenge in this part of Africa. It seems that the
                      Governments of the region are waking up to these realities and some
                      encouraging policy changes have been announced. For example the
                      President of Gabon has announced the creation of 12 national parks
                      and an office of National Parks. The decrees are expected this week.

                      Of course we need to implement these policy changes. As little
                      resources are available at present, our focus will be on capacity
                      building and finding the finances to make it happen.
                      The biggest challenge will be to assure long term funding of anti-
                      poaching operations. We hope to create trust funds to achieve this."
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