Re: Back from Gabon
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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
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!
- Am considering the marketing of "gorilla treks" to Gabon. See:
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.
- Interesting article in the NYT about how "eco-mercenaries" are
helping to stop poaching of bush meat in Cambodia and elsewhere.
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
- E-mail received today from head of primate project at La Lope in
"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."