By David Bristow
Flying over the mist-shrouded green expanse of the Congo Basin just over a week ago seems like a dream, or another life. Descending towards the dense textured forest of Odzala-Kokoua National Park (where gorillas hide), I experienced the kind of travel jitters I haven’t felt for decades, like when I saw the mighty Himalayas, and the Antarctic for the first time.
I have seen hundreds of wild places in Africa and a million photos of the African savanna, but the “jungle” is so much more mysterious. Wilderness Safaris’ Ngaga Forest and Lango Bai camps: they’re not easy to get to, and you have to work for your pudding, so to say. This is a place where you have to walk to find out what the jungle shelters: gorillas and monkeys, forest elephants and buffaloes, giant forest hogs and red river hogs, bongos, pottos and anomalures, bushbuck, duikers and mouse deer.
You won’t see them much any place else. The western lowland gorillas are the undoubted stars of the show here. The species numbers around 100,000 and Odzala has the highest density. This is the only place where there are habituated troops – 15 years of tireless work by the local researchers and their trackers – where sightings are virtually guaranteed. Even if it means traipsing for several hours through the humid, tangled forest as your guides cut the trail.
That is why “old Africa hands” photographers Roger and Pat de la Harpe and I chose Odzala as one of our 21 icons. This is where ecotourism should look for new frontiers, and for where they can make the biggest contribution to conservation on the continent. We pretty much all know that rainforests are the biodiversity epicentres of the planet, and nowhere has it been more practical to delve right in on ground level and enjoy the most exciting safari of your life. It’s like another, secret world down there on the ground.
As for ebola, so long as you are careful about sharing body fluids with locals and don’t go eating any gorillas, you’ll be just fine. Rather worry about the biting flies. (Best tip: soak or spray your clothes with an antiseptic such as Dettol. It keeps them away better than Deet or similar insect repellent sprays).
10 facts about Odzala
1. Odzala-Kokoua National Park and the surrounding buffer zone are managed by African Parks , a privately funded conservation organisation that rescues abandoned national parks on the continent.
2. The forest people of Mboko village were removed, voluntarily, in 2000 to the new Ombo village in order to expand the Odzala-Kokoua National Park.
3. The people of Ombo agreed to cease hunting primates, forest elephants and buffaloes in order to create a conservation buffer zone to the park.
4. Their best hunters are now trackers who have helped habituate three troops of western lowland gorillas.
5. The habituated troops at Odzala are the only habituated western lowland gorillas.
6. Western lowland gorillas number around 100,000 individuals, the largest population of the four species (Cross River, western lowland, eastern lowland, and mountain).
7. Ngaga and Lango Wilderness Camps employ local people so they are no longer dependent on hunting bushmeat.
8. Troops of western lowland gorillas are ruled by one silverback, but the females of each troop select the one they want.
9. Gorillas are especially susceptible to ebola, and its spread is attributed largely to forest people taking dead gorillas for bushmeat.
10. The Odzala area has the highest density of western lowland gorillas, about 22,000. However, the species is listed as critically endangered: around 20 years ago the number was estimated at 42,000.