Stanley Johnson with his wife, Jenny (Photo by Roy Riley) Stanley Johnson with his wife, Jenny (Photo by Roy Riley)
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Gorilla-watching in the Congo

By Stanley Johnson. Published in the Financial Times, 16th May 2009

In Mbeli Bai, a 37-acre (15-hectare) clearing in the heart of the Republic of Congo’s equatorial rainforest, the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (which runs the Bronx and Central Park zoos) has been studying the life and habits of some 135 western lowland gorillas who visit the bai, or marshy clearing.

For the past 15 years, for up to 10 hours a day, WCS scientists have been watching and recording what happens on this expanse of green swampy vegetation. They know every gorilla by sight and by name. The insights they have gained into the behaviour and social structure of these amazing animals are path-breaking in scientific terms.

As Thomas Breuer, the German scientist leading the WCS team at Mbeli, told me over a beer in camp one evening: “The bai, as you will have seen, has large deep pools of water among the swampy ground. One day I saw a female gorilla leave her baby behind at the edge of the pool while she went off to look for a stick to test the depth of water.” Breuer’s was the first-ever report of tool use by wild gorillas.

What’s truly special here is that the scientists open up their mirador – the observation deck at the edge of the bai – to visitors, and share their knowledge of the gorillas with those who come here.

I do not wish to diminish the thrill of trekking gorillas in Rwanda or Uganda or even in the eastern Congo (Democratic Republic of Congo). But the special excitement of watching gorillas in Mbeli Bai in Congo Brazzaville is that these animals are unaware of observers. They are not “habituated”, used to the close presence of tourists or researchers. At Mbeli Bai you are looking at one of the world’s most extraordinary animals without any distorting filter.

The other reason I found gorilla-watching at Mbeli Bai – in the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park – so satisfying was that there was no sense of the pressure of time. Most organised gorilla-trekking gives you an hour with the gorillas (if you are lucky enough to find them) and when that hour is up, you head back to camp. At Mbeli Bai, you have all day. At 8am on our first morning, we climbed up the steps of the mirador to find a group of gorillas already there. “That’s Khan’s group,” Breuer told us before disappearing to his look-out station on the roof.

I looked Khan up in the handy catalogue. “Khan is an extremely large-bodied silverback with an enormous crest and monstrous neck muscle. Khan has tiny eyes, pointed ears and a large scar on the left part of his upper lip. His nostrils are large and pointed. Date of birth unknown.”

As I watched the mighty animal, seated on his haunches less than 200 yards away, I reflected that the WCS catalogue entry was apt. If ever there was an example of raw, concentrated power, this was it.

There were 10 gorillas in the bai that first morning. Besides the great silverback, there were three adult females, two with infants, and a smattering of immatures and juveniles. Khan’s group did not return during the rest of our time at Mbeli Bai. But on each of the three subsequent days, we saw a different group of gorillas, each with its own silverback leader. We saw almost 50 gorillas over four days.

Mbeli Bai is remote. From Brazzaville, the capital, there is an hour’s flight to Ouesso, followed by a five-hour ride in a motorised pirogue (dug-out canoe) to WCS headquarters at Bomassa. We were still on the river, with an hour of daylight left, when it began to rain. It rained harder and longer than I would have believed possible. When we finally disembarked, stiff and tired and soaked to the skin, we found that all the spare clothes we had were wringing wet – and didn’t dry out for days.

In camp, our guide told us that “this is no country for sissies”. The insects are also a problem. Each morning before we set off through the forest to the bai, he would intone: “Let us spray!” On the return journey, we found that our plane to Brazzaville had been cancelled and we were 24 hours late returning to the capital, so I missed my flight back to England.

But these are just the hazards of travelling in the Congo Basin. The great rainforests of central and western Africa contain one of the richest stores of biodiversity on earth, not least in the form of the western lowland gorilla which, in spite of the ravages of the Ebola virus, poachers and loggers, still exists in substantial numbers (possibly in the tens of thousands) in these regions. If ever there was a journey where the rewards far more than outweigh the hardships, the trip to Mbeli Bai is it.

Stanley Johnson’s memoir, ‘Stanley I Presume?’, is published by Fourth Estate (£18.99)

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