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 user 2007-03-01 at 10:56:00 am Views: 38
  • #17538

    Saving Gabon’s orphan gorillas
    the moment Gabon, in West Africa, is reliant on oil for its income. But
    with supplies due to run out by 2020, President Omar Bongo is keen to
    turn some of the virgin equatorial forest – full of elephants, chimps,
    gorillas, mandrills, hippos and leopards – into national parks for
    tourists.It is a bit disconcerting to travel as far as Gabon to do an
    interview, only to find that your subject does not much like
    talking.Liz Pearson is director of a pioneering gorilla reintroduction
    project on the Congo border.When she meets me at Franceville Airport,
    she is monosyllabic, albeit with a shy smile. I notice bites and
    scratches on her bare arms. Later she will say that after eight years
    living cloistered with gorillas in the forest, she has “lost the habit
    of small talk”. When I get there the next day, I understand why.That
    evening, in town over a beer, she becomes more talkative. The air
    smells of roasting meat. “It is hard to find a restaurant here that
    does not serve bushmeat,” she says.Next-door is offering crocodile,
    monkey and antelope; it is a clear sign that despite the fact that
    hunting is seriously endangering Gabon’s wildlife, bushmeat remains the
    meal of choice.

    Gorilla reserve
    was the late John Aspinall, the eccentric British millionaire who
    founded two private zoos in Kent, who had the vision for the gorilla
    reserve. “I flew over the site for an hour and was beguiled by its
    beauty,” he said. “I saw no human habitation. I knew it was ideal for a
    sanctuary.”Getting to camp involves a bone-shaking five-hour journey in
    a four-wheel-drive vehicle across savannah to the River Mpassa, where
    we unload supplies into a motorised canoe to chug upstream for three
    hours.Thick vines line the banks; under the water, snout-nosed
    crocodiles lurk; this is a journey reminiscent of The African Queen. An
    hour in, just as it did for Bogart and Hepburn, lightning cracks,
    thunder rumbles and we sit hunched in oilskins as a tropical storm
    beats down.”We are home,” says Liz as we trudge up a muddy track.
    “Home” is a hut with a gas-powered freezer, a satellite phone and
    laptops on which data from her and a team of trackers is logged.As dusk
    falls, the tropical night strikes up its orchestrated concert: the
    piped squeaks of bats, the maracas buzz of cicadas, the soprano whoops
    of bushbabies. It is an astonishingly soothing blanket of primeval

    Establishing an attachment
    started life as bushmeat orphans. One was just a month old and weighed
    as little as a bag of sugar. Another’s mother was caught in a snare,
    her foot left behind. “She had chewed it off,” Liz says. “The baby was
    clinging to the dead body.”Kongo was rescued from a cage and had
    machete scars. She will never forget his cry when he arrived. “It was a
    heart-rendingly hollow call, like he was glad to see the forest again,”
    she says.For rehabilitation to work, establishing an attachment is
    crucial. “Gorillas are very sensitive,” Liz tells me. “If you do not
    develop a bond, they do not eat. The lights go out in their eyes.”A
    second group of gorillas arrived here in 2002 from Aspinall’s Howletts
    Zoo. It is the first time reintroduction has been attempted with
    captivity-born young and although not psychologically harmed like the
    others, these zoo babies presented a different challenge.Reared in
    cages, they were scared when they saw the forest. They did not like its
    sounds; they panicked at the sight of a beetle. And there was worse to
    come.Snakes, leopards and on one occasion, Liz and her youngsters
    stumbled on an elephant which trumpeted and charged. The gorillas leapt
    onto her, clinging out of fear, so she could not move. Slowly Liz
    backed away. Afterwards, she examined the tracks and realised there had
    been an elephant calf too. That is why the mother was so aggressive.
    She was being protective, just as Liz was.

    ‘Speaking’ their language
    young gorillas are self-sufficient now but while they may have flown
    the nest they cannot contain their joy when they see Liz in the forest.
    The older ones want her to play and show it by biting and scratching.
    She is less thick-skinned so play hurts. The youngest climb on her
    lap.Gorillas thump their chests and cough to show they are unhappy. Liz
    uses imitative sounds to communicate with them. She knows all the
    noises, she says. But she never wants to “say” too much in case she is
    speaking the wrong words.She uses body language instead. “If I sit
    hunched up,” she says, “they will not approach me but if I am open,
    they do.”What does the future hold for these gorillas? The
    international primatologists following the project are hoping they will
    mate and form new family units.”It is a bit of a Lord of the Flies
    experiment,” Liz admits. “These gorillas have grown up without adult
    gorilla parenting. There is the possibility they will see each other as
    just brothers and sisters and not as mating partners.”But at least now
    the gorillas are living independently in their new habitat. “They are
    going through the adolescent phase,” Liz says. “They have sugar rushes
    from overdosing on fruit – they are a real handful.”