Western Lowland Gorillas (CAR)

Posted by on Jul 4, 2013 in News, Trip Diary

Adult female, Western lowland-gorilla, CAR

Western lowland gorilla tracking in the CAR offers unique, and exclusive, gorilla encounters. Lisa Marsden of XA African Safaris shares her recent experience.

The air is dank; the Arrivals hall claustrophobic. We’re jostling for position at the front of the passport queue. The swell of people push forward and I’m finally standing in front of a small wooden counter smiling at a stern-looking face adorned with military-style cap and forlorn yellow tie. No smiles. My passport is examined until, finally, my authentic entry visa is located. To my relief, I hear the clank of the stamp and, in my broken French say “Merci” before pushing forward and out into the fresh African air.

Welcome to the Central African Republic!

The Central African Republic (CAR) lies in the heart of Africa and the Congo Basin rainforests. This area is the last stronghold of our closest relatives, where four of the world’s six great ape species live. Relatively unknown to most tourists, the CAR is home to some of the most amazing wildlife on earth. Located in the extreme southwest of the country is a unique wildlife area called the Dzanga-Sangha Forest Reserve – a magnificent swath of emerald green tropical forest, and part of the Tri-National UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is where I’m headed.

Even with a forest full of unique wildlife, tourism in the CAR is still very undeveloped, and it takes an ardent traveller some time, and good planning, to get to the Dzanga-Sangha; distances are vast and road access is very limited, with a long and hard 12–18 hours from Bangui, and 2–3 days from Cameroon. I’ve joined six like-minded visitors as we take to the skies in our Cessna Grand Caravan, the quickest and safest means of reaching our destination.

The flight from Bangui, the capital, to Bayanga, the small village on the edge of reserve, is one hour.  No sooner do we take to the skies than the vast expanse of greenery begins. And it’s fantastic! Instantly, I’m hooked, and I know deep in my heart that the effort to reach this lesser known, very poor country, is going to be well worth it.

So what, you might ask, am I doing in such an off-the-beaten-track place? Apart from the chance to see a variety of rare and unique forest-dwelling wildlife and people – forest elephant and buffalo, Bongo antelope, giant forest hog, primates, chimpanzees, a plethora of colourful and rare birds, and the local Ba’Aka pygmies – it’s my once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience, first-hand, a family of habituated western lowland gorillas; a chance to get a glimpse into their way of life and compare the overall tracking experience between the western lowland gorillas and their cousins, the magical mountain gorillas.

Our 4WD bounces along the tree-lined road towards Sangha Lodge, our base for the next six nights. Perched on the banks of the mighty Sanga River, the lodge offers modest accommodation in the form of six wood and reed bungalows complete with twin beds, a small sitting area, en-suite shower and toilet facilities (water is fire-heated and only available at certain times of the day), mosquito nets and bottled water for drinking. There is also a twin unit that can accommodate an extra four people, with a shared bathroom. Each bungalow offers beautiful views of the river and surrounding rain forest. A short walk from the bungalows lies the central dining area with a well-stocked bar and outdoor viewing deck. Most meals (unless held while out in the forest) and sundowners are held here too. This is also where all equipment is charged.  

Our gorilla tracking day has arrived. After an early breakfast, I check my camera equipment and tracking kit, and we head off for the 20 minute drive to the WWF Park headquarters where we collect our guide and translator. Thereafter, we split into two groups and depart in different directions, in search of our gorilla groups.

Soon I am face to face with my first western lowland gorilla. Makumba, the magnificent silverback, is just meters away. As with all gorillas, he’s going about his day selectively choosing his food. Western lowland gorillas spend much time foraging inside the forest, just like mountain gorillas. A highlight is feeding in the ‘Bai’ areas (marshy depressions found in forest clearings) – a unique feature of the area. Apart from being really beautiful, a ‘Bai’ contains many nutrients and essential minerals upon which a lot of the forest animals depend. As my first hour came to an end, the gorillas came down into the open area of the ‘Bai’ (something I am told happens only, maybe, twice a month). Lady Luck was definitely on my side as I had booked a second hour with these amazing animals. Perched on a branch with the Makumba gorilla family all around me, I pinched myself as, once again, I realised how incredibly lucky I was. My lowland gorilla encounter ranks in my top three gorilla encounters of all time.

Read more about Lisa’s western lowland gorilla experience in the Central African Republic in XA African Safaris’ February Newsletter …

XA News – Feb 2013

 

 

The practical aspects of lowland gorilla tracking

 

Today, thanks to the presence of the WWF in the region, gorilla tracking has grown. Tourism to the Dzanga-Sanga Forest Reserve focuses on gorilla tracking at two locations around the reserve – Bai Hokou and Mongambe.

Bai Hokou, which is closer to the park headquarters, is home to the 9-strong Makumba gorilla group. Located in the more remote Mongambe region of the forest, a minimum two-hour drive from the park headquarters, is the second, 13-strong Maylele group.

Compare these two habituated western lowland gorilla groups in the CAR with the eleven habituated mountain gorilla groups in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda, and the ten in Rwanda Volcanos National Park, and you can see why the western lowland gorilla experience in the CAR is a far more exclusive, and personal, encounter.

Permits

Another notable difference between the two gorilla experiences is the number of permits available. In the CAR, there’s a maximum of three permits per viewing, for each of the two locations, per day (three people for the first hour followed by three people for a second hour – a total of six permits per gorilla group, per location, per day). One is able to double up on one’s viewing time, which means you can ‘buy’ a consecutive hour, giving you a total of two hours’ viewing (first permit €350, second permit €220).

Uganda and Rwanda, on the other hand, offer eight permits per gorilla group, per day, with a maximum viewing time of one hour.

Terrain

The habitat in which the Dzanga-Sangha gorillas live is similar to that of Kibale Forest National Park in Uganda. The forest is very hot and humid and one may have to cross over small waterways and swamps, but paths are relatively flat and well made, and vegetation is less dense – overall, a much easier tracking experience than in Uganda or Rwanda, where the terrain is steeper and the altitude much higher, making for a more challenging hike and where a good level of fitness is required.

Appearance

Western lowland gorillas live in warmer, lower altitudes than their cousins, the mountain gorillas, and therefore have much shorter coats than their mountain counterparts. The tops of their foreheads are more pronounced and covered by a short, reddish hair. Their faces are more rounded with eyes seemingly deeper-set. It’s the mountain gorillas that retain my heart, however, with their much softer, cuter faces.

Tracking kit

As with all gorilla tracking, it’s best to keep it comfy, layered and light, as you will end up peeling off the layers during the hike. The Dzanga forest is hot and humid and should you exit into a Bai, you will feel the beating rays of the hot African sun. Neutral shades or forest hues for clothing, are best – gorillas generally don’t like bright colours, especially white.

Important items for this type of terrain and vegetation include a pair of Treves sandals or river shoes, as much of the walking is done through small streams and muddy Bai’s, and a small hand towel or quick-dry towel to dry your feet before putting your boots back on. Gaiters, gloves, and a long-sleeved shirt are not needed; much of the hiking is done inside the forest which is shady and covered, with few thorn bushes or stinging nettles.

For more information about western lowland gorillas, visit the Western Lowland Gorilla Tracking Safaris page on this site.

 

 

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