The gorillas of Dzanga Sangha



Posted on 29 January 2012  | 
There are few places on Earth where one can see lowland gorillas up close. One reason is that it requires at least three years of careful and patient following to get them used to the presence of people. This process is called habituation. Dzanga Sangha Protected Areas in the Central African Republic is such a place. I wanted to understand how the habituation of gorilla groups for tourism contributes to their conservation.

Angelique Todd, the WWF's technical advisor for tourism and primate habituation took me to visit the Makumba group of gorillas, named after the 200 kg dominant male. She has followed the group since 2000. During the first year of contact with people gorillas are shy and occasionally display aggression towards their followers, a team that includes trackers from the BaAka people. Eventually the male relaxes, while the females continue to be wary and keep their distance. During the second year, as the females begin accepting the proximity of people the male becomes nervous again. And after three years of almost daily following, most gorillas accept people as another animal of the forest that is not a threat to them.

The exhilaration of seeing wild gorillas

My first sight of a gorilla in the wild was a dark shadow moving slowly in the thick undergrowth. It was the blackback male Kunga. I felt the adrenalin in my blood as we approached. With clicking voice sounds, the tracker announced our presence to the gorillas, as the young male joined the group of nine. Three were ahead of us, lying lazy on the forest floor in an evident siesta mood. A young gorilla juvenile emerged, walking upright like a little person, then pulling at a liana vine, running a bit, before returning to breast feed from his mother.

We kept a minimum distance of 7 meters from the gorillas as part of a strict protocol to protect them from human infectious diseases. Illness that are minor to humans, like colds, can be deadly to gorillas. It took over an hour before we finally saw Makumba, the silverback. At twice the size of the females, I felt intimidated by this mass of muscles and hair, and at the same time felt the awe for the beauty in his movements and in the shades of white, grey and chestnut brown of his coat. Most impressive, however, as with any close encounter with a great ape, is its look, its gentle way and the inevitable feeling of us sharing with them so much more than we would normally dare to admit.

Gorillas contribute to local livelihoods

The staff time investment into habituation of two gorilla groups in Dzanga Sangha is paying off. About 500 tourists visit the park to see the gorillas every year, and numbers are increasing. The 250 euro fee each person pays is covering about half of the costs of the gorilla project, that includes 60 staff from neighbouring communities. Including their immediate relatives, not less than 300 people benefit directly from their salaries. Todd projects that by 2016 the gorilla project will be financially self-sufficient.

Many protected areas would like to have gorilla tourism. But habituation makes the gorillas extremely vulnerable to hunters who could approach at very close range with ease. A non-negotiable condition is, therefore, to have effective protection from poachers in place. The 42 ecoguards (soon to increase to 60) of Dzanga Sangha keep it a safe for gorillas, thus contributing significantly to the success of the protected area for the benefit of many other species unique to the Congo Basin. I left the gorillas of Makumba´s group convinced that with the right political will and investment, there is hope for the survival of these endangered apes in Central Africa.

-Carlos

Read the next dispatch here: Tracking elephants with the BaAka people

Read the previous dispatch here: A safe haven for elephants and gorillas


A lowland gorilla juvenile investigates its surrounding, tasting leaves and fruits that will slowly replace its milk diet as it grows up.
© WWF / Carlos Drews Enlarge
Adult female Mupambi observes carefully every move of her baby.
© WWF / Carlos Drews Enlarge
Makumba, the silverback, is an icon for lowland gorillas in Dzanga Sangha
© WWF / Carlos Drews Enlarge
Lowland gorillas are vegetarians
© WWF / Carlos Drews Enlarge

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