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Western Lowland Gorillas in Gabon

“Mind the ants” our guide shouted before we sped up, raising our legs as if entering a dressage competition. Then the stamping started and we pulled up our trouser legs to expose the menaces that had evaded our antics. There’s nothing like a tropical forest to test your resilience and feed your senses with sounds, smells and extraordinarily beautiful sights.

This extraordinary bridal veil stinkhorn attracts flies to its rotting meat smell on the forest floor. © Dave Currey 2023

Gary and I were in Gabon, western Central Africa, trekking in the Loango National Park to observe and photograph a habituated group of western lowland gorillas. Our guides, local villagers with their traditional knowledge and forest skills, and scientists from the Loango Gorilla Project. They led us on elephant paths to the area where a forward team of trackers had located the family of eight gorillas known as the Atananga group. Led by Kamaya, the silverback, this group has been studied since 2009.

The eight members of the Atananga Group with Kamaya behind the tree on the left. © Dave Currey 2023

Western lowland gorillas are a different species to mountain gorillas which have provided ecotourism and funds for conservation to the mountains of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Although they are more abundant than the mountain gorillas, they are widely distributed and critically endangered.

The first sight of the gorillas was breath-taking. Seeing them getting on with their day – feeding, sleeping, and playing – without any fear of our presence only increased that sense of privilege as the days went on. One morning they had climbed up trees because it had rained the night before and they needed their rest. Another day they were communicating with a group of gorillas nearby.

Chilling in the branches © Dave Currey 2023

On our final (6th) day they raced off, chased by forest elephants. We were told to carefully back away because elephants are seen as a major threat. When we found the group later, they had climbed trees for safety but were ready to come down to feed and play again, allowing us to quietly follow.

It's safer up a tree for suckling © Dave Currey 2023

Kamaya’s name means “the voice” in the local language (Babongo). He makes a softer sound than many silverbacks. I got the impression he knew where everyone was at all times, often leaning against a tree trunk with his eyes checking us out before closing them altogether. After a while he would decide to move on, and the group followed. It was all very chilled. When he decided the group should get off the ground he climbed a tree with the ease of an athlete. On one occasion his 200 kg body slid down a tree trunk like a fireman down a pole.

Kamaya keeping an eye on his group photographed through the dense foliage © Dave Currey 2023

The extra excitement was provided by the two babies of the group aged about one and two. When not with their mothers they played with each other and some of the sub adults climbing, chasing, rolling together and causing mischief. Some of the sub adults practiced a bit of chest beating.

Chest beating while resting! © Dave Currey 2023

Photography was difficult due to the lack of light. The gorillas’ black fur poorly lit in the dense forest was challenging, but over the days the light would occasionally break through, and we were better able to anticipate their actions. They were feeding in areas of fairly dense vegetation which provides some interesting shots through the foliage. The heat, sweat, holding your breath, cameras misting up and mosquitos all conspired to push us to our limits, but somehow the gorillas kept our spirits so high we came away very happy with our efforts.

Sunlight filters through the forest cover © Dave Currey 2023

On half our days with the gorillas Gary and I were the only tourists, the maximum number allowed being four. This was a deeply private trip with memories and photos that will be with us forever.

Our trip was arranged by SeeWildtravels and we stayed at the Ndola Lodge in the park and its two satellite camps at Louri River and Akaka. Magic!


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