Monday, 18 August 2014

A Visit to Gorillas in the Congo

One of my earliest memories is of the first non-domestic animal I saw—a gorilla, ’Alfred’ at Bristol Zoo in summer 1946. The snapshot in my brain has the zoo entrance to the left and Alfred’s cage in front of me. My great (grand in genealogical terminology) uncle and aunt and my grandparents are to my left and my parent are to my right. Alfred is dragging a piece of sacking from left to right.

Alfred was an animal celebrity and a source of great pride in Bristol where he lived from 1930 until he died in 1948.

Another gorilla but this time a dead one also made a strong impression on a little boy.‘George’ (I cannot remember his ever been called this in the 1950s) was in the natural history museum at Wollaton Hall. Mounted impressively, upright, hanging on a tree, with his teeth bared and reproductive organs in full view (small remember in the gorilla) he towered above the visitors and this small boy can remember being more than a little scared every time I was taken to see him (probably two or three times a year). George is still there but Wollaton Hall as a natural history museum is a shadow of its former self and confirms my belief that museum display professionals must learn to leave things alone. This gorilla, I read now, was bought by Nottingham Corporation from the 1878 Paris Exposition held to mark the recovery of France from the Franco-Prussian War.

The next time I saw Alfred he was stuffed and on display in the Bristol’s museum, still the cause of great civic pride as recounted by Hannah Paddon in Sam Alberti’s The Afterlives of Animals. That was in 1957. Bristol Zoo went on to have other gorillas in the 1950s and I took photographs of the new accommodation when I went to my last visit to Bristol Zoo in 1963.

Bristol Zoo Gorilla House, 1963

As I wrote in my post of 16 June, the privilege of being able to visit groups of Western Lowland Gorillas and observe the other mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians in the Congo Basin is an experience of a lifetime. In the middle of May we were with a group of ten clients of Naturetrek in the camps in the Republic of Congo run by Wilderness Safaris, Ngaga and Lango, 340 miles from Brazzaville, both in or adjacent to the Odzala-Kokoua National Park.

At Ngaga we divided into parties of two or four and visited two groups of gorillas, each headed by a silverback, ‘Jupiter’ and ‘Neptune’. These gorillas were habituated by Dr Magda Bermejo and her colleagues. Because of the effects of outbreaks of ebola on the population, the IUCN classification of the Western Lowland Gorilla is 'critically endangered’.

Filming was difficult through the thick vegetation. The camera was often at arms length and liable to shake. However, the footage below also shows the dense Marantaceae foliage, a major source of food for the gorillas, the environment in which they live and the sweat bees they have to put up with. What the video does not show is a female gorilla moving behind us and coming closer to see what we were about. She had a good look from a few yards away and then moved on to join the rest of the group as they climbed into the tops of the trees.

I shall never forget the sight of Neptune climbing the tree with consummate ease—and even striking the pose of the long-dead George. But the large tooth display was the result of a languid yawn as he paused before climbing even higher.

There is no greater privilege in the world than seeing a group of lowland gorillas in the wild in the Congo—sixty-eight years after seeing that unfortunate but great ambassador for gorillas, Alfred.