Saving the Gorillas—and Launching a Nation's Tourism Economy

One Spanish primatologist dedicates her life to working with apes in the Republic of the Congo.
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A critically endangered western lowland gorilla outside Wilderness Safaris' Odzala Ngaga Camp, in the Ndzehi Concession of the Republic of Congo, at the epicenter of the 2002-03 Ebola epidemic. (James Sturz)

In November 2002, gorilla trackers outside the village of Mbomo, in the Republic of the Congo, came upon a group of apes that were stressed. One of the trackers described the females as crying. Then the men began finding carcasses in the forest: heaps of matted hair and liquefied organs oozing blood. In a period of four months, 130 of the 143 gorillas the trackers were following died. Later that same year, another 91 of 95 gorillas they were studying were gone.

Few words cause a greater chill in any language than "Ebola," the hemorrhagic fever and lethal virus first detected in equatorial Africa in 1976. Most initial human cases come from contact with infected animals, including consuming them as bush meat--often the most-accessible source of protein in places where there aren't cattle.

To see the gorillas is to feel like a small child hiding behind a door while the adults talk and vainly trying to understand.

This is likely what occurred in Mbomo, where 178 villagers were diagnosed with Ebola during that same year. The cascading symptoms include acute fever, diarrhea, nausea, liver failure, and bleeding from every orifice. Incubation takes days. There is no cure. In Mbomo, the mortality rate surpassed 87 percent. But those numbers don't include the villagers who were executed with machetes for ostensibly practicing sorcery, which some in Mbomo believed the virus indicated. Or the reported scores of local hunters who disappeared into the forest, never to return. Or the additional cases of Ebola just 23 miles away, in neighboring Gabon, where another 43 villagers died.

Magda Bermejo was a Spanish primatologist working in the forests around Mbomo at that time. In 1994, she'd come to this swath of central Africa, where 80 percent of the world's gorillas and chimpanzees are believed to live. This is where she'd seen her first gorilla in the wild, and in 1998 she became the first person to "habituate" western lowland gorillas to human presence, the crucial and grueling precursor to studying them. The process takes three years and requires locating groups and visiting them every day--often over an area of a dozen square miles or more. It also requires cutting and maintaining paths in the thick rainforest so you can reach the apes at all.

What Jane Goodall was to chimpanzees in Tanzania and Dian Fossey to mountain gorillas in Rwanda, Magda Bermejo soon became to central Africa's western lowland gorillas. Some 2 million years ago, gorillas cleaved into two separate species, eastern and western. The eastern ones became the largest and include the mountain gorillas commonly visited in Rwanda and Uganda, while the western ones became more numerous, thanks to a larger habitat, and more muscular, agiler, and more active. Now Bermejo was in a position to watch them die.

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An estimated 5,500 western lowland gorillas succumbed during the Ebola outbreak in little more than a year, a staggering number that prompted their reclassification by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as "Critically Endangered." "Extinct in the Wild" is what follows next.

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A sign along the nine-mile road from Mbomo to Wilderness Safaris' Odzala Ngaga Camp (James Sturz)

It's not hard to imagine how Bermejo might have packed her bags at this point and caught the next flight home. "Even while people were dying," she remembers, "the people said, 'Come help us. Our gorillas are dying, too.' I worried about the men and women. But they told me, 'People will always die. What will we do without our gorillas?' Our team had already lost the apes, but the people around Mbomo are why I stayed."

A decade later, I've flown to Congo to meet Bermejo--her tenacity, along with those of others working in the region, has helped give the apes a second chance. Spanning seven central African nations, the Congo Basin contains one quarter of the world's forests. It's second in size only to the Amazon, with 10,000 plant species, including 3,000 that are endemic. Even before Ebola struck, the apes living inside it were at risk from commercial hunting and deforestation--especially from logging and mining--as well as decades of civil unrest. Landing in Brazzaville's Maya-Maya Airport, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire, and the Belgian Congo before that) is just two miles across the border, on the other side of the Congo River--the second-most voluminous river in the world. You can see Kinshasa's buildings from Brazzaville and even take a ferry there if personal safety is no longer one of your concerns. Most consider that the "bad" Congo, even if Bermejo says it's where she learned about people's respect for their apes when she saw them burying dead bonobos among human graves.

Across the undefined boundary of the crocodile-swollen river, the formerly French, Finland-sized Republic of the Congo is somehow the "good" Congo. Once part of French Equatorial Africa, it gained independence in 1960 and has been relatively civil-war-free since 1999, with a corruption index, according to Transparency International, on par with that of Bangladesh. While there are laws against poaching, adherence to them is something else: it's not hard to find reports of chimpanzee meat in Brazzaville markets, mandrill parts and leopard skins at the port, or ivory smugglers filtering through nearly every porous border. Some here describe smoked gorilla palms and thumbs as a delicacy, although others say one outcome of Ebola is it's made ape meat slightly less appealing. 

Nearly two-thirds of the country is forest, which is where 125,000 of the world's estimated 150,000 to 200,000 remaining western lowland gorillas live. To meet Bermejo and reach Mbomo, I've taken a two-hour flight to the Mboko landing strip inside 5,250-square-mile Odzala-Kokoua National Park, declared in 1935 and wedged inside the country's northwest border. It's October and rainy season--promising for spotting gorillas, since the precipitation produces fruit, which draws the apes from the thick undergrowth into the trees--but right now the rain's pounding the little Cessna's fuselage in thick cloud cover, even while the autopilot's warning system kicks in--"Terrain. Terrain. Pull up. Pull up." Then the white evaporates. The forest stretches on forever. 

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Two of six thatched huts at Wilderness Safaris' Odzala Ngaga Camp sit above the ubiquitous marantaceae, the western lowland gorillas' primary food. (James Sturz)

After Bermejo lost 221 of her 238 apes to Ebola, she didn't head home, instead focusing her attention on people. While some scientists worked on an Ebola vaccine (intended for humans and gorillas alike, but never achieved), Bermejo came to believe that creating community projects was the best way to prevent hunting and poaching, while simultaneously demonstrating the value of the pristine forested land. When she'd first arrived in Africa in 1986 as a 22-year-old to study chimpanzees in Senegal, the director of the national park would combat poachers by dropping grenades on them by helicopter.

She'd come to Congo with her husband, German Illera, a Spanish law student-turned-videographer and naturalist, whom she'd met at the University of Barcelona. He was every bit as passionate about Africa as she. "Then we both got sick. It was in the middle of Ebola, back in 2003, and we each got symptoms within the same two hours. That's the only time I asked myself what I was doing in Africa," she says. "You can imagine our relief when we found out it was only malaria."

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James Sturz

James Sturz is author of the novel Sasso.

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